Teaching and Learning the Art of Improvisation

Music doesn’t live on the page but rather in the air, in the moment; the art of improvisation is the ultimate manifestation of this.

Although Indian and Arabic musicians are among those who improvise as an integral aspect of their ancient traditions, improvising isn’t a part of Western classical music today as it was in the age of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven – except in certain traditions of the organ loft. It has been jazz that has famously taken artful spontaneity to its heights over the past century; the improvisational mindset – the ability to think, even feel, on your feet – is the very essence of the music. Miles Davis said that there is no such thing as a “wrong” note per se; the note that’s played next determines whether the previous one was good or bad.

If classical conservatory grads have been bred to learn and transmit exactly what a composer put on a page – nothing less, nothing more – jazz students can be educated more in blackboard theory than in real-world creativity. And athleticism can sometimes win out over imagination in whatever discipline. Gradually, though, the teaching of improvisation – conveying the principles and techniques that enable players to improvise naturally as part of making music – has become more astute and widespread, with not only jazz players but also classical students able to benefit.

“The best improvisers think compositionally – spontaneous composition is the ideal.”

Bassist/composer Michael Formanek, who teaches jazz bass and jazz history at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, has developed a global improvisation class open to classical and jazz majors. The first year, he had about 15 students in a class, with half of them jazz majors; the second year, it was mostly classical majors. “The class is about learning to process things in real time, dealing with the music as it’s happening and not panicking in the moment,” he says. “The best improvisers think compositionally – spontaneous composition is the ideal.”

Jazz players have long been conditioned to listen to recordings of great improvisers so that they can pick up on expressive nuances over multiple performances of a piece. “With classical players, that exposure tends to be minimal – you can’t assume anything about their knowledge of the culture of improvisation,” Formanek says, “so my improv class doesn’t rely on jazz per se. Even if we’re going over a jazz tune like Thelonious Monk’s ‘Bemsha Swing,’ we’re not concentrating on jazz language or vocabulary. It’s ‘this is the tune, this is the harmony, this is the form. Now, how do you play off the music at hand?’ The same thing goes if it’s a minimalist piece by Morton Feldman or a John Zorn bagatelle or a Piazzolla tango or even a metal tune.

“I’m not trying to teach a method of improvisation – I’m trying to instill a mindset,” Formanek adds. “If classical players can get beyond their initial self-doubt, they tend to do some interesting things. They aren’t going to be able to go out and win the Monk competition, but they’ll be able to incorporate more creative interpretive ideas into their playing. The aim is to become a more conscious musician, to not be so glued to the page – so that you can really listen to the other players and know where you are in the scheme of things as the music unfolds around you. That makes you a better band mate in a jazz group or a better section partner in an orchestra or chamber ensemble.”

One of the young classical musicians to take Formanek’s class at Peabody is violinist Ledah Finck, who had to overcome that boundary of self-consciousness. “Once I had improvised enough to feel more comfortable trusting my ear and being creative in front of others, I made leaps and bounds,” she says. “That quickly began to transfer to my classical performance mentality. I became more at ease putting myself out there, and thinking about music less rigidly made it easier to recover after slip-ups, too. Working with Mike taught me about the beauty of shaping a phrase spontaneously, working with spaces and silences, responding to your environment. Once, my duo partner and I were performing improv at a local hospital, and a computer in the room began making weird noises. Without faltering, we both began to incorporate the computer sounds into our playing.”

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who founded the New York City-based School for Improvisational Music (SIM) summer workshops in 2001 and is a new professor of jazz and improvisational music at the University of Nevada, Reno, finds musical instruction today “way too theoretical – it’s 90 percent rules and 10 percent performance, whereas it should be the opposite,” he says. “Young players come out of jazz programs, in particular, with all these rules and constructs, and they think that’s what music really is – and it’s definitely not. Look at some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, like Paul McCartney or Prince. Do you think they thought much about theory? There should be more of an emphasis on playing by ear. Music started out as an aural tradition, and when it comes to making music, some of the oldest ideas are still the best.”

“…being able to improvise means a player is inevitably more flexible and able to take advantage of different opportunities.”

For Mark Kirschenmann – a composer and player of the electric trumpet who is a lecturer in jazz and contemporary improvisation at the University of Michigan – a key axiom in teaching young musicians is the necessity of versatility. “The viability of a career in music is trickier than ever,” he says, “but being able to improvise means a player is inevitably more flexible and able to take advantage of different opportunities. My contemporary-music students are interested in the cross-pollination of disciplines now and less concerned with traditional boundaries between jazz and classical. I see composers and electronic musicians playing with and learning from each other. What I’d like to find more of is schools incorporating lessons from improvising traditions around the world, such as Indian raga. I know there’s traction for that with certain teachers, but there has to be more support from administrations to sustain it.”

Bassist Henry Fraser, a young jazz graduate of New England Conservatory of Music now living in New York City, believes that “improvisation can help people reconnect with the mysticism and universality of music, and can be used to break down borders.” For classically trained pianist Macha Grosjacques, who graduated from the École Normale de Musique in Paris and attended the SIM workshop in 2005, the experience of improvising has indeed changed her “vision of music.”

“When I arrived at SIM, I could play very hard contemporary pieces and concertos, but I didn’t know how to read a standard with the chords and jazz forms – I felt like a beginner,” Grosjacques recalls. “My first week, I was in an ensemble led by bassist Ben Street, a teacher, and he proposed we play the jazz standard ‘Airegin’ by Sonny Rollins, a hard tune with all these rhythm changes my ear wasn’t used to. Then Ben told me, ‘Take a solo!’ With a lot of fear, I jumped into the tune and only played rhythmic things, playing fast and eighth notes without caring about the harmony. I thought it was shit. But Ben said, ‘Your solo was great!’ I remember that, because it was my first lesson: It can be simple, all about rhythm. And it was a very positive way of pushing a student just to go for it without any judgment.”

For Grosjacques, improvisation is about individual expression. Without teaching improvisation at conservatories, “we aren’t allowing students to find their own musicality,” she insists. “It’s important to play many styles and composers, from Bach to Messiaen, from Charlie Parker to Bill Evans – it develops your ear, your culture. But we have to teach young people how to think for themselves, not only repeat what those who preceded us have already said. This is so important: Do we want to do something that has already been done, or do we want to live our own lives and tell our own stories in music?”

Bradley Bambarger

A longtime New York City-based music journalist and producer, Bradley Bambarger has written for publications ranging from Billboard to Gramophone and album liner notes for such labels as ECM Records and Sony Legacy. …more 

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9 Responses

  1. Really like how this article views the importance of improvisation regardless of genre. Improvisation is also a life skill that can be applied to pretty much any career. Tried to share this on MajoringInMusic on Facebook but the link wouldn’t work.

  2. David says:

    Your information is incorrect. Improvisation has been around since humans put two sounds together. Only in THIS country do we associate it with Jazz, and that is absurd. To get a degree in classical music at the Paris Conservatory and Germany, one has to be able to concertize, sightread, and improvise equally as well. Jazz is not the only place, nor did improvisation begin here. Beethoven was known as a great improviser, and every person in every genre` approaches music creativity with opening up the mind to try and explore sonic territories. Sorry, but your American predjudice about jazz musicians ‘owning’ the world of improvisation is laughable.

    • Peter says:

      Hi David,
      I doubt your assumption that the situation in Europe is different. I graduated in Leipzig as a classical percussionist and improvisation was (and still is not) mandatory to get the degree. Later I was writing a Masters’ thesis about teaching free improv at music academies in Europe which made me dive deeper into the topic.
      Improvisation lost its relevance in classical music over the centuries until we ended up in a situation where the composer does the creative work and the musician is just the interpreter. (And also here we try to do this in a way we think the composer intended the piece to sound.)
      My perception of classical music training in Germany (and probably whole Europe) is that it is mainly a school of interpretation, a school of how to interpret written music.
      The improvisation programmes here are slowly developing, almost every music academy offers courses in improvisation for classical musicians, but they are not mandatory. Actually this seems to be a similar situation like in the U.S.
      The fact that in the early 60s, free improvisation developed in both areas, classical music and jazz just shows the fact that in both fields musicians felt over-regulated by the rules that were put on them. But until today improvisation is just a niche in classical music. Probably this is changing slowly, because I realize more and more interest on improvisation from classical music students and teachers, but most of the improvisation teachers still are faced with scepticism on what they are doing.

  3. Liam Noble says:

    David, on the contrary, the improvisational tradition of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others was outlined very clearly at the opening of the article. I don’t find anything laughable, this is a balanced article and if anything moves to challenge the presumed monopoly of jazz in improvisation in favour of opening it up to other genres….we all know the figured bass and chord sequence styled comparisons….but in fairness, the current performance practice means many classical musicians do not have much knowledge of improvisation; ’twas not always the case.

  4. I agree that the emphasis on jazz is a bit myopic, but I recognize this as just one person’s passion, and (hopefully) not a prescription for young musicians. It’d be great to see someone follow this article with a survey of improvisation in classical music of the mid-20th century (Feldman, Cardew, Tudor, Crumb, et al.), which is altogether a different beast.

  5. I like this article. It points out the issues some conservatory trained musicians seem to have regarding the expectation that music should be played as exactly written. That is nonsense when one thinks about it. One can place a still life in front of several classically trained oil painters and they will all interpret it differently on the canvass. David (above) is right to a point, that many – if not most – western scholars approach music and musicology from a superior viewpoint — “we have the knowledge, and we can make the judgement…” That is a conceit (rather than a laughing matter), really, because music as it is practiced in the West is a human invention. For example, equal temperament departs from the overtone series expressed in natural systems, because humans decided they are prepared to sacrifice a degree of consonance in order to facilitate modulating key (changing fundamental). Another example. Western scholars, almost totally, think of rhythm as a linear phenomenon – expressed as “patterns in sound” – happening on a timeline; whereas ethnic musicians (for instance those in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America) express their tacit knowledge of rhythm as being a harmonic phenomenon, happening in more than one dimension. As the educator Efraín Toro points out, spin, gravity and waves are the way nature expresses rhythm in terms of fundamental frequencies (based upon periods of revolution of bodies – galaxies, pulsars, worlds, electrons), harmonics and fractals (partials). Humans choose either to be “in tune” with nature, or not.

  6. Thanks to all for the lively conversation about the role improvisation has/might play in preparing musicians for the 21st Century. What seems to be the common denominator is a fervor for recapturing this lost art and embracing improvisation as something that “musicians” do, regardless of genre. Best, Mark

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