Creating a Toolbox for Musical Improvisation

musical improvisation

While “noodling” on an instrument may seem random, it can often lead to some interesting discoveries. Noodling is improvisation at its roots, the art of creating music on the spot and without preparation.  

Musical improvisation and dramatic improv are similar. Drama, like music, involves interpreting others’ written material, requires knowledge of the material, begs for the ability to draw an audience in (using the author’s cues - much like we would interpret dynamics and other musical articulations), and necessitates experience.  

Let’s say, for example, you were to give an improvisational speech on fear. Among the most powerful of emotions, we can presume that everyone knows something about the subject. The bigger vocabulary, the more range of experiences, however, the better the speech will be. Likewise, the wider the musical background, the bigger the range of improv experience, the more successful the improvisational endeavors. 

Successful improvisers, dramatic or musical, develop additional skill-sets, other than simply interpreting another person’s materials. By using an improvisational actor’s toolbox, we can develop a workable strategy to teach musical improvisation.

Musical Improvisation: Tool Tips

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Tool #1: Let Go of Inhibitions

The best way to reduce inhibitions around improvisation is to get familiar with it—and familiarity comes from practice. Encourage your student to practice improvising in private, devoid of interruptions and other’s ears. This will help them develop confidence in themselves.

Remind your student that when they are improvising they are putting their own musical identity in a song. Taking a “stab in the dark” can lead to some interesting discoveries, not to mention being a lot of fun. Exploration is the name of the game.

Are you teaching your students to learn to play or to play to learn? For many music teachers, teaching students to “learn to play” is what we do.  Actually, the two concepts of “learning to play” and “playing to learn” are intertwined. Once students can engage in some organic expression on the keyboard and value their own musical expressions, you can begin to introduce some structure to their improvisation.

Tool #2: Valuing Musical Expression

So much of music improvisation involves feeling and spontaneity. By encouraging students to develop and incorporate their personality in the music they play, you are helping them to leave their “musical stamp” on the world. Teaching musical improvisation isn’t about forming a structured learning technique, but finding a way to incorporating aural, theory, sight-reading, general knowledge, composition, and improvisation into lessons regularly.

improvise word in dictionary

For the student, the real beauty of musical improvisation is that there isn’t one right or wrong answer. Your musical expression is just that: your own expression. Your audience doesn’t know what’s coming, so your performance automatically is without error!

"You could play a bum note, of course, that doesn’t fit the context. But remember that every “wrong” note is only one step away from a “right” note, and by practicing different improvisational exercises and having a good understanding of various chord progressions, you can drastically reduce the chances of this happening, and learning to recover when it does."

Making Music Magazine

Tool #3: Using What You Know

Here’s where you can start introducing some of the rules of the improv game.  

Start simple.

how to teach music improvisation

Pick a few scales or arpeggios and have your student begin to embellish them, adding some additional notes here and there, figuring out what sounds good to them. There’s no right or wrong method, encourage them to just have fun!

Next, encourage your student to memorize some already-made phrases and licks from other musicians, and apply them in another piece of music. Don’t miss this step; it is important in developing the ability to fit phrases into music. Next, they should make small changes to those same phrases, integrating their own ideas. In time, your student will start creating their own phrases from scratch, without having to rely on someone else’s work.

Putting It All Together

Engaging students in the process of “playing” with materials through learning activities can help them learn how to improvise. Musical problem-solving involves helping them listen and interpret sounds they are creating and weighing musical choices and practice/performance strategies.

circle of fifths for musical improvisation

Knowledge of basic music theory is essential for teaching students to use their musical problem-solving skills. Do you have the Circle of Fifths hanging around your studio? Consider breaking it out to students about harmony and chord progressions. Teaching students about the primary triads (I, IV, V) sets them up to understand the most common chordal movements in almost any piece of music. Using these three chords, students can start composing music and recognizing harmonies in their repertoire pieces.

Some other ideas for getting the musical improvisational juices flowing during lessons:

  1. Call and Response - One person plays a bar of music, starting simple, and the other student(s) repeats the measure, matching dynamics and style as closely as possible.  
  2. Explore Emotions - Help your student understand the importance of playing from the heart. Think about the emotions conveyed with certain chords/sounds. Then have your student(s) play a chord, note, or series of notes to convey that emotion. How do different note lengths and rhythms affect that emotion?  

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Having your students play the repetition game during their practice will help improve their ability to listen and create something new on their own.  

Assignment ideas:

  • Repeat small sections of the melody over and over
  • Play a bar, altering the note order as they repeat it
  • Repeat the same measure, changing the note values each time
  • Take the melody and transpose the bars to create a new melody

The art of creating music on the spot and without preparation (improvisation) involves practice on the student’s part. As teachers, we can encourage and facilitate the development of improvisers in our studio, ultimately helping them to put their musical stamp on the world. All it takes is a little confidence, trust, and musical problem-solving.


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