Let me start by asking, do you improvise? If you don’t and I ask you to, it will be very daunting, won’t it? You might freeze up and your limbs might start shaking. Why is it so? Think about it!
Improvising (or teaching improvisation) is nothing to be scared of!
If I strike up a conversation with you right now. Would that scare you? Would you not know how to respond? Absolutely not! That is a form of improvisation you’re doing, isn’t it? Okay, you might say that’s different. Let me give you another example. If I start talking about an imaginary tree that is in front of us and I tell you that I’ve seen this tree grow up with me because it was planted when I was just a little child. You may respond by telling me that you used to notice this tree every summer when you visited your aunt who lives two houses down and we struck up a conversation about this.
Does that still sound difficult? No, right?
Musical Improv is just like that. The only difference is that we are using sounds that our instrument creates instead of words.
For the last few years, I’ve been incorporating teaching improvisation in my classes almost every day, starting with beginners. In fact, It is the easiest place to start. The most amazing thing that came out of it is that the majority of those students move forward to composing their music and beautiful pieces that is.
Improvisation mixes with their personality and develops into well-thought-out compositions uniquely for each student. One of my students has created tracks that sound like a background score for a superhero movie, another has created a song about something that’s happened in her life, and another worked on a lyrical piece based on a given theme. They are all so vastly different from each other.
How are they able to do it? Again it all boils down to the same thing. They are not fearful!
They are not upset when the sounds are not to their liking in one go. Something we as readers take to heart.
The fact is that any new concept – whether it is aural, theoretical or technical, can be learned best through improvisation or rather some improv games! Let’s see this with some examples
Teaching an Aural Concept through Improvisation
Concept: Recognizing the Time Signature
Constrain your students to a set of notes on their instrument, say A – B – C – D – E. Now tell them to use ONLY these notes and play as if they were playing in a particular time signature (you can mention the time signature you want them to explore). If you want you can give them more instructions – for example, you can ask them to start on the E and end on the A. Now their whole concentration will be on ensuring that their music flows as if they are in a particular time signature and everything else will fit automatically. What are they doing?
They are Improvising!
In doing so, they have learned the concept using their whole mind. Now when they listen to any piece of music, they are more likely to understand the difference between various time signatures and recognize them aurally. They are not just listening, but also feeling the concept in their body.
Teaching a Theoretical Concept through Improvisation
Concept: Note Values
You have just taught your students note-values: a crotchet, minim and semibreve. Or for those who prefer, quarter notes, half notes and whole notes. At this stage, the chances are that their keyboard knowledge is not too strong, because this is a very early concept. You can give them a simpler constraint of notes-whatever applies to your instrument. Say you teach Guitar, you can ask them to play all open strings. Or if you teach the piano, you may ask them to play only the black keys.
Now ask them to improvise 16 – bars. 4 bars of 4-count notes, 4 bars of 2-count notes, 4 bars of 1-count notes and 4 bars of 4-count notes. Now, remember, this is just an example, you can spin this any way you want!
Before you know it, your students are improvising!
If this seems too difficult, you could also keep flashcards of various types of notes and put the flash card in front of them. Whatever flashcard you’re showing, that’s the value of the notes they must play. When you change the flashcard, the note value changes as well.
Not only can you teach any concept through improvisation, but there is also no end to creativity and how you incorporate a concept into improvisation.
Teaching a Technical Concept through Improvisation
How to play a slur is different for different instruments. Of course, as with all concepts above, we demonstrate and teach a concept and then practice it through improvisation. More often than not, we as teachers teach about slurs when they come into the music that the student is playing and the slur is marked in their score. The problem you might face with that is, that while they are trying to incorporate that slur in their playing, they also have to worry about all these other things like pitch, note values, and dynamics – they are multitasking! As a result, they are overwhelmed.
Instead, you could introduce slurs to your students before they ever face it in their sheet music and ask them to play on their instrument using 4-note slurs. This is quite interesting! Now all they are concentrating on is the slur.
Improvisation makes everything easy to learn!
Now when they do encounter it in their sheet music, it will be super easy for your students to incorporate it into the music they are playing.
Improvisation is for our ears what reading is for our eyes. When we sight read a piece of music, we read in advance and when we improvise a piece of music, we hear in advance. Of course, if you’re a good sight reader, you will read and hear in anticipation of your playing. If we put it like that, what seems more difficult, reading or improvising?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing one or the other, all I’m saying is that improvisation is simple and fun. It is not something to be scared of. The only thing is practice.
Just as we practice reading music, we must also practice improvising music to get better at it.