Improvisation Is Not a Bad Word
A Method for Teaching Improvisation to Beginning Instrumentalists
By NAfME Member Tina Krawcyk
A well-rounded musician can play both with music and by ear. As a classically trained flautist, I could play anything put in front of me, but when I needed to just play a song, or play along, I would become paralyzed with fear. This fear and my yearning to be a better musician and teacher is what led me to begin researching and participating in improvisation.
Improvisation does not come out of thin air. It is based on something.
The Importance of Improvisation
What is improvisation, and why is important for all music students to learn how to do it?
When I ask this in my clinics, most people respond that improvisation is “making something up on the spot” or “composing in real time.” What most people do not include in their definition is that improvisation does not come out of thin air. It is based on something. This is a very important aspect that sometimes we, as experienced musicians, take for granted. It is something that needs to be made clear to young students when they are learning to improvise. It will set them at ease.
Improvisation is an art that is often only taught in the jazz setting. Not all of our students participate in jazz, but they will all benefit from learning improvisation. We sometimes forget that improvisation was once an important part of learning music.
Improvisation teaches students how to make decisions quickly, how to keep calm in a fast and emotional situation as well as how to think, act and feel simultaneously.
In the Baroque era, organists played using figured bass. Classical cadenzas were originally meant as improvisation expositions to show off a soloist’s virtuosity. Improvisation is an important component in the new 2014 Music Standards. It is also a very important part of the current National Core Arts Standards. Improvisation teaches students how to make decisions quickly, how to keep calm in a fast and emotional situation as well as how to think, act and feel simultaneously. As with all study of music, improvisation creates neural patterns in the brain that are present forever.
In my research, I discovered that many teachers did not consciously make improvisation part of their curriculum. Most, like me, did not have experience with improvisation, so they just avoided it. Others had so much experience that they had difficulty teaching it to their students. When they explained their process to me, I got confused. I could only imagine what a student musician might feel!
I started talking with other, more experienced teachers; researching the work of Edwin E. Gordon and Christopher Azzara, and trying different things with my students. Through my efforts I learned that in order to be successful in improvisation, students need to have a musical vocabulary from which they can draw and call up when needed. I learned that students need to feel comfortable because playing something that you have made up is a scary, personal thing. I learned that all aspects of improvisation do not need to be taught at once. Starting simple and adding one new element at a time will ensure student success. Finally, I learned that not all students will progress at the same rate, and some may never become fabulous at improvising.
Patience and understanding is key to encouraging your students.
I use activities such as echo games, call and response, and musical stories to allow students to learn and create patterns that they can use in improvisation. I use folk melodies, changing first the rhythm then decorating the melody, to help students use their vocabulary in context and begin creating variations. I use chord progressions and scales to help teach students about key signatures and notes that sound good together.
To keep students feeling comfortable, I always do activities as a group first and then ask for volunteers to try it by themselves. If doing an activity that goes “down the line” of players, I allow students to pass. Finally, I am always clear with the framework and exactly what is expected. I also play various examples at different levels for the students so that they know that their contribution does not have to be spectacular to be right.
Some students will catch on more quickly than others. Some students will need to be talked through the process and may take longer at one step than at another. Patience and understanding is key to encouraging your students. Allow them to make mistakes, discuss what can be changed, and play examples. Write down on the board how long the phrase should be and what notes should be used. When improvising on a given melody, some students are more comfortable with the melody in front of them.
Expand Your and Your Students’ Horizons through Improvisation
Even if you are not experienced at improvisation yourself – learn about it and try it. There are improvisation activities in most method books . . . don’t just skip over them! Know that improvisation (yours and your students’) does not need to be magnificent or complicated. It just has to be yours. Learn about this wonderful art form and expand the horizons and abilities of your music students.
About the author:
Tina Krawcyk is an educator, clinician, composer and arranger. She currently teaches at Dallas Area School District in Dallas, Pennsylvania, where she is the middle school band director, the middle school jazz band director, and assistant director of the marching band. Ms. Krawcyk is also the adjunct professor of Music Appreciation for Penn Foster online career school. Tina received an Associates Degree in Music from Onondaga Community College; a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from West Chester University; a Master’s Degree in Music Education from Marywood University; and a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from the University of Scranton. Ms. Krawcyk teaches clinics on improvisation outside of the jazz ensemble and professionalism in the education workplace. She can be reached through her website www.tinakrawcyk.com.
Tina Krawcyk will be presenting on her topic “Improvisation is not a bad word: A method for teaching improvisation to beginning instrumentalists” at the 2 016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today!
Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/NAfME2016. And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!
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