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Composing and Improvising for a Yoga Class

Posted by Kimberly Hankins on
Composing and Improvising for a Yoga Class

Two weeks ago I had the incredible experience of creating the music for a live yoga class. I have been struggling with a way to describe this experience, because it was so unlike anything I've ever done. It brought up a lot of emotions, anxieties, and inspiration for me -and it was one of the most fulfilling musical experiences of my life so I feel the need to share it.

I don't consider myself a composer, but I have improvised on and off since I was in undergrad. I think it's a really common experience for musicians, and although I don't think I was very good at it, I had a wonderful time making music with friends and learning more about performing jazz, gypsy jazz, rock, and fiddle. I was a digital arts minor for a short time and composed 'acousmatic' computer-based pieces. Years later I was part of a band in the D.C. area and collaborated with them and a violinist to write and perform string parts. Since then, I have been extremely focused on classical music and working towards using that to build a career for myself.

Fast forward to this last year, when I had the incredible opportunity of studying, rehearsing, and performing with Brooklyn Rider. If you don't know who they are, look them up! They are a string quartet that refuses to put themselves in a box, and performs all genres of music with a level of complete mastery. They were so inspiring to me, and while this was going on I was enrolled in a 21st c. composition class for music theory credit. That class gave me more confidence as a composer, and the freedom to experiment with creating my own music.

Which leads me to a few months ago, when I felt very moved by my yoga community to do something positive for my students. I have been actively teaching at BMVMNT Scottsdale since they opened, and it is one of the most amazing yoga studios I have ever been a part of. On a daily basis I'm so grateful that I get to teach there. Building a yoga studio from the ground up is never an easy task, and the longer I taught there, the more I realized I wanted to offer something completely different for my students. A performance came to mind, when I played a movement of a Bach suite for my "non-performance" final in an Alexander Technique class while everyone was lying on the floor. The class was able to connect with what I was doing on a deeper level than in a concert hall and it was a huge success. About a year ago I had a similar experience performing for a friend's savasna (lying meditation at the end of a yoga class). So, I thought, what would be better than to recreate this as the music for savasana in my classes on a regular basis.

The first class I played a movement from a Bach suite, and then each class since then I’ve tried to step a little more out of my comfort zone. I had this idea to put on a background of a rainstorm to improvise over. Something happened in that third or fourth class that I have a hard time explaining. Basically I stopped thinking and trying to control what I was doing, and the music just happened. It was different from my experiences with improvisation in that I wasn't thinking about chords or scales or even what notes I was going to play next. I would take a moment to think about the energy of that class, and what type of music would help them work through that, and then I would just play. Completely intuitively. I still do this at the end of all my Sunday morning classes.

After doing this for a while, one of my colleagues at the yoga studio suggested I play for a class as the actual music instead of just savasana. I thought it was a great idea, and so did Emily Bowers, a friend that I met at our 200hr yoga teacher training and who also happens to be an incredible yoga teacher and person. Her and I had a free 10mins and we experimented with my improvising and her intuitively doing a yoga flow. We realized that it was unlike anything else we had done: with my sound I could help direct what her sequencing would be next. Because I am a yoga teacher, completely understand Emily's style of teaching, and have known her for a long time, I could tell what she wanted from the music in order for her sequencing to work. It was this interesting communication between us that neither of us were really prepared for, but knew that this idea was going to work.

So we created a class where we didn't plan a thing, and yet the entire time I was confident in our abilities to co-create this experience for our students. I had a selection of various ambient music to use at key moments to help create an arc to the class. I used a movement of Bach at one moment to provide more contrast, and improvised in and out of that. Unlike my improvisations for savasana, I had a handful of motivic ideas that I composed beforehand to help create a sense of musical development and give me a foundation to build upon. I was definitely a bit nervous before we started, just because it was so unlike anything I've ever done before. But then it started raining outside, and it was perfect. 

This was a huge success for us, and as a musician I feel so fulfilled. Many people came up to me afterwards, describing their experience, how the music helped them work through something, long-lost positive memories that rose to the surface, things they were holding on to and were finally able to release, deep levels of meditation and understanding -all the things that we as musicians hope to achieve in the concert hall.

My hope is that we do another class like this in the near future, and continue to build this collaboration between yoga and music performance. In the meantime, check out my yoga schedule for upcoming classes and music during savasana.

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