Learning to improvise is not often associated with learning an instrument. For most of us, improvisation is far from our minds as we studiously practice and learn an instrument. If our goal in learning music is to be the best musician, improvisation should be at the center of our work.
Great improvisers perform in the moment. They: 1) improvise within a context (tonality, meter, style), 2) interact with the music around them (surrounding parts, rhythm, harmony, musicians), 3) predict familiar and unfamiliar music, and 4) know a substantial amount of repertoire. Learning through improvisation establishes context, interaction, prediction, and breadth of repertoire allowing for authentic understanding of music and your instrument.
In my dissertation, Improvisation in the Collegiate Horn Studio, I found that learning to improvise was not a novelty but an essential part of learning. Improvising doesn’t need to be hard, intimidating, or fearful to start however it does require risk taking and some musicianship skills. For example, sing “Hot Cross Buns” out loud. Now, take a minute and change the tune to something similar but different. How’d that turn out? :-) Try again and then a few more times. Can you come up with a melody that is different but similar? If so, you improvised. In a similar way we can improvise rhythm of the tune. We can also improvise guide tone lines, which are notes that sound great with the chords in the tune. A simple children’s song that you’ve probably heard 100 times now becomes a part of your musicianship. I’ll never forget one of the questions on my theory entrance examination at graduate school asked me to notate “Happy Birthday” and I couldn’t do it. No one had asked me to think about something so simple yet something so familiar. At that point I was used to practicing 4-5 hours a day and had performed full-time professionally in an orchestra and yet I didn’t know how to notate “Happy Birthday.” Just last week, about 15 years later, someone called out to play “Happy Birthday” at the beginning of an opera rehearsal and I was the musician improvising and harmonizing, making the arrangement way cooler. :-)
We all have a lot of experience with improvising in language—it’s called speaking! The process in music learning should be similar to that in language. In other words, you should be constantly trying to “speak” or improvise in music learning. Your musical voice and ideas are unique to you and if developed well allow you to be your best musician. Happy improvising!
Author: Leslie Hart, Course Creator, EA School of Music