Improvisation is a core part of my lessons, but I recently had an enquiry asking how I incorporate it into my teaching, and I realised I’d not really thought about it in depth because it felt like such a natural extension of my own practice. But in reality, when I was learning in school, improvisation was definitely not on the agenda and it was actually a struggle to teach myself how to improvise; taking myself away from the security of sheet music and interpreting someone else’s work was, at times, distressing.
But once I got comfortable in that space I found complete freedom. My playing massively improved, from my technique to my aural skills and my enjoyment. I include improvisation in my lessons to give my students that freedom, and the chance to be creative. It also allows them to concentrate on one factor, without having to worry about notation and the pressures of interpretation. It can be as simple or as complicated as each student needs.
For classical music purists who argue that it’s unnecessary to spend time learning to improvise, I would point to historical context. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven all improvised and expected their music to be played ‘expressively’, the notation meant something different to the players of their day than it does to modern players. Both Hummel in 1828 and Spohr in 1833 write that although a literal, accurate realisation of the notation will produce a ‘correct’ performance it will fall far short of a masterful, beautiful performance which modifies the dynamics, the rhythms, the tempo and unnotated practices such as vibrato. Historical masters of performance would know how and when to read between the lines and improvise.
I would also argue that what I’m training my students for is much less defined that it was traditionally. I have students who play with their church groups, ‘jam’ with friends, explore music outside of the classical tradition, and for all these things improvisation is necessary.
So here’s a few ideas for how to use improvisation in lessons, and perhaps in your own practice.
- Teaching scales and modes
When I was at school, learning scales was a 5 minute afterthought at the end of lessons to pass exams. But having a secure understanding of key is vital for sight reading, musicality and overall aural skills. The last suggestion in my list of how I teach scales is to improvise in that key. Some students love being thrown in the deep end and if I ask them to improvise in a certain key they’ll happily create for the rest of the lesson, but most need a little more scaffolding. I start by asking them to play the scale from top to bottom but using any rhythm they want. Then I add in a second rule, this time they can move up or down the scale but it has to be step-wise, meaning if we’re playing a C Major scale and they start on a C the next note has to be either a B or a D.
To support students who are improvising freely in a key, I’ll play some lower notes on flute or piano to create a drone for them to improvise over, or I’ll find a backing track on YouTube like this one. This creates a more collaborative and encouraging space than trying to fill an empty silence.
Improvising in a certain key or mode also allows student to give each scale their own colour and personality. Making those emotional connections further helps to store new keys in their long-term memory.
2. Understanding rhythm and pulse
A good sense of pulse and an understanding of rhythm are maybe the most important things we teach our students. Particularly with newer students I tend to dedicate a fair chunk of each lesson to aural work, mainly focusing on rhythm and pulse. This may be in the form of clapping rhythms against a metronome, or learning to keep a pulse in their head as they count rests.
But sometimes it becomes more improvisatory, beating their own repeated 2 bar rhythm on a drum, improvising rhythms on one note against a steady pulse, or keeping the pulse by playing repeated notes on the flute against a melody.
In this improv rhythm example I asked the student to improv 2 bars in 4/4 and write them down. Here red = minim, green = crotchet.
Particularly with rhythms I encourage students to write their creations down. Not necessarily in full or on a score, but at least in some way that is recognisable to both of us. This way there is a visual representation of what they’re playing. For some learners it’s easier to understand what they’re creating when they can see it written out than when listening in real time. For example, if they’re trying to improvise rhythms in 4/4 but keep skipping a beat and getting out of time with the pulse, they can see it clearly in their writing that some bars have less beats than their aim. It also reinforces they’re understanding of notation.
In a lesson with Wissam Boustany a few years ago we were discussing how to practice tuning, and he managed to make what is normally a fairly tedious exercise into an absolute joy. Standing next to the piano, holding down the sustain pedal, he played a simple triad chord, and improvised on his flute over the top of the sustained piano, creating a beautiful, haunting melody that had purpose and intention behind it.
This is something I’ve adopted into my own teaching and practice. Yes, there is still a place for careful practice with a tuner, but by playing slow melodies over the top of a chord, and listening very carefully for the subtleties of tuning, we’re training the ear to practice something closer to what it will be doing in a real life context. I also sometimes use a backing track, or create simple drones, especially if I’m teaching online.
I’m working on a project at the moment with electronic artist Adam Langley in which we each add an improvised layer to a track so that it builds up to slowly to become a complete piece. I’m also doing my daily practice as well, and I find that each layer is influenced by what I’ve been practicing just before, particularly by my technique work. When Offerman’s harmonic study was on my stand, I produced a fragile, swirling layer based on harmonics; when I was going through Robert Dicks bamboo tones I subconsciously used them to create something straight from The Arabian Nights.
I take this into my lessons as well, and encourage students to practice their technique work through improvisations. For beginner students that are breathing in between every note, that might mean playing 4 notes of a pitch and rhythm decided by them, then a breath, then another 4 notes. For students working on vibrato, we may decide on a number of pulses per beat, and then they improvise a melody with the vibrato running throughout. Or perhaps they improvise their own piece using third/fourth octave fingerings. Or maybe their own one exercise based around 3 notes and mindful listening. There’s a chance for a lot of freedom and imagination here.
5. Ingredients of a piece
I’m a big fan of simultaneous learning and what Harris refers to as the ‘ingredients’ of a piece or the elements that make it music, e.g. the rhythms, the key, the character. His philosophy is to build lessons around these ingredients, and eventually teach students how to identify these ingredients for themselves. Before a student even looks at a piece, we’ll usually do some improvisation work on these elements, such as the key, any tricky rhythms they’ll encounter in the piece or new techniques. By engaging in the act of creation with these ingredients, they become very comfortable. When they go on to see these elements in the piece they usually take them in their stride and breeze through them. This allows our lessons to focus more on character and interpretation rather than drilling bars over and over again to correct mistakes.
This is by no means a complete list and I would love to hear more ideas about how to incorporate improvisation into teaching. Let me know your 6th way below!