Learning to Improvise

September 8, 2012

While learning to improvise has long been a requisite technique for both jazz musicians and organists, renewed interest for the art in the classical tradition has resulted in some interesting new publications lately. The study of improvisation in a jazz style is well covered in the literature and we have numerous books that deal with this specific topic and jazz theory in general that are well worth a look, but we also have a few other books with unique approaches especially tailored to classical musicians. Here are a few examples.

Pattern Play


Akiko & Forrest Kinney’s Pattern Play Series is a progressive improvisation method for pianists published by Frederick Harris, the Toronto company that publishes the books of the Royal Conservatory of Music. In Pattern Play, short musical fragments called “patterns” are provided as a foundation on which the student can begin to improvise. For beginner students, the teacher can play the pattern; more advanced students can play the pattern in one hand while improvising with the other. Each “pattern” is complemented by a “vacation” (or several) that provides a musical alternative from the pattern to create more variety. Suggested variations on the pattern and vacation are also included. Students are instructed to use particular scales for their melodic improvisations.

There are six books in Pattern Play. A new series by the same authors, Chord Play, provides instructions to help student pianists learn to turn lead sheets into musical arrangements by improvising from chord changes. Presently there are three books in Chord Play.

Improvising String Quartets


Improvising String Quartets
The latest addition to our inventory of improvisation books is Improvising String Quartets by Alice Kay Kanack. This book is intended to help teachers inspire string students to develop musical creativity as a group. Based on the author’s theoretical framework called Creative Ability Development (developed in a series of books on improvisation of which this volume is a part), students are encouraged to enter into improvisation using a four-step process: Conscious work, Subconscious work, Inspiration, Theory.

Concious work is the creation of a musical problem in need of a solution, which is then worked over by the mind during Subconscious work. Inspiration is the first approach to a solution developed by the subconscious mind; a theory is then developed to formalize the solution.

Kanack’s book is filled with short pieces for improvisation that are built up of basic techniques such as Follow-the-leader, Cross-Imitation, or Ostinato. The short pieces function as training material to prepare for more elaborate improvisation. The method culminates with the “Romantic Quartets”; these are large-scale improvisations based on more discursive program.

While Kanack’s book is aimed primarily at the string quartet, a standardized instrumental ensemble, the techniques, materials and compositions are perfectly suited to other ensembles as well. Wind or brass quintets as well as varied ensembles have much to explore here. Singers interested in developing an instrumental sensibility will learn a great deal.


Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians


Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians
Musicians looking for creative starting points for improvisation may enjoy Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians by Jeffrey Agrell. This hefty tome includes hundreds of musical scenarios that encourage improvisation by limiting the creative decisions to specific parameters. Games are divided in different categories that focus attention on a single musical criterion: warm-ups, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, form, etc. Each game gives specific instructions to stimulate the creative mind. For example:

“Squiggle Quartet: Two-plus players. Players make quick, rapid squiggles of any sort on pieces of blank paper with pens, pencils, or colored markers. They immediately exchange pieces of paper and play the “piece” without discussion.”

While Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is not strictly a pedagogical book like some of the others listed here, the book is highly suitable for the classroom. It encourages students to think creatively about the possibilities of their instruments, to apply theory consciously in their improvising, and to shed the fear of wrong notes and imperfection.

Jeffrey Agrell also has a smaller book called Improv Games for One Player which is more portable than the larger compendium and suitable for solo practice.


From Sight to Sound


From Sight to Sound
Another book that also uses “games” as a pedagogical technique for improvisation is Nicole Brockmann’s From Sight to Sound: Improvisational Games for Classical Musicians. Brockmann’s approach uses examples from the classical repertoire as starting points for improvisational games. The book is intended not only to teach improvisation but to deepen students’ understanding of the classical repertoire:

“What I didn’t realize when I started the book is that while gaining the ability to improvise is valuable in itself, what’s even more valuable is what improvisation teaches you about understanding music. The things you learn through developing your improvisation skills change how you think about and interact with music.”

Thus, Brockmann’s book encourages improvisation in a classical style, meaning a tonal idiom. Unlike books intended to teach jazz improvisation (also a tonal idiom), Brockmann does not use lead-sheet notation, however the skill she aims to develop is the same: an intuitive sense of harmonic progression and the related feel for melodic tension.

Learning to improvise can be an exciting but daunting task for musicians, especially those trained to be wedded to scores. Learning the skill has many practical applications, not the least of which is a general holistic understanding of musical theory as it relates to style. It is well worth exploring and the books listed here may help. Good luck!

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