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7 Improvisation Techniques For Music Educators

While there are students itching to write and perform they're own music, often complaining about why they have to play all this "old stuff," many music students unwittingly become slaves to the written composition. Their safety net is the structured, black-and-white notes on a page, and any variations or requests to improvise is met with an anxious, fearful face.

The sooner you allow students to uncover their improvisational selves, the more invested they will be in their musical ability - emanating directly from a deeper awareness of music fundamentals as a whole.

7 Ideas for Inspiring Improvisational Techniques in Music Students

The following tips and ideas will help you gently peel back existing layers of anxiety or fear in your students as they learn just how creative they can be - and how fun it is - to play with music. And, of course, any musician who can improvise is undeniably more prepared to bridge the gap between lapsed measures in the middle of a performance when an inevitable "mental blank" occurs.

1. Start 'em early

If students have formed a shameful history with "making mistakes," they have a more difficult time learning to relax and improvise. Music has already become a rigid landscape in which stepping outside defined boundaries results in "landing in the lava pit," so to speak. Thus the sooner you have them begin improvising, allowing them to play with music - learn what works and what doesn't, what notes blend and which don't - the more confident they become with improvisation as a whole.

2. Make improvisation a part of each rehearsal

Different instructors do this in different ways, so find what feels most comfortable for you. However, ideas might include letting students have 5 or 10-minutes to improvise after their warm-ups and before beginning rehearsal.

Certain students may even enjoy "performing" their improvisational themes for one another as a class or in small groups. Or, maybe you prefer to get to business first, and allow room for improvisation afterwards. If time is really tight, you might open up Improv Fridays, or some tradition like that, where a larger chunk of practice time is devoted to creative musical experimenting.

3. Imitate what you hear

Ear training is essential to musicianship, but we often take a microscopic view of what ear training really means - emphasizing solfege and pitch matching. In the world of improvisation, ear training moves off-the-page – asking students to recreate sounds they hear on a daily basis. Perhaps younger children recreate the sounds of a duck or a cow or the difference between a happy mother's voice and an angry one. As they mature, you may request them to listen to the sounds outside and play what they hear - be it the maintenance crew's lawn mower or the leaves in the tree, raindrops on a roof or the laughing children in the hallway.

Not only are these exercises fun and playful, they also help children to feel musical expression from the inside first, rather than working from the outside-in, as is often the case with sheet music.

4. Improvise in small groups

Shy students or students who strive constantly for "perfection" find it difficult to step out on a limb on their own. Just as chamber practice and performance provides "safety in numbers," improvising in groups cultivates a more fun, collaborative and inspired experience – particularly if you allow groups to compose a song over the course of a quarter, semester or year.

5. Learn a favorite solo by ear

This idea gives students a chance to work with a musical piece that inspires them. They can select any piece of music they love, and then work to recreate favorite solos by ear.

6. Play along with a new music

Since improvising requires an ear – a sense of where the music has been and where it is going – playing along with a new piece of music is a great way to improvise. This version of improvisation may also feel safer for students who are reticent to improvise alone for fear of making mistakes.

Playing along with a recorded piece allows students to improvise simultaneously as a class (bonus for instructors tight on time). Everyone can improvise how they want - matching a melody line or creating a new harmony - all of which broaden a musician's skill set.

7. Create music within a single key

Choose a particular key - the key of E or C# - and have students create a small composition or melody line within that key. This is a wonderful way to hone students' awareness of specific pitches and keys as they expand their knowledge. You can use this idea when a piece of current music is set in a particular key in order to build muscle and ear memory.

Improvisation makes music practice fun, and simultaneously creates more proficient and well-rounded musicians.

Violin being played