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Vocal painting – how to make a choir improvise

by Ida Olsonen

When choral conductor Ida Olsonen does vocal painting with the Musta lammas choir (whose name translates as ‘black sheep’), no one knows what the performance will be like. In this column, Olsonen describes how an improvised choral performance unfolds – and how it is even possible to conduct choral improvisation in the first place.

28 September 2023, Helsinki


My entire body is buzzing with excitement and pre-concert nerves. I cannot believe that we are finally here, embracing the unknown, actually going on stage for a full 40+40 minutes of completely improvised vocal music! I glance briefly around backstage at my trusted ‘Musta lammas’ singers, who are assembling in a somewhat cramped circle in the crowded space. It is time for our traditional moment of shared focus and energy before showtime. The mood is surprisingly serene but also clearly energised.


We repeat the fixed structural points that we have agreed upon for the first half of the concert; an opening with a little bit of music (possibly up-tempo), then welcoming the audience with a smooth transition to using the newspaper of the day as material for the next bit of music, then a trio with the rest of the choir moving offstage for a moment, and so on. All we need to do now is trust ourselves, remain receptive to each other and lean into whatever the moment will bring. After a round of sharing individual intentions and words of encouragement, it is time to go on stage.


Musta lammas performing



Less than a year before the moment described above, we had agreed on the ambitious venture of doing a concert that would be entirely improvised – that is, without using a single piece of sheet music. At that point, we had been delving into choral improvisation for a few years. During that time, we had begun integrating some form of improvised music into our live concerts, usually as a short segment between pieces in our written repertoire, sometimes inviting prompts from the audience. Based on excited feedback from the singers and my own curiosity in equal measure, I had been eager to explore improvisation further. How would it change from the brief interlude we were used to when extended to preparing and performing a full-length concert? What would building a narrative for that entail? How could we create contrasts within our improvisation and sustain audience interest throughout the longer format?


We use a sign language called vocal painting, developed by Jim Daus Hjernøe from Denmark. Inspired by and loosely based on soundpainting by Walter Thompson, it is a sign language created specifically for vocal music. Like the solfège signs that many are familiar with, vocal painting involves using gestures to indicate various musical parameters – e.g. singing with or without pitcheslong notes and short notes (i.e. legato and staccato), volume and harmonise. It communicates the division of duties and initiatives with gestures like createsolo and who (giving the singers the option to volunteer). The signs are often used individually, but they can also be used to form sentences, like create + bass line + with + long notes. Being rewardingly tactile, vocal painting provides a versatile vocabulary that can be used with singers of many ages and at many skill levels, from preschoolers conducting each other to ambitious concert performances, such as the one described in the opening paragraphs.


Our concert was built around a loose structure, with the first half having a majority of pre-planned elements and the second half a majority of open-ended situations. I wanted to try out both options and assumed that we would probably feel most comfortable starting with a plan of some kind and gradually letting go from there. The structural elements were things like knowing that the singers would conduct each other, a few changes in positioning and ensemble (such as the trio referred to above), interaction with the audience and engaging them in singing, or the format of creating separate verses and choruses with soloists taking lyrics prompts from the audience. In other words, loosely defined frames and decisions about what or who or when.



As a conductor, many of the elements in conducting improvisation are familiar to me from the world of traditional choral conducting: listening, reacting, suggesting and supporting; connecting to one’s inner ear and adjusting accordingly; always wanting to be both expressive and clear in one’s communication; and doing justice to every impulse and idea. 


All of these are at the core of conducting any piece of music – but when the material is fully improvised, there is the constant navigating of where we will head next and balancing the inputs from the various creators. Not only am I steering the ship and providing musical ideas, but I also invite (and wish for!) input from my singers. This input can sometimes surprise us all. Every piece of input changes where the music is heading, and thus we are all constantly balancing, negotiating and redefining our individual musical expectations. The result is a unique mixture that none of us could have reached on our own.


Improvisation forces both the singers and the conductor to participate very actively. Without sheet music providing a mutual road map, connecting and listening to each other is very much highlighted. One of the cornerstones of improvising is establishing a playful atmosphere and embracing the first idea that comes to mind. If I encourage my singers to edit their ideas, it is first and foremost to simplify their ideas into something that can successfully be replicated and repeated by the whole voice group. That will also make improvising as unified voice groups a much more pleasant experience!




A common source of concern when getting started with vocal painting is understanding the signs and the intention behind them correctly. For example, what if we end up on several different pitches after go to tonic root is given? (This is not at all uncommon – we frequently end up in situations where we do not agree on the tonal centre of what we have created.) Does the mute begin on the beat when it is signed or immediately afterwards? (Both could actually be true.) Here, everyone’s own musical agency and trusting their own intuition come into play.


Vocal painting is not a mathematical system of watertight equations where a given answer is right or wrong; rather, it is a means of facilitating music in the moment, and it can at times be messy and very much up for interpretation. The musical context and the gut feeling of each singer is what I rely on and encourage my singers to do too. If we would happen to go musically in opposite directions, it would be my responsibility as the conductor to continue steering the ship and to make sense of whatever we have ended up with – a creative challenge that I am very much willing to take.




5 October 2023, Helsinki


We have just finished our debrief of the concert, having first watched it together on the screen and then shared feedback for a good hour and a half. How weird and wonderful it was to revisit the concert afterwards and be reminded of all the things that happened in the moment! 40+40 minutes flew by surprisingly fast with high focus and intensity – both on stage and again now when we were the audience. We were amazed by how safe we felt throughout the concert and by the concentration and connection that improvising for such a long time created. Energy-wise, the concert had affected everyone differently; many were totally spent afterwards, others felt rejuvenated. I think that both make very much sense!


Having experienced such a successful first attempt at longer-form improvisation, I am eager to continue experimenting with it. What could come out of performing a concert like this several times, having the opportunity to modify and change the structure along the way? What would getting even more familiar with improvised landscapes teach us? I am very curious about what the future will bring and where our explorations will take us next.


Featured photo: Tuomas Salo