Improvisation, Part 3: Reclaiming Our Nature

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.

PianistBut 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.

GuitaristSo 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!


15 responses to “Improvisation, Part 3: Reclaiming Our Nature

  1. Aigh! As I read this, I was still consistently thinking, “why is this the conversation? This is so basic, this oughtn’t even be an issue, and instead the discussion should be about different details and stylistic questions and such about improvising, not about the idea itself!”

    But I was working to resist the urge to comment like this, which is basically what I’ve already commented on your other posts… then I read the reference to this being “a rather extreme position…” WOW. Really? If that were actually how most music educators feel, I’d worry that getting engaged in the debate would have me pulling my hair out from frustration.

    Having this discussion at all is an unfortunate indication of the status quo, but calling these ideas “extreme” is bewildering. It seems, to me, analogous to debating the idea of a potential female president: it is regretful that we even have a discussion about that, regretful that there are people publicly opposed to the idea, regretful that many intellectual supporters still feel awkward about it… these things ought not to be even an issue. But I can’t imagine someone characterizing the support of a female president as an extreme position!

    Let’s have this necessary discussion about the value of improvisation, but let’s, please, not accept a norm of complete disregard for improvisation as the starting point. I don’t think that’s even fair for most conservative teachers out there.

    I have a guitar student who is totally into free improvisation specifically because I taught him to be (starting at age 3, and now he’s 8). Today, it is sometimes hard to get him to focus on doing his more strict assignments because he just wants to improvise, but I’ve made a decision to let that happen somewhat and not push too hard toward the structured stuff. Instead, I actively critique his creativity, asking open-ended questions like “what emotion do you think that was expressing?” and “do you think you had enough repetition and patterns that listeners could follow it?”
    Sometimes I introduce a composed classical piece to him through reigning in his free improv until it gets closer and closer to the ideas in the piece, and then we’ll work for a while on the piece. My only regret is that when he was 7, he totally improvised freely and expressively, finding new chords and melodies and rhythms; but now after learning more traditional chords and scales, they’ve “infected” his improvising and he plays more normal sounding stuff, so now I mix teaching classical rigid stuff with actively challenging him to break out of his box and use the scales and chords but remember to try other things as well. Teaching improvisation is totally possible, and it requires as much focus and planning and thought as anything else. At the end of the day, my student performs free improvisations along with classical stuff at my recitals and audiences always love it because he is really expressive and intentional and charismatic.

    Not all my students have responded as enthusiastically to improvisation, but I encourage all of them, and it helps their understanding of music even if they mainly just learn and perform classical compositions.

    So I’m requesting that if you want me and others like me to be in the discussion, then the focus needs to start at a middle-ground between me and the non-improvising teachers — not from the standpoint that I’m an extreme outlier, or at least not considering that acceptable if it is the case.

    • Aaron – I appreciate the passion and perspective you bring to the conversation. In response, all I can say is that my blog posts are informed by my experiences. Not only was I that non-improviser (I distinctly remember asking a college instructor what book I could buy to teach me to improvise), I also regularly interact now with many collegiate musicians and in-service music teachers who do not improvise and who struggle to imagine teaching it to students. What may be basic to you is not to everyone. I’m pleased to point to you as an example of someone whose experiences and musical development has resulted in him being a fluent improviser. My message is that this type of musicianship is in fact natural and therefore available to all. I maintain that there are many out there who still need to be convinced of this, and encouraged to take steps toward realizing it in their own music making and teaching.

      Thanks again for you feedback and the teaching ideas you shared.

      • Thanks, Bob. Mostly I’m just trying to move the conversation to the middle. Despite the non-improvising-classical folks generally sticking to their own clique, they should realize that their experience is as valid as any but is on one side of things and the conversation doesn’t and shouldn’t revolve around them. I hope by my approach to bring some consciousness-raising to the situation. Thank you for all your work in bringing these perspectives together, much appreciated!

      • One more thing to add: improvisation may be natural, but being comfortable with it requires the same sort of putting-in-the-time as anything else. I can very consciously explain the process, and I do in my teaching. In fact, if I made it a priority, I could probably write the book you were looking for in college… except I don’t want to be redundant, and you can already get the book you wanted: it’s The Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu

  2. Abby Whiteside suggests in her pedagogy books that if “classical” musicians are playing in such a way that the ear isn’t the guide to your playing then you are doing something wrong. Her very practical suggestion for teaching musicians to learn to play even their written music “by ear” is to practice it in multiple keys. Practice everything in the three half steps above and below the written pitch, always returning to the original key after each transposition.

    I might also point out that one great exception in the “classical” world (if there even is such a thing any more – almost every professional musician that I know is fluent in multiple styles and genres including the ability to improvise to some degree.) Organists are still expected to be able to improvise as part of their training and expectations when hired. I would even suggest that depending on where you are trying to work, you might even be asked to improvise on a hymn as part of your audition.

    • Kurt: The world you and I live in is apparently different from Bob’s. I also see most musicians being multi-stylistic and capable of at least some improvisation. But this just goes to show how different perspectives can be. Bob’s work at UNL may be cutting-edge for the music world there, while the same concepts are everyday things in the music world where you and I apparently live.

      • Considering that Kurt recently completed his doctorate at UNL, I don’t think the music world at UNL is the issue. In fact, I doubt there is a single “music world” in most universities or geographic regions. Honestly, my hackles raise a bit at that idea. At UNL, I’ve been surrounded by many exceptional music faculty members and students, for whom my message (of ear playing, improvisation, creativity) is hardly cutting edge. Even within the larger field of music education, there are many advancing such things, some of whom have been doing it far longer and much more eloquently than me. But the fact remains, many who learn music through school programs and independent lessons graduate from these experiences with an incomplete musicianship. I’ve chosen to direct my efforts at this situation.

      • Ok, sorry. I didn’t mean to be too strong. I’m just noticing how different people’s views of the status quo seem to be, and I hope I’m being clear that I don’t claim to be particularly knowledgeable in that area. I’m just talking about ideals… Kurt’s view of things seems to match mine anyway…

  3. Kurt – Thanks for the tip about Abby Whiteside. I’m not familiar with her, but even after 5 minutes of googling, I can tell I’ll be looking into her writings more. And regarding the organ, I’d be curious to know more, specifically how improvising has been traditionally taught and practiced among developing organists.

    • Interestingly enough the only improv course offered at my undergrad program was just what Kurt is talking about: baroque improv. It was about embellishing simple melodies with all sorts of variations, particularly filling in passing tones and such, and about realizing figured bass in creative ways. It was quite challenging for me, and I think I struggled as much as anyone else despite my comfort with other types of improv. The demands were very high.

      Take this to an advanced level, and you have organists and harpsichordists improvising Bach-style fugues from scratch, all by following the types of general things that style does…

  4. Abby Whiteside was a sort of renegade piano teacher in Manhattan in the 50s. She was one of my teacher’s teachers. Her book on Chopin Etudes and Indispensables of piano playing are published in one volume now. It’s in the library. Definitely worth the read. You can skip some of the specific mechanics of the thing, but her broad views of musical education are fascinating. Paul Barnes has my copy. Make him give it to you. There are books on improvisation, but I’ve never used them much because I was always taking composition lessons. The old Baroque tradition centered around learning figured bass. There is also a strong tradition (with teaching books) from the French school that has lasted into the 20th century. Some people use them to great effect apparently. I should also probably clarify that when I was talking about “professional” musicians, I was thinking of the group of people in any given community that make a significant portion of their living by playing their instrument. One of the catch phrases that the older guys told me when I started playing out as a kid was, “No one can afford to be a specialist any more.” They meant that there was a time when you could say, I play classical or jazz or rock or whatever. They were telling me that if I was going to make money gigging in today’s world that I better learn how to play credibly in any style that was on the page in front of me. That included being able to improvise a solo in that style. I will also add that Jonah Sirota and I do a church service during the school year where the music is largely improvised and can be in almost any style (tonal, atonal, free, noise, anything.) You can hear some clips here.!/space.smoc Organ stuff is at the bottom of the page. We are very interested in trying to train some of the UNL students in this skill, so if you have any ideas about getting students interested, we’ll give them a place to try out their skills.

    • Kurt – Thanks for this additional info. I love any movement that gets musicians to span multiple styles and traditions. And I checked out the clips you linked to. I particularly like the one posted March 31 “Jonah and I improvising a prelude at SPACE.” Really nice. I’ll let Jonah know as well. Thanks again!

  5. Hello, Bob, thank you for this post! I think some commenters are a bit intense and over-analytical. Adding improv into my curriculum has proven to be great fun — and isn’t that what music is about? Regardless of a person’s approach (and there are many — none right, none wrong), enjoying the process is so very important and worthwhile. I included improv at my recent recital and the kids absolutely loved it, as did the parents. One student played a rhythm pattern with the 1, 4, 5, and 6 chords and each student took turns tapping the person at the piano bench on the shoulder so they could “cut in”. It was fun, fresh, and worthwhile. I so always enjoy your posts, Bob!

  6. Thanks TK. As I’ve told you before, I really appreciate your approach with students…the opportunities for improvisation, original composition. Great stuff. Thanks for stopping by. I’m overdue to check out your musings. Think I’ll head there now…

  7. Pingback: Coming Soon: Grammy-Winning Music Teachers | Being musical. Being human.

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