The Suzuki method has occasionally been criticized as a system of learning that fails to nurture creativity. Yet, when I was a Suzuki kid, I actually remember being asked to engage in a fair amount of creative activity – like free improvisation.
I don’t know if this was part of Dr. Suzuki’s original philosophy, or if I just had liberal Suzuki teachers, or a forward-thinking mom, but almost on a daily basis, I’d have to pick up the violin and create something from scratch. It was as much a part of my practice routine as scales.
And it actually came in handy on at least a few occasions, when I experienced a memory slip and frantically improvised my butt off until I could find my way back to something familiar.
But aside from handling memory slips more gracefully in performance, what is the practical use of improvisation skills and training in classical music? After all, it’s not like we are going to start improvising freely in the middle of a Beethoven sonata.
So is developing our improvisational skills really worth the time and effort?
Your brain on improv
Researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braun (2008) were curious to learn more about what is happening in the brain when engaged in a highly creative activity like improvisation.
So they took six jazz pianists, stuck them in an fMRI scanner (which measures changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain), and had them alternately play passages from memory and improvise to see if there was a difference in neural activity.
In one scenario, they had the pianists play a one-octave C major scale up and down in quarter notes (control condition). Then they asked the pianists to improvise on the scale – though restricted them to only those notes in the one-octave C major scale, and quarter note values here as well (improv condition).
Improv condition audio sample (scale):
Of course, improvising on a one-octave scale in quarter notes is not the most sophisticated improvisatory activity, so they also tested the pianists in a more musically complex scenario.
In the more advanced scenario, they asked the pianists to play a melody from memory to the accompaniment of a jazz quartet in the background (control condition). Then the pianists were asked to freely improvise their own melody with the same jazz quartet recording playing in the background (improv condition).
Improv condition audio sample (jazz):
What does creativity look like?
So what did they find?
For one, there was a distinctive pattern of both activations and deactivations in certain parts of the brain that occurred during improvisation and playing from memory. What’s cool, is that these patterns were essentially the reciprocal of each other. Meaning, the areas of the brain that were activated during improvisation were deactivated during the play-from-memory condition, and vice versa.
Specifically, a region of the top front part of the brain which is thought to be involved in problem-solving and conscious monitoring of our performance (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) quiets down during improvisation. Meanwhile, a central region in the very front-most part of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex) which seems to play a key role in self-expression and making up a story or describing a memory becomes more active.
What does this all mean?
Taken together, it seems that deactivating the self-monitoring, evaluating part of our brain frees us up to be more creative and allows us to spontaneously produce unplanned, novel musical ideas and gestures which might otherwise be inhibited.
Indeed, there is some additional research which take this a step further and suggests that musicians who are trained in improvisation might be more capable of unleashing their creativity in general, as compared to musicians who have less experience with improvisation or non-musicians (at least on measures of divergent thinking).
The consequences of an active self-monitor
In addition, we know from research on athletes, that self-monitoring a well-learned motor skill that usually operates on “muscle memory” often results in choking under pressure.
Which, combined with the jazz study findings, makes me wonder if having the ability to “switch off” our brain’s self-monitor may be integral to performing more freely and accurately in classical music performance contexts as well.
Simple improv is still improv
Another interesting takeaway, is that this pattern of activation/deactivation was true for both the simple improvisation task (scales) and the complex task (jazz).
So perhaps we don’t have to freak out and be intimidated by the word “improvisation.” It sounds like even practicing improvisation on a very simple, basic level may have lots of value, and that the key thing is to simply get started.
Well, you could start by playing a scale with ornamentations, or adding lots of expressive details or musical inflection. Or by picking a simple theme, and making up some variations.
Of course, starting can be easier said than done. And even if you’ve taken a few steps forward, at some point, you’ll want to practice improvisation in a more structured, systematic way, because improvising well is a skill that takes practice.
So to that end, I’ve asked violinist (and childhood Suzuki buddy) Christian Howes if he’d lead a play-along workshop on improvisation for us.
Save the date…
So whether you’re a complete newbie and don’t know how to start, or an experienced improviser who’s been frustrated by inconsistencies or feeling inhibited under pressure, have your instrument handy and block off 45-60 minutes on Wednesday, April 26th, from 2pm-3pm Eastern (calculate that in your timezone here).
Chris will share three approaches to improvisation that can work for you, and explain why other methods may not have worked before. You’ll also learn (and experience) the difference between learning harmony and doing improvisation. And you’ll get to do lots of playing the whole time (muted, of course)!
It’s open to all instruments (and voice) – sign up for the free improv session here: Free, live, play-along improvisation workshop with Christian Howes
Here’s a podcast episode with Christian Howes, who gets into more of the nuts and bolts of how to start, or further develop your improvisation skills:
- Christian Howes: On Overcoming Improvisation Anxiety, Making Technical Practice More Creatively Satisfying, and Becoming a Better Friend to Yourself Through Music
For more on the research side of things, check out this episode with Indiana University research Peter Miksza:
And here’s Dr. Limb’s TED talk:
Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLOS ONE, 3(2), e1679. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001679
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Amen! Brain studies aside, all one needs to do is talk with musicians who have BOTH extensive jazz AND classical backgrounds. A friend who came to classical guitar after training and working as a jazz musician told me he didn’t get nerves in classical performances, because his improv experiences gave him something to work with in the event of a glitch in a classical piece. The psychology / mentality of jazz training brings a whole new dimension to all aspects of musical study & performance, whether one makes it a career or not. Highly recommended.
For many years, I always thought about these two worlds of music, jazz and classical, as either or choices. Each requires such dedication that one could never do both well, but would have to choose one or the other (never mind Wynton Marsalis – we all don’t grow up with a music educator dad in New Orleans). As a classical flutist I have long struggled with the concepts of improvisation, and having a jazz drummer husband gives me an interesting doorway into this other means of mastery. This post sheds a new light on why it is such a struggle to “let go” and spontaneously create. I am a huge fan of many great jazz improvisers and would love to own that degree of mastery of my instrument and my creativity.
I’m a jazz saxophonist and have been reading your blog for about a year now. I love how you address performance anxiety and practicing (which led me to read “make it stick”). The most comprehensive book I’ve found is Hal Crook’s “How to Improvise.” It covers everything from simple to advanced methods and he starts the book with an important concept that most books don’t address: silence! He calls it his play/rest approach and it’s a recurring theme throughout the book. You simply play a phrase, rest, play a phrase, rest, etc. over four different accompaniments: one scale, a chord progression, a tune’s chord progression, free improve.
Well my dog’s being annoying. Thanks for your blog!
Thx for posting this.
At times as a teacher I feel improvisation can stimulate my students to dig deeper into how the instrument works and how music works in general. Although my improvisational skills aren’t all that great, I do remember as a beginner I felt the need of improvisation. The weird thing is that an ‘actor’ is accepted on interpret a script, but on the other hand, people often ask me: “is this your own music you are playing?” too.
Especially asked by people that are not familiar with classical music or if you play music that goes beyond the guys with wigs…
I started to write my own method book, and thought about integrating instructions on improvisation. Even from the very first lesson. What I do notice is, that as far as I know, not a single method book has this. I believe it might be true that recordings may have contributed to ‘set’ ways of playing a certain piece (I think recordings contributed also to setting the standards of live performances unrealistically high too, but that’s a different topic), but I think that is not the only reason. Instruction will have a great influence on that too.
Writing my own method book threw a light upon the evolution of teaching and method books. Much more interesting than I thought it would be. I started reconsidering a few strategies from the past that have been left out sometimes for centuries. Although I just started digging into other instrument method books (I’m a classical guitarist), I noticed that little has changed in method books in the last few decades. Yes, the music might have changed, but the steps that a student needs to go through are fairly the same.
Does anyone know about a method book that includes improvisation or books that explain improvisation from a very early stage on? I would def. be interested.
Hi, I grew up from very early in my study, improvising. My teacher, Alice Kanack, has made her life’s work out of teaching improvisation to children — her method books tie very well in with Suzuki — who she worked with in the 80s. I feel extremely fortunate to have reaped the benefits of improvisation as a child. Now, as a teacher, I have started introducing her improvisation exercises into my private lessons and hope to eventually introduce it to all of my students.
A few years ago, she actually presented WITH Charles Limb at the University of Rochester / Eastman research symposium — where her group of students, improvised as part of the presentation (high school age, all have been improvising since the beginning of their musical study, so in some cases as young as 3, or 4).
Her work is called “Creative Ability Development”, and she has a few really great books specific for string players, and one for pianists. Pretwinkle level improvisation can be done with the “Musical Improvisation for Children” book and older students can use any of the books from the series “Fun Improvisation for Violin,” also for viola & cello. A wonderful book for more comfortable improvisers is “Improvising String Quartets.”
Anyway. Definitely check her work out, it is very simple and easy to implement for children. It sounds like I have been paid to say all this, but in actuality, I just feel lucky that she was the one shaping me musically and creatively through my formative years.
Thank You Maeve, my former student and a brilliant performer/teacher in your own right, for this eloquent and accurate description of Creative Ability Development.
Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for pointing out the value of improvisation. It’s so important for ALL musicians and styles.
Re method books including improv: There may be a few in beginning piano among the newer series that use a duet with the teacher. Saying this as one who has dabbled, had 2 or 3 years instruction with jazz players and a club pianist: It helps to have a second part – usually rhythm – for trying & learning. I’ve enjoyed occasional sessions practicing with Vol. 21 of the Jamey Aebersold series of jazz books, “Gettin’ it Together.” In the simplest terms, one uses a particular key / scale & plays along with rhythm tracks in various tempos & styles. – In other words, just jump in using the basic materials, your ear. At the least, helps the improviser get over the “what’s the correct thing to do” mentality. Don’t misread my comments to mean that jazz is unstructured. It has definite goals & boundaries, governed by expanding one’s understanding & use of keys & chord structures. But starting with fairly minimal structure helps one over the first hurdle and the freedom to “let go,”
Love your article – I’m going to recommend it in my improv blog (improvinsights). Although I improvised on guitar (folk, bluegrass, jazz) for years, I didn’t dare improvise on horn (my primary instrument) for decades because I held the common definition of jazz: Improvisation = jazz = bebop = MM. 220. Never going to happen on the horn. So I stayed away. Then one day I changed the definition and it changed my life: improv = I pick the note. Jazz styles are one kind of improvisation, but there can be many, many, ways to improvise. You can improvise a fanfare, dirge, lullaby, march, etc. or set how you feel to music: sleepy, romantic, tired, angry, elated, anxious, energetic, etc. I started working with a partner (Evan Mazunik on piano) at the University of Iowa where I am the horn prof. We eventually gave improvised concerts, made recordings, and did workshops. I started a class, Improvisation for Classical Musicians. The first five years of the class turned into a book (Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, GIA, 354 p. 2008), then more books of improv games for classical musicians. No notation. No jazz (there are plenty of books on that). Jazz is wonderful – I love it and think every minute spent on it is well spent – but it’s not for every person or instrument. Changing the definition opens up improv to all musicians – all levels, all instruments. Improv needs to be part of every musician’s training from Day 1. Whether that is (or ends up to be) jazz or not is up to each player. The main thing is to start (teachers!) – now, today. And every day.
Update: My _Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians Vol. II_ was published by GIA (giamusic.com) in April. 642 new games, + new categories, 372 p.
Great article. However my experience is (despite the science!) that I am both creative and analytical when I’m improvising (and feeling quite free). Sometimes I’m less analytical – but including the analytic allows me to work in multiple dimensions. I don’t have a sense of “control”, just comfort in that saying “yes” to whatever happens gives me material and structure to build on. And yes, improv as a classical musician has definitely helped with my nerves, as I feel incredibly reliable – that is, there is nothing I can’t rescue myself from. I would say that losing focus because of fatigue is my only worry here…having a piece of music in front of you can be quite comforting if you are brain-dead!
As a musician who started as an improviser (I was “inventing” melodies spontaneously as I played long before I learned to read music), it seems almost baffling to me that improvisation is still viewed as an “optional” component of the music making experience. Improvisation is a natural, human process, inegral to the immediacy of our self expression. We do it everyday with our movements, speech, and more.
Though certain disciplines of improvisation demand a considerable amount of study in order to gain any kind of fluency of expression (jazz, indian classical music, etc.), the act of improvising music can be immediate to anybody interested. I would say that my interpretive musicianship (especially concerning details of expression, spontaneity, imagination) has been significantly enhanced because of my study as an improviser. A really great book that brings to life this idea of improvisation as a wonderfully human activity is “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art”, by Stephen Nachmanovich. I re-read it every two or three years to remind me.
This article will be useful if it sparks some peoples’ interest in improvisation, but there are a lot of really important reasons for classical musicians to improvise other than brain scans and memory lapses! There are also some really useful materials out there for classical musicians who are interested in learning more about all of this, and some excellent techniques for beginning improvisers. I started to write about some of this in a comment here, but quickly realized that my thoughts would be too long to fit; therefore, I published a response and short classical-improv bibliography on my own blog: http://unflaggingsource.blogspot.com
I hope this will be useful!
Nice post, Dorian. Your point about improvisation being quite different than simply generating random notes without consideration of form or structure or the correct “vocabulary” is a good one that cannot be emphasized enough.
Could never improvise on a piano, and still can’t. Too much going on, and on a piano one needs to actually KNOW the chord changes.
Was completely take by surprise when I started to mess around on viola and found that I loved to improvise melodies on it. When one only has to play one note at a time, improvising melodies almost comes naturally, like humming to oneself. I had to stop viola for a variety of reasons and it’s looking more and more like I’m not going to get back to it; it’s too physically painful and … well, poorly designed. It’s really better played vertically than on the shoulder Violins are a better size for playing on the shoulder, but they sound too pungent for me. But I do truly miss a melodic instrument, where I can just make up melodies on the fly.
Lever harps might be another good instrument for improvising since you only have the notes in any major scale to choose from at any one time. That might be a nice one for improvising chord changes since you’re less likely to hit something a half-step off. People always say that if you play a wrong note twice, it’s not a wrong note anymore but I don’t entirely buy it. If one is improvising melodically, going a half-step off is going to sound awful no matter how you try to swing it.
It’s improvising the melody AND the chord changes that’s the real bear for me at this time. With time, I might be able to manage it on the piano, but I’m having too much fun composing to bother. 🙂
You put a photo of a young violinist who really “holds” his violin in a very bad manner ! Only the thumb pad should touch the neck, the fingers should not touch each other and he holds his bow with a closed fist… at least, teach him !!
True, but technique can’t really be the focus if one is improvising– then their brain is inhibited by thinking on whether or not they have a bent thumb on their bow, or loose thumb on their violin…
The important distinction that improvisation is just ONE part of our training, and technique can be the focus during any other part of study.
I agree with your point about technique and improv, but I’m afraid many string teachers will overlook your wonderful piece about improvisation because the image is soooooo horrendous (this child is practicing bad habits I never even imagined before!) this is such a shame because string teachers are perhaps most on need of encouragement to include creative work in their teaching 🙁
Also, there needs to be Some technical foundation for improv to be rewarding. This student doesn’t have ANY yet so he should be improvising with something he already knows how to do (like singing, speaking, or body movement). But I do appreciate the content of the article very much. Thank you for that.
I’m laughing at these comments about the horrendous technique of the musician in the photograph, which I took. He was six years old at the time, had never had a lesson, and discovered one of the half-dozen string instruments we keep lying around. This is true improvisation — just enjoying the sounds these instruments make when you drag the bow across the strings. Lighten up, people.
I like Jeffrey Agrell’s “Improv Games for One Player” as a bridge for classical musicians.
As a guitarist who has spent the majority of his (13+ plus years) playing career learning about and playing jazz and improvised music,it’s only in the last year have I started learning more classical repertoire, as part of my BA in Music Therapy.
The thing I like about classical music is that it’s self contained: Nothing else needs to be added to what is already written! The tricky thing is how to play it that makes it your own. It has also helped my technique – especially in my solo guitar arrangements and performance.
With jazz every performance of every tune is different; this is for me one of the great things about it: it always seems to be fresh: A tune can be played in different keys and meters, re-harmonized, or all of the above! Plus, the more you play a tune that you really like, the more you can get inside it and feel free to create within the harmonic framework (if there is one).
There is a lifetime’s worth of work for jazz players though; having to know all types of chords, as well as scales associated with them can be quite daunting, and then on top of that having to learn the “jazz language” is a yet another thing!
Then, when you improvise you are supposed to forget everything you have learned and “just play”. Well as Mark Levine, author of the great “Jazz Theory Book” stated:
“A great jazz solo consists of: 1% magic and 99% of stuff that is: explainable, analyzable, categorizeable and doable”. It just takes a lot of work to get there!
The pay off is great though. I am never at a loss to improvise in whatever context. While I may not be a brilliant sight reader (a trait often associated with classical players; I am not terrible either) I am able to improvise freely in just about all keys and create chord progressions on the spot. They might not be spectacular but having that ability to do that is a great thing.
In the classical world aren’t there stories of Bach being a great improviser? If you look at his inventions, for example, you can see that he was great at outlining the harmony, and this is something that all jazz players have to do when they “play the changes”. Bach was the original bebopper. Wasn’t Chopin the same way? His etudes and preludes were basically improvisations I believe.
I can’t stress the importance of improvising enough. I think that it is great form of self-expression that can help you get in touch with more of the type of player you are and want to be. It is also from improvising that compositions come. After all, when you improvise your are composing on the spot, and when you compose it’s slowed down improvising.
I try to improvise every day or every time I pick up my instrument; it’s fun and is nice change of having to always “follow the dots” to make music. I make sure to work on all aspects to help keep me well rounded though because if you don’t use it “you lose it.
” … when you compose it’s slowed down improvising.”
Small quibble here — it’s not, really. One of the fundaments of improvising, for me anyway, is that you do something in the present and when it’s in the past, it’s in the past, and you let go of it. It’s very linear.
One of the absolute best things about composing is that it’s not linear. 🙂 You can start in the middle, futz around, go back and tweak … You can work things out in any order you want, which I love very much. It’s like what Agatha Christie once said about how she wrote her books: she’d write up to the very end, then pick the least likely person as the culprit, and then go back and edit the earlier chapters of the manuscript retroactively to “frame” that person. Composition can be done the same way — I’ve written the end of a piece first, then backed up and said, “Okay, now where do I start to wind up here?” I’ve pulled themes out of the end of the piece to introduce earlier so that it looks like foreshadowing, when it’s actually foreshadowing in the opposite direction.
I’ve always had a sort of mental rebellion going against the second law of thermodynamics that forces me to step through life in a linear way. Composing has given me a means of interacting with music that fits my head to a t — not so stress and pressure filled as performing, and not so tyrannically linear as improv. Composing can be and often is done alone, and out of order.
I do wonder though, whether or not super-slowed down improv wouldn’t be a decent way to get started on it though, much like slow practice. They always say that you can’t play faster than you can think, and I don’t think you can improv faster than you can think, either. Maybe letting yourself improv in bullet-time at first would be a nice way to get over the initial hump of omg-i-can’t-do-this.
All the great classical composers whose every note we revere today were improvisers in their day. There are are great stories about JS Bach stuffing rivals in improv cutting contests. Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and many others. Allow me a couple quotes:
Spontaneous Improvisation is a tool that makes every performance unique. Its use makes it impossible for any two players to execute K. 622 the same way, as is, sadly, so often the case today. The tool may be likened to the thing that makes a hockey game interesting: once the puck is thrown down, one has no idea what is going to happen. And that is one of the principal reasons why eighteenth-century musicians improvised: it made every performance of a work measurably different from every other performance of that same work. As such, it was a tool used to create freshness and originality, the very thing that we all want to have in our performances.
– Daniel N. Leeson (in ‘Spontaneous Improvisation in Mozart Performance’)
Contemporaries report that when he was playing the piano, especially when improvising, he became that other human being they would have liked him to be in his daily life. His expression changed; he seemed to become serene… These must have been the moments (often hours) when he reveled in blissful self-forgetfulness, when he severed his connection with the outside world; here he was the unadorned Mozart, who needed no intermediary in order to communicate — no singers, no instrumentalists or fellow musicians, and no bothersome score, either. Here, and perhaps only here, he achieved true pleasure in his own genius; here he transcended himself, becoming the absolute Mozart. —Wolfgang Hildesdeimer, Mozart, (1977, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp), p. 279.
Improvisation has played a prominent role throughout the history of world musics. Until quite recently we have tended to ignore the fact that European classical music from 1600 to the present comprises only a small fraction of the world’s music. Furthermore, our general neglect of improvisation as a creative discipline stands in direct contrast to the rest of the world, where improvisation has thrived in virtually every cultural region. — Bill Dobbins
Music was an aural, improvised art from the very beginning. Even after the invention of notation in the Middle Ages, musicians did both – play from notation and improvise. It wasn’t until the 19th century with the rise of the conservatory, the method book, and huge orchestral compositions that improv died out among classical musicians (except for organists). By the 20th century, not only was the ability to improvise lost, but classical musicians were unaware that it had ever been any other way. Improv has been making something of a comeback among the traditionally trained in the past two decades. There are more opportunities for classical musicians to learn how to “think in music” once again. The important thing for classical players to realize is that by confining training and professional activities to notation only, they have left out half their heritage, half of what it means to have comprehensive musicianship, and most of the fun. A complete musician knows both the aural/creative side and the literate/re-creative side. It’s important (not to mention incredible fun) for every musician to get in on creative music – as early as possible, but it’s never too late.
Sometimes I wonder if the invention of notation wasn’t the reason for a sort of inevitable slide toward playing things as written, almost a sort of natural (temporary!) cultural reaction to accumulating the past instead of gradually just forgetting and rediscovering. Prior to notation, music got forgotten when someone died, or if it caught on, it got passed along and changed with each handover of the baton from one person to the next in line.
But once it was written down, where everyone could agree on what was supposed to be played, that allowed the past to sort of pile up. And once some critical mass of past had built up, it started to ossify on us.
Happily, it seems to have been a temporary reaction — hey, 150 years is “temporary” by human cultural standards. And I think it is a sort of postmodern transition stage, especially since musical notation was invented for the specific purpose of exporting music without change or error. And let’s face it — we can all speak extemporaneously, write, AND read, so there’s no fundamental reason why we can’t improv, compose, and read music.
In the beginning, notation was not used or intended to be an exact way of setting music down. It was more of a skeletal reminder, an outline to be varied, embellished, etc., much like a jazz tune is in a Real Book. It was hundreds of years – quite late, actually, before the ink started being treated as so much Holy Writ.
I imagine a scene in, say, the Renaissance. A chamber group is auditioning a new member. They play some Pezel (say). They read through the chart and shake their heads. “Sorry – you won’t do.” “But I played the notes perfectly!” “Yes, but you played it exactly the same way the second time through. What do you think the repeats are for? We want to see what you can do! Show some imagination the second time through!”
Yes — a memory jog for people who had already heard the song. But when typical Western notation got going, the purpose behind it was to make sure that every single church was singing exactly the same thing at the same time on the same day. The purpose of the forerunner of what we consider to be typical Western notation was indeed to make sure that something was done right and without change.
But yes, there are many other forms of musical notation, including early Western notation, that were there as a general memory aid for someone who already knew the piece.
Also, the Renaissance I don’t think would have allowed enough time for the mentality to settle in. I’m not saying that the invention of notation caused people to not welcome improv the next day. I’m saying that it sort of allowed the past to pile up over a few centuries … and once that pile had reached a critical size, then people started to embalm it.
I also wonder how much of it wasn’t due to the Victorian fascination with death and seances, to be honest. “Everyone sit perfectly still, be silent, keep your fingertip on the table, and the dead spirit of Beethoven will rise and be with us tonight! No rustling or clapping between movements!”
Another excellent article. When I was working on my DMA, I did a masterclass with William Cahn (member of Nexus) on improvisation. It was eye opening how students in a conservatory setting (USC) had some much trouble opening up and letting go. His book is a good read (link below). Thanks!
I started learning to improvise years ago while playing in church groups with guitar players who couldn’t read music. I’m an oboist and a only read music so once I figured out their chord changes life became different and much more free! It’s great to not be bound by what is on the page any more. Especially with my eyesight not good as it used to be… I find my ears are more reliable anyway, Lol!
I am very much in agreement with the idea to remove the objective mind with it’s constant weatherproofing for errors. Rather allow the creative flow to allow for new potentials rather than a repetition of the patterns of another.
As a classical trained pop singer, you may or may not have specialized in singing especially fast musical passages sung on a single syllable, known as melismatic singing. And you could very well sing pop music without learning it.
As a teacher who has dedicated 40 years to exploring, researching, and writing a method to develop creativity, I am delighted to see the truly great understanding of the art of improvisation among so many of my fellow musicians! There is one point that seems to have been overlooked however, so I feel I must weigh in. In my method, improvisation is used as a tool to develop the creative side of the brain. In music, creativity is musicality! The greatest artists are those who combine great technical facility with unique, elegant and well developed musicality. The disciplined practice of the freedom of choice ( the repetition of improvisation over a structure ) is by far the best method of achieving this highly developed and unique musicality! Technical facility is developed separately using the multitude of methods at our disposal. It is important to note that improvisation, studied alongside technique and repertoire, greatly aids the development of an exceptional technical fluency. This is most likely due to the extremely relaxed state of the performer when improvising, as well as his connection to the medial cerebral cortex of his brain during this creative work. It is also important to recognise the significance of the medial prefrontal cortex in relation to musicality. The medial prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain we use to describe ourselves as individuals. It is where our uniqueness exists. To practice improvisation, which triggers the medial prefrontal cortex, is to practice musicality from its most deeply rooted source: our own most beautiful and sincere expression of self in the language of music. In my experience, teaching this kind of improvisation alongside classical repertoire and technique, develops musicians who can take this creative experience with improvisation and apply it to interpretation and exceptional performance ability. This is why the disciplined practice of improvisation should be part of every young musician’s training! It is the training of true artistry!
Alice Kay Kanack, author of the Creative Ability Development Method: http://www.creativeabilitydevelopment.com
Do you know the CD, ‘Big Music, Little Musicians’, from 1994? It is original compositions and improvisations by Oakland Public Music Students in 4 – 6 grade. It is pretty amazing what these kids made up. It has been a big part of my life’s work the past 30 years.
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I agree 100%, but I’d take it a step further. I think improv should be part of anyone’s training. It is something we should be teaching in high school or even sooner. It fosters creativity which is so important in virtually any field. I spent a year in S. Korea a long time ago and I saw what an education system based on rote memorization with no room for creativity gets you. We definitely want to awaken and encourage creativity from a young age. And, of course, it is even more important in creative fields like music.
Absolutely. I think improvisation training – which is just letting the player make some decisions about what to play – should begin Day 1. Babies don’t have to wait to babble (practice language, express themselves). There is no reason to have new musicians wait, either.
Many classically trained organists are excellent improvisers. What I remember most about improv training (years ago!) is that too much freedom can be the enemy of creativity. In the examples Noa cited, improvisers were limited to a simple scale in quarter notes. It is the constraints that help make sense of the music that comes out. Without them, anarchy.
Same reason I have to walk my terrier on a leash. Without it, she would end up on Cleveland.
If I can plug my own work here, I wrote a book called “Rhythm First! A Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Improvisation,” published by Sher Music Co. https://www.shermusic.com/1883217865.php
I wrote it for elementary band students to give them a basic rhythmic vocabulary and “feel” for swing rhythm, while systematically giving them more choices and options for improvising their own melodies. It’s also certainly a tool that classically trained musicians can use to begin the process of learning to improvise.
Like many other commenters here, I found that a lot of existing resources assume too much prior knowledge or go too fast. I tried to write this like a method book that a novice improviser could follow.
As for “classical” improv, I would use a typical band exercise (like a scale) and after enough exposure, give students a framework for “choosing their own adventure” and pick a starting note or pattern to work through. This, I found was a good anticipatory activity to moving on to jazz improv. (And build technique) Jeffrey Agrell’s books (linked elsewhere in this thread) and Steve Treseler https://stevetres.com/ do a great job at introducing improvisation of all kinds with improv games.
Hope this helps!
Noa, great article and awesome thread! I’m learning about more great resources here!
Thanks for sharing, Tom!
I used to view the jazz and classical music genres as either-or alternatives for many years. Though I’d go a step farther, I wholeheartedly concur. Anyone’s training need to include improv, in my opinion. It is something that ought to be taught in high school or possibly earlier. It encourages creativity, which is vital in just about every industry.