Improv for Everyone

Improvisation, the act of spontaneously creating music, as opposed to playing strictly pre-composed, is a practice that has most often been taught only in the context of the jazz classroom. But it has actually been part of many more musical traditions, cultures and periods.

Classical icons like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, revered for their composed masterworks, were all expert improvisers, while more recent classical players—pianist Glenn Gould being a particularly striking example—have made a specialty of personalizing cadenzas or improvising in the style of a musical era such as the Baroque. For bluegrass players like banjo virtuosoBéla Fleck, and members of rock “jam bands” like Phish’s Trey Anastasio, knowing how to improvise is essential. Around the world, from Bulgaria to Mali to India, improvisation is a central element of being a musician.

Improvisation is about creativity, being in the moment, and discovering new ways of thinking. It isn’t tied to any specific genre or instrument. Partly for this reason, school music educators are incorporating it into their lessons in increasing numbers. They’re finding that it offers many benefits, such as the development of superior listening skills, outlets for self-expression, and a greater understanding of pre-composed music, to students of all ages and skill levels. In other words, teachers are seeing that improvisation can be used as a foundation for music instruction in every form, including not only advanced instrumental and vocal ensemble direction but also general music and early childhood education.

“Compare improvisation to talking,” says David Kay, who teaches instrumental and band students at University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio. “We don’t talk from literal scripts. We don’t have to have words in front of us to know what to say when having a conversation. So why shouldn’t people wanting to play music be told that they can make music that way too?”

Adapted from an article of the same name by Adam Perlmutter. Read the entire article on page 30 of the April 2010 issue of Teaching Music.

Related articles:

Improvisation – Rated E for Everyone
No Fear – Working Without a Net
Ready, Set, Improvise!

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—Nick Webb, April 14, 2010 © National Association for Music Education