Teaching improvisation

April 17, 2007


Our Dean is hot on us including improvisation as an integral part of our students’ education. The question is: how do you do it? Is it a course by itself? Is it part of theory class? Is it a weekly endeavor? or one of 2 or 3 term projects done outside of class?

I wonder whether some people are incapable of improvising — their brains are not wired to do it, whereas some it is completely natural. Is learning to improvise something that should be started with children and college students are already too late?

As composers do style composition, might it be appropriate to do “style improvisation?” The thing that worries me most about institutionalizing improvisation is what I call the “sandbox factor” meaning that the intellectual content in more touchy-feely than a typical rigorous academic offering.

Again, any opinions on this issue are much appreciated.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

cs1966 April 17, 2007 at 8:48 am

Roger –

Setting up an improvisation lesson is not as difficult as it seems. Doing it is much harder! Talk to the organ department. Organists are required to learn improvisation as they play in church and must play some walking or background music during a service. Also, a great way to connect to a service with a postlude or prelude is to prepare a great improvisation on a hymn. The publication “The American Organist” features short articles on improv.

One simple way to teach improv and reinforce counterpoint is to have one player or, for keyboardist, one hand play a tune — with no note value less than a quarter note. With the other hand or other player have them play a steady eighth note descant in which the material is always going in opposite motion to the melody in the other hand. Viola! You have just taught improv using elements of 2 voice 2nd species counterpoint.

Before people improvise, players should be comfortable transposing. You could give transposition exercises concurrently with the easier improv lessons. Also, figured bass exercises are an excellent compliment.

Another improv lesson is to have students take say a 4/4 tune w/ emphasis on 1st and 3rd beats and change it to a mazurka. This rhythmic alteration is a great way to explore other elemnts of improv.

So, I wouldn’t worry too much of the course becoming touchy- feely. Most improv works within some set of rules(even free jazz has one or two parameters set)and it is quite challenging. In fact, I remember one exercise I was given as preparation for an improv – with only the tune, play it in the feet and then after a few beats play it with the other hand. Eventually, you improvise a descant on top of this with the free hand. Never got to that point.

Last, check jazz sites and the American Guild of Organists resources page on their site for ideas.

Good luck!

Elaine April 17, 2007 at 9:44 am

I think that there are a lot of people who think that all improvisation needs to be jazz based or chord based. There are a whole lot of ways to improvise that do not involve chord progressions (as you well know), and sometimes people need to be given guidelines for non-jazz-based improvisation.

I used to “run” an improvisation group with a bunch of kids. One of our best activities was to tell a story, (going around in a circle) and “illustrate” it with music. Of course with kids the motives that would enter much of the time were the Jaws motive and the Psycho motive (you know the ones), and the story would always end in measured chaos, but the process often involved nifty scales and modes from different imaginary cultures, and a lot of interesting rhythmic interaction.

We would usually sustain a vamp (we were all string players) so that there was a kind of rhythmic structure, and everyone would be careful to apply dynamic contrasts so that we could hear the new material, both musical and otherwise, of the story as it unfolded.

We always had a great time, and everyone developed real confidence. As a matter of fact everyone who participated in that group is still playing music, and still improvising.

Roger Bourland April 17, 2007 at 10:23 am

Great ideas cs and Elaine. It didn’t occur to me to tap into the organ improv element. It seems that even if the students don’t play the organ, it would be good for them to hear an organist talk about it and demonstrate. And Elaine, the story idea is a good one.

I’ve thought about going the Terry Riley IN C route and give students limited pitches to improvise with.

cs1966 April 17, 2007 at 11:25 am

Thanks Roger for the compliment. If, upon your research, you like what goes on in organ improv Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY has a summer program called Improvfest which my organ teacher and other notables are involved. Hey, it would be a nice idea for a tax deductible trip!

Gerre Hancock, former organist at St Thomas Episcopal church in New York City, wrote a good text on improv.
BTW – the scope of this field is large so be forewarned that an organist would provide only an outline of improv. Depending on you goal, this may or may not be sufficient. I

Trice April 17, 2007 at 1:07 pm

I was reminded of this topic just yesterday in a talk by Juniper Hill, a recent Ph.D. student I supervised, who did her “field work,” believe it or not at the Sibelius Academy. They have a “contemporary folk music” program there that is dedicated to teaching improvisation, and she was telling us about the various exercises they put the students through. One, if I recall correctly, required them as a class to go to a public space, maybe a subway station, and improvise for 12 hours straight with just a few comfort breaks. When she took lessons on one of the Finnish folk instruments, the teacher would not ask her to play some bit of repertoire, but to “improvise something.” I’ll ask her via this email to send you anything on this topic she may have at hand in her doctoral dissertation or an article, but you might find it instructive and fun to talk to/email her. She studied improvisation, by the way, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan U with Anthony Braxton. She is currently a visiting prof at UC Irvine and is interviewing next week for a permanent position at Boston University.


Robert April 17, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Those wacky Deans! Whatever will they think of next.

The easiest thing, I imagine, would be to have some module(s) that could be done as part of the theory/musicianship sequence, and improvisation can definitely be used to help sharpen aural skills and develop an intuitive feel for musical structure. My first inclination would be to look into modal improvisation. Indian classical music has a wonderful and well developed pedagogy that involves building up a vocabulary of rhythmic and melodic cells that can be strung together. A connection to jazz and rock is easy to make, and also relatively recent or very old classical music–perhaps students could develop a modal vocabulary by studying Hildegard von Bingen’s music, for instance.

As you pointed out in the entry before this one, if something like that is part of a required class, students will come at it with wildly varying levels of talent and interest. It still might be worth it, just to make sure the all have some exposure to the improvisational side of music. But it would be awfully nice if all the students came across improvisation as part of their music-making. If, for instance, at least once a year, the orchestra would take on a piece that involved a degree of improvisation or performer choice–Lutoslawski, or something along those lines. And if, as a matter of course, all students took at least one ethnomusicology-type class that covered an improvisational tradition–so that they could really follow and understand, say, 12-bar blues or a raga or mbira music from Zimbabwe. Some kind of chamber music class or festival or contest that teamed up composers and improvising and non-improvising players. It could be a great opportunity for the composition students to come up with music that involved different kinds and degrees of improvisation. Maybe a yearly festival where In C is played along with a new piece by a student composer that is similarly loose/open-form/improvisational.

I’m sure that’s all pie in the sky but what the hell.

Roger Bourland April 18, 2007 at 6:38 am

Robert, great ideas, many thanks. I will try them out.

music4stage April 18, 2007 at 7:34 pm

I would like to second the notion that it should be done as part of ear training, and add that the most non-threatening approach would be to start out with pentatonic scales or fragments. If students become comfortable improvising vocally, then they’ll find that there’s no pain in transitioning to their instruments.

This is of course a very Kodály-centric view, so it really depends upon how your musicianship department is organized.

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