Class improvisation: the students opine

April 19, 2007


Yesterday I brought my questions about improvisation to my music theory class. I asked “Do you think that 18 and 19 year olds are too old to learn improvisation?” The class growled in disagreement. I asked for their thoughts and ideas and was delighted at what I heard.

I’ve always wanted to learn but never have tried.

We could just jam on a few notes, or a mode, or a melody.

We could start with a simple chord progression.

We could improvise on what we are learning in lecture.

I’ve always improvised, that’s why I became a composer.

I’ve improvised with my drumming buddies where each of us only has one drum, but each stakes out his own rhythm.

I would be nervous.

We could all play someone else’s instruments.

You know, only 3% of the world’s musicians read music.

I am convinced that the class really wants to pursue it. I think I’ll speak to our Ethnomusicology department and ask whether we can use some of their instruments which could be useful in taking them ALL out of their comfort zone and leveling the playing field. I may then ask them to bring in little sound makers (not their instruments) to do a little sound/percussion session. Our Music Education program will likely have some MusEd type percussion instruments that might be fun. Getting out of our proscenium classroom might also facilitate a more conducive atmosphere. Going to the echoey organ studio; and then go into a carpeted room so they can learn about its deadly acoustics; go to some magical spot on campus and have a session.

Hmmm… this could be fun.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

citrus April 19, 2007 at 7:01 am

Creative! I was a preacher before retiring. Fairly good one. But I never learned to improvise until well after retiring. Should have been tossed a text, a pulpit and a room full of colleagues in seminary – to hear and watch me struggle long before I mounted my first pulpit.

PK April 19, 2007 at 9:30 am

I had never thought about how preachers might learn to preach/perform. That is really interesting!

Slightly askew, have you ever heard the Portsmouth Sinfonia? They were a wild bunch who swapped instruments, circa 1970, to some hilarious results (Gavin Bryers was behind it, it seems).

Daniel Wolf April 19, 2007 at 10:59 pm

The late poet Robert Duncan used to teach by having his students improvise to a given metrical and/or rhyme scheme and Lou Harrison encouraged me to do the same with music, at least as part of a daily exercise regime. The important thing, in retrospect, was not so much improvisation as a value in itself (it isn’t — or you’re going to have to come up with a water-tight distinction between improvisation and composition), but rather the exploration of the possibilities inherent in a given set of constraints, whether they come from theory, or a historical style, or an experiment.

I have the impression that it’s often forgotten that classical training has a number of improvisational skills — realizing a continuo accompaniment, improvising a chorale prelude or a cadenza, ornamentation. My counterpoint teacher made a point of having us improvise second voices to a CF, and while it was damn tough and often frustrating at the time, it is something for which I’ll always be grateful.

Evan T April 19, 2007 at 11:52 pm

What a great opportunity for your students to experience. How did it go? In reference to the post a couple of days back on how to go about teaching improvisation, here are a couple of references from a music education research perspective that might be helpful.

Burnard, P. (2000). How children ascribe meaning to improvisation and composition: rethinking pedagogy in music education. Music Education Research, 2(1), 7-23.

Burnard, P. (2002). Investigating children’s meaning-making and the emergence of musical interaction in group improvisation. British Journal of Music Education, 19(2), 157-172

McMillan, R. (1999). To say something that was me: developing a personal voice through improvisation. British Journal of Music Education, 16(3), 263-273.

Pietra, C. J. D., & Campbell, P. S. (1995). An ethnography of improvisation training in a music methods course. Journal of Research in Music Education, 43(2), 112-126.

You might also want to take a look at some of the literature on “informal learning” which developed out of ethnographic research on how popular musicians (primarily guitar rock groups) in England learn music. Improvisation and a focus on aural/oral approaches toward music are a large part of the process.

Here are two other music education studies in that vein:

Green, L. (2006). Popular music education in and for itself, and for ‘other’ music: Current research in the classroom. International Journal of Music Education, 24(2), 101-118.

Jaffurs, S. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned how to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200.

The International Society of Improvised Music might be another resource to look into. Their first conference this past year had some excellent sessions on a wide variety of approaches to teaching improv. If your students enjoyed improvising they might even want to start a student chapter.

In my experience of using improv in the classroom it has always been important to take part in the improvising while keeping an environment in which the students feel comfortable experimenting.

Good luck with the integration of improvisation in your classes. – Evan

Roger Bourland April 20, 2007 at 7:36 am

Peter, in case you didn’t know, citrus is my dad. I learned all about pacing, drama and contrast from my Dad’s sermons.

Daniel, thanks for passing on uncle Lou’s wisdom and your own.

Evan, thanks a million for the recommendations. We haven’t had a session yet, but will next week.

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