Improvisation—Rated E for Everyone

No matter what their focus area, college music education majors need to be familiar enough with improvisation to teach it. Not only is it one of the National Standards for Music Education, but it’s a “music making mindset that all musicians need to have contact with,” says MENC jazz mentor David Kay.

Improvisation Does a Musician Good

The reason improvisation is one of the National Standards is because of its unique focus on the individual’s responsibility for the immediate creation of music. Although it is “composition sped up,” in the words of jazz giant Wayne Shorter, improvisation is different than conventional composition, which allows for editing at leisure. The act of creation on the spot, with the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, benefits the student musically and personally.

This isn’t just about jazz musicians. Exploring improvisation has helped many renowned classical musicians open up as interpreters of music, notes Kay. While music students may be used to recreative music-making (music interpreted from the page) as opposed to generative music-making (music created spontaneously), “The improvised act activates the brain in ways that recreative music does not,” Kay says.

Many students base their self-confidence on their academic or other achievements. By learning improvisation from trained music educators, students learn a transferable life skill that helps them get past their self-doubt and fear of making mistakes. Improvisation in music connects to other aspects of life where improvisation occurs.

Practice What You Teach

Just as with any other knowledge domain in music, college music ed majors need to have a reasonable grasp of it before they enter the secondary music classroom. “Teachers do not need to be master improvisers, but they need to know enough to communicate essential concepts appropriate to the students,” Kay says. And, the more comfortable teachers feel with it, the more that ease will transfer to their students.

If music ed majors aren’t getting exposure to this skill in their coursework, they can be proactive by learning outside of the classroom—stay tuned to Part 4 of this series in two weeks for suggestions.

For more information on how to create an environment for improvising, see “No Fear: Working without a Net,” and visit MENC’s Jazz Network for future articles on this topic, including specific recommendations from David Kay.

Improvisation is one of the many topics explored in depth at MENC’s Society for Jazz Education Academy June 18–19, 2009, part of Music Education Week in Washington.

David Kay is on the music faculty of University School in suburban Cleveland where at the high school level he directs two jazz ensembles and a jazz combo, a guitar ensemble, and teaches music theory. He also is on the jazz faculty at the Interlochen Arts Camp (since 1988) where he directs a middle school jazz ensemble and jazz improvisation classes at the middle and high school level.

–Anne Wagener, February 24, 2009, © National Association for Music Education