The Card Game

The ‘card came’ removed my usual block of being terrified to make s*** up (is it good?) and I felt really free. It was just inside my comfort zone and I was pleased with my own contribution.

– Kendal Seager, violin
Game Symphony Workshop participant

Courtesy of Flickr/William Creswell

One of the challenges of group improvisation is creating a unified and transparent piece. The card game helps us structure improvisations by assigning each musician a specific role within the ensemble. The game is adapted from an activity in Jeffrey Agrell’s book Improvised Chamber Music. I’ve had tremendous success introducing the card game to middle school students, professional musicians and everything in between.

Write down the fourteen roles on sheets of paper or index cards:

Soloist – lead voice, improvised or an interpretation of a melody
Long tones, 50% silence
Ostinato – a continually repeated phrase or motive that can gradually develop
Percussion – rhythmic accompaniment, key clicks, knocking, body percussion
Accompany – focus on supporting the lead voices
Interrupt – play surprising interjections that disrupt the soloist.
Imitate – play only what you hear
Drone – constant sustained tone
Extended Techniques
Sparse as Possible
Pointillism – staccato phrases
Arpeggios – with or without predetermined harmony
Bass Line – with or without predetermined harmony
Free Agent – free from any specific role

Begin with quartet with first four roles (soloist, long tones, ostinato, percussion). Then exchange cards, add/or add musicians.

Encourage musicians to make bold statements, listen, and adapt to the music. Here are a few variations:


A leader assigns roles to musicians and conducts a piece. The conductor cues entrances and cutoffs for individual musicians to shape the improvisation. The conductor can also exchange cards in the middle of the piece.

Theme and Variations

A soloist chooses a melody to interpret. The group may discuss the key, and harmony in advance.


Quartet Variation 1
Musician #1 Soloist
Musician #2 Drone
Musician #3 Ostinato
Musician #4 Percussion

Variation 2
#1 Soloist
#2 Imitate
#3 Arpeggios
#4 Bass Line

Variation 3
#1 Soloist
#2 Interrupt
#3 Extended Techniques
#4 Space as possible

Variation 4
#1 Soloist
#2 Free Agent
#3 Free Agent
#4 Free Agent

Two Cards

Give each musician two cards.

Each player can switch roles at their own discretion, or the entire ensemble switches from card 1 to card 2 on cue.

Add Another Limitation

Agree on another perimeter for the entree ensemble to follow while playing the card game. For example:

  • The entire ensemble will gradually crescendo from ppp to fff throughout the piece.
  • Transition from dense to sparse
  • Play with a specific groove or style

Have fun with it!

– ST