In my experience, many musicians, especially those of us with a background in classical music, are at best uncomfortable and at worst terrified of the word ‘improvisation.’ Yet for centuries, improvisation was a part of every musician’s repertoire. It is said that J.S. Bach could improvise a prelude or fugue at the drop of a hat. Mozart famously left parts of his piano concertos incomplete until the premiere, where he would improvise (and subsequently write down) these parts. Beethoven would often spend evenings improvising for the delight of friends and patrons of his music.
So why do performers so often neglect this critical part of musicianship? Perhaps we were never taught, and unfamiliarity breeds fear. Much of the repertoire from the early twentieth century is virtuosic and leaves little room for improvisation. Instead, we are taught in lessons to exactly interpret our music as it is on the page and to express ourselves through other elements of music such as phrasing and dynamics.
Fortunately, artists and teachers are bringing an increased focus on improvisation. Richard Grayson has some excellent videos online where he will approach a tune in the style of a particular composer. John Mortensen’s website has some fine resources on historical and contemporary improvisation practices. Soundpainting and other free improvisation techniques are finding an increased presence in universities. Musicians like John Zorn and La Monte Young pioneered innovative improvisation systems. We also have much to learn from traditions based on improvisation, such as jazz.
As a composer, I find improvisation to be an important step in the writing process. I often sit at the piano in my classroom and improvise. Maybe I will find an interesting melody or harmonic idea while I am playing. More often, I’ll pick up something subconsciously, which my brain will incubate into something later on. Either way, it is an important part of my compositional process. I also like to have performers improvise in some of my classical works. I believe improvisation is a powerful means for personal expression and that composers and performers continually push each other in new directions.
How does one get started teaching and learning to improvise? I taught beginning jazz for four years and picked up a few strategies which I will share with you here.
- Check out some of the resources I suggested above. Zorn’s musical games create fresh sounds, while Young’s drone minimalism improvisation style is hypnotic. Grayson and Mortensen have several videos available on YouTube which give an idea of what improvisation can do.
- Call-and-response exercises: Not only can these teach aural skills and ear training, but they can allow students a safe space in which to improvise. Start by limiting what students can do. Play a short rhythm pattern on one note, and have students echo it back to you, either singing or playing the same pitch on their instrument. Gradually expand this to longer rhythm patterns (2-4 measures instead of 1, for example) with more pitches (2-3 to start works well). As you increase the complexity, pick students to lead the exercise. They will have to improvise and it can be a fun activity.
- Scales: Improvisation can be a great way to reinforce the importance of scales and arpeggios. In my jazz band, students learned to associate chords with scale patterns. For example, a C7 chord implies a C Mixolydian scale – it’s a matter of taking the notes in the chord to start, and filling in notes in between to complete a scale. We learned all major scales, as well as the Dorian, Mixolydian, and blues scales on all roots (you can find my jazz scale sheets on Teachers Pay Teachers). When we learned songs, we’d refer to these patterns, playing through the chord changes either by arpeggiating the chords or playing the appropriate scale over each chord in the progression.
- Improvise regularly: Once improvisation is a habit, it will seem normal and fun and be a tool to understand music in a new way. In my jazz classes, my students improvised every day over all of our jazz repertoire. I let them choose which pieces they would improvise over in concert but the repetition of the chord and scale concepts helped my students become more confident improvisers.
- Find a teacher: I was lucky to have many students involved in the Tucson Jazz Institute. My students would study with teachers from the institute and play in big bands on the weekends. Many of my students flourished in a rigorous environment like that. See if your community has a similar program!
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