It’s hardly surprising that the mention improvisation sends a shiver down the spine of many a well-trained and competent musician. Common knowledge seems to imply that improvisation is something you can do – or you just can’t. That is, it’s something you are born with (or not). The issue may even be enough to divide musicians into two groups – improvisors and non-improvisors. This gets complicated because being ‘musical’ or not is also commonly understood as something you’re born with. What you end up with is feelings of inferiority and anxiety if you’re not an improvisor.
Let’s think about improvisation in a way that leaves the judgement and the feelings of inferiority or superiority out. If you think of it from the perspective of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory, improvisation is a skill, like any other, that needs exposure, and practice. Competence takes time. It’s no surprise that musicians who are excellent readers are often unable to improvise, and vice versa. It depends on what they have asked their brains and bodies to do during the 10,000 hours plus that they have spent on their craft. Your repeated actions establish the neural networks that will eventually lead to fluency, where a skill is so embedded that it hardly comes to consciousness when you practice it. Jazz musicians are pretty up there when it comes to nailing improvisation, but classical types – not so much.
Both Jazz and classical musicians might find it difficult if they find they have to teach improvisation. I suggest this is hard for classical musicians if they don’t actually have any experience, but Jazz musicians’ learning has often been unexplicit and if they have learned over many years in an organic way, they may be quite unable to explain what they are doing when they improvise.
The most exciting improvisation sessions I had with general music classes was on marimbas. There’s something about a marimba that invites you to make a noise. It is friendly instrument with notes that are big enough that they’re easy to find, and at a comfortable height to play (Get smaller children to stand on purpose-built boxes to lift them to the right playing height). If you’re wanting to do some improvisation with your classes, here are a few pointers to get started.
First, there are no wrong notes: The most important thing in an improvisation class is that there are no mistakes. Anything goes. It’s good to reduce the pressure by saying ‘Whatever you play will be gone as soon as you’ve played it, and then you’ll have another try.’
Because the notes are large and inviting, students can be given a selection of notes to play as a starting point. It’s fine to start with just 2 notes side by side, then you can work your way up to 3, 4, 5, etc. You can have huge fun with a very limited palette (Just listen to any pop song these days). If it helps the players, use a stick of chalk to mark the notes they can play. It rubs off very easily and gives learners a visual support.
Get warmed up and build confidence with call and answer games, alternating over 4 slow beats. A leader improvises for 4, the whole class responds for 4. Encourage the students to try something different each time, or if it feels good, try the same thing several times. Then go around the class, with ‘call’/ ‘answer’, alternating from one player to the next. There are lots of ways to mix this up, giving the students a chance to practice the same thing over and over, but give the feeling of newness that keeps everyone awake: Go one way in a circle, then go another; play in pairs, then in groups of 4; play one handed; play softly; play loudly, etc. As confidence grows, ask for volunteers to show off their chops. Keep it light hearted, this is meant to be fun. Laugh at your own feeble efforts, celebrate when students shine.
Repetition gives a sense of familiarity and safety. So, build a foundation with a repeating ostinato, or just two repeating chords. Keep it simple: Choose a limited range of notes to play. Modes sound cool and don’t necessarily beg to be resolved and the music can go on and on for ages. On the diatonic marimba in C, A minor or the aeolian mode is a good start. The harmonic structure can alternate between A minor and E minor, perhaps just one four beat bar each. Set up an interesting bassline to hold it all together. A bit of syncopation goes a long way. In the bass the first and fifth note of the chords will give you enough support (add 7ths of you like). With this harmony, an aeolian scale (A,B,C,D,E,F,G ) will be great to improvise over. The ‘home’ note is A, so start with a few notes, but include A every time. Or don’t – and see what that sounds like. If there is a pop song the students are all listening to that has a nice simple structure, use that as your framework.
These small steps are very do-able for general music classes. The most important thing is to create a positive ‘we can improvise!’ ethos. If you don’t have marimbas, all of these ideas could be used on other instruments. Keep it simple by limiting the notes, make it safe by creating a ‘there are no wrong notes’ atmosphere. Remind yourself that we learn by doing, and if we don’t do, we can’t learn. And have fun.