Seven Steps to Heaven

“Improvisation is a music skill that should be developed along with performing, listening, and analyzing because it synthesizes all these areas. Its practice, which can start at the earliest stages of music learning, encourages the exploration and discovery of music-making and gives the satisfaction of manipulating music elements without the restriction of the written page”
Marta Sanchez, founder of Carnegie Mellon School of Music Dalcroze Training Center

“Try to imagine an improvised duet played by jazz master Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and seven year-old beginner, ‘Sean’ on an alto xylophone,” asks long-time NAfME member John Kratus. “As the two begin to play, each brings a different set of musical skills and different levels of knowledge and experience. Hampton’s fingers fly as he weaves an intricate melodic line over a set of repeating harmonic changes. Meanwhile, ‘Sean’ plays from the lowest note on his instrument to the highest and back again, all the while struggling to keep a steady beat. Are both improving? Or are the differences between the child and professional so great that comparisons between them are nonsensical?

“The answers to these questions,” continues Kratus, “have direct implications for how music educators use improvisation in their teaching. Some believe that it’s a highly sophisticated, technically demanding behavior and should be taught only after a student has developed his/her musicianship and performance skills to an advanced level. Others see improvisation as a natural, intuitive behavior that can be part of pre-school music instruction.

“Given the differences between novice and expert improvisers, it is clear that not all improvisational activity is the same. A more appropriate way to look at improvisation is to view it as multi-leveled, consisting of a sequence of different, increasingly sophisticated behaviors. The educational advantages of viewing improvisation in this way are two-fold:

• It allows teachers to work with students at a developmentally appropriate level.
• It suggests a logical sequence for teaching the skills necessary for expert improvisation…

The Seven Developmental Levels of Improvisation

1) Exploration: The student tries out different sounds and combinations of sounds in a loosely
structured context.
2) Process-Oriented Improvisation: The student produces more discernable, cohesive patterns.
3) Product-Oriented Improvisation: The student becomes conscious of structural principles
such as tonality and rhythm.
4) Fluid Improvisation: The student manipulates his/her instrument or voice in a more automatic,
relaxed manner.
5) Structural Improvisation: The student is aware of the overall structure of the improvisation
and develops a repertoire of musical or non-musical strategies for shaping an improvisation.
6) Stylistic Improvisation: The student improvises skillfully within a given style, incorporating its
melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic characteristics.
7) Personal Improvisation: The musician is able to transcend recognized improvisation styles to
develop a new style.

“This model of developmental levels,” concludes Kratus, “offers an approach for using improvisation throughout a child’s education. Improvisation is not simply an intuitive musical behavior, nor is it only reserved for the most proficient musicians. It’s both, and improvisation can and should be a meaningful part of every student’s music education, from pre-school through adulthood.”

Adapted from “Growing with Improvisation” by John Kratus, originally published in the December 1991 issue of Music Educators Journal

John Kratus is professor of music education at the Michigan State University College of Music, where he teaches secondary general music methods, music education foundations, creativity, and philosophy of music education.

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—Nick Webb, April 28, 2010 ©The National Association for Music Education