Improvisation—and creativity more generally—may be of special interest to those who have struggled with it. Ask great improvisational performers how they do it, and they’ll likely struggle to answer your question. They may not consider improvisation anything special. It’s just what they do. It comes naturally. But for those of us who are not fluent improvisers, it really does seem like a special gift…and one we didn’t receive.
But improvisation is a musical skill that is acquired like any other. Virtually all human beings are born with the capacity to be musical, and that includes through improvisation. Of course, that capacity will only become functional musicianship with the right exposure, opportunities, and experiences. With these things in place, young children develop musicality just like they develop language skills. As infants and toddlers, they hear people around them speak, and soon they imitate what they hear. If they hear people singing and making melodies, they reproduce that with their voices. Youngsters quickly build a huge vocabulary of words to express themselves. They similarly learn to match musical sounds to human feelings and gestures. Before reaching school age, children demonstrate relative mastery over their native language. They can recite memorized texts (e.g., “patty-cake patty-cake…”), narrate familiar stories with their own personalized spin, and spontaneously tell new stories straight from their imaginations. These abilities have direct musical analogies as well. Children can sing songs they’ve learned from people and recordings, make up personalized versions of familiar tunes, and create completely new songs right on the spot.
Perhaps the reason why music is often seen as a gift, while language is not, is that many people lose the musicality they developed in early childhood. This is not the case with language. Through middle childhood and into adolescence, most young people become more articulate and able to express themselves with words. In contrast, musicality often atrophies. Additionally, when introduced to a musical instrument, many young students are not afforded the time and experiences necessary to acquire the same aural fluency on the instrument that they’ve developed with language and that they began developing through singing.
So how do we develop improvisation skills in young musicians? Ideally we let them continue doing what comes naturally. Children are eager improvisers. School playgrounds are filled with spontaneous music. Hand a young kid a musical instrument and his or her impulse will be to experiment on it. This natural inclination underlies a call for free improvisation made by Northwestern University music education professor Maud Hickey. In her 2009 article “Can Improvisation Be ‘Taught’?”, published in the International Journal of Music Education, Dr. Hickey presents improvisation as a disposition that needs only be enabled and nurtured in young people. She rejects the typical ways that improvisation is done in school music classrooms (when it’s done at all). For example, she challenges whether creativity is truly being fostered through a call-and-response activity, in which the quality of a student’s improvised response is determined by how well it matches aspects of a teacher’s call. Instead, Dr. Hickey endorses free improvisation, which is more rule-free and learner directed. It engages musicians in simultaneous sound exploration, which demands careful listening and reacting. She explains, “The sounds of a free improvisation session, if truly free, do not necessarily produce an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ product, and are certainly something an audience of parents may not understand, much less enjoy.”
Dr. Hickey admits that she’s advancing a rather extreme position to provoke thought and dialogue. She’s done that for me; in all honesty, I’m still sorting out what I think about her approach! I certainly agree that children are natural improvisers, but I also believe that they can lose that disposition through underuse or neglect. I’d guess that the majority of high school band and orchestra students lack even the most basic improvising ability on their primary instruments. And surely there are many adult musicians—including music teachers—who have done so little improvisation over the years that they don’t know how to begin to learn the skill.
I’ll suggest some broad ideas for these musicians. These suggestions are intended to help them re-acquire a natural approach to musical improvisation (you may notice that they reflect the language learning ideas above):
- Listen to music. Listen to the styles of music that you want to be able to improvise in. Listen to recordings and take in live music whenever you can. Listen carefully to the music. If you’re listening to recordings that you’ve heard repeatedly, sing along with the music as a way of testing just how familiar you are with it.
- Play music by ear. Try to reproduce the music that you’re listening to. Play along to recordings. Play melodies and songs from memory (that you’ve learned aurally). Do this regularly, and not just as a part of formal practice; if you can, keep your instrument handy while you’re watching TV and play the commercial jingles that you can’t help but know!
- Improvise music. Yes, to get better at it, you have to do it. Improvise vocally and on your instrument. Shed unhelpful preconceptions of what it means to improvise. Get basic: just create original sounds on your instrument, in some way that expresses yourself. Improvisation should be a natural act, but it may not be for you (anymore). So it will likely have to feel unnatural a while before it becomes natural (again).
You’ll notice that these suggestions do not make up any specialized approach to improvisation. I firmly believe that improvising can be a natural way for all people to make music, rather than being a type of musical giftedness or a specialized skill reserved for jazzers. I hope these suggestions can serve as guidelines for music teachers in designing learning experiences for students and in creating homework assignments for them. Please let me know your thoughts for incorporating these and other ideas into improvisation development. Your feedback is much appreciated!