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Improvisation

for classical musicians

This section offers a range of different activities taken from my own experience in learning how to improvise. I've made three different sections -

You're welcome to explore any of these sections, choosing exercises and projects which appeal. If you have difficulties or questions about any of these, please contact me. All of these sections assume the student is technically fluent and musically experienced. Novice then refers to being new to improvising, rather than an instrumental beginner. Intermediate and advanced introduce models of improvising taken from classical repertoire, particularly historical styles of the 16th-18th century.

My approach to teaching is based on my own experience of learning to improvise, and my study of cognitive psychology. This means that I view the learning process not only in terms of skill development, but also emotional and cognitive development. My own experience in learning to improvise in the Baroque style, forms the basis of a PhD thesis: "Learning to improvise as a Western classical musician: a psychological self-study" undertaken as The University of Sheffield.

Basic principles:

  • Each individual requires a different learning path. Improvising is closely tied to a person’s musical goals and motivations, their skills and experience. This gives each person a unique way of perceiving music, just as it gives them a unique way of perceiving the world. Taking the student’s own needs as a starting point, I use my experience and knowledge of musical structure to provide support for existing skills, but also to challenge and stimulate further experimentation and creativity.
  • Create first, analyse afterwards! It's very important to keep moving when we start to improvise and learn through action. Finding this freedom to act without hesitation can sometimes be difficult, particularly when improvising within an historical style or idiom. For this reason I try to match the constraints (the rules or instructions of stylistic improvisation) to the abilities of the students, facilitating 'flow' states even in novice learners.
  • Facilitating experimentation. Teaching improvisation is not about correcting errors but facilitating creative experimentation. I try to use language which always reflects these ideals. It's more useful to discover all the possibilities of action, i.e.,: "you can do this" .. "or this, if you like" rather than correcting errors. Facilitating experimentation allows the student to take ownership over the music and to feel autonomous as a creative artist.
  • Improvising on classical models. Modelling improvisation on particular styles and genres of music requires a different approach from free experimentation. To emulate a style, the rules and constraints of that style must be absorbed, but in a way that does not inhibit creativity and imaginative experimentation. Classical musicians (trained as interpretive performers) often think that every detail of a score is important and this makes it difficult for them to let go and try things out. In addition, the conceptual perspectives of the improviser - who sees a musical score in terms of underlying creative principles rather than excessive detail - are lacking. Both of these problems, the emotional and the cognitive, must often be explicitly addressed before classically-trained musicians feel comfortable improvising.

The following text is an extract taken from a recent article (in print) and explains something of my own experience in acquiring the knowledge and perspectives of an improviser:

Looking back, the most important things I learnt about improvising came from the actual experience of doing, and for this reason I urge all would-be improvisers to engage in the task, to mobilise their own improvisational skills. Although my learning path can be seen to correspond to general theories of skill learning (e.g. Schneider & Fisk, 1982) in that what was first effortful and calculated became gradually automatic, I did not learn by trying to follow a theoretically prescribed path, nor did I find such theories provided me with the necessary information about what to do. Instead, my learning came from first trying in a general way to improvise and then taking control of my learning, for example by devising strategies such as writing out score templates which focused my attention in a more productive way. Mobilising one’s improvising in this way (I discovered), leads to important insights such as I have described in which I began to see ‘behind the score’ to the constructive principles on which the music was built. In summary I’d like to return to my opening research question concerning what kind of knowledge I gained which I now use to improvise. This knowledge I would divide into three parts: (i) theoretical (the rules, conscious strategies, written exercises and research I use to improvise); (ii) embodied (my physical sensations, the coordination between my fingers and imagination, my intuitive responses which emerge in the moment of improvising); and (iii) agentic (involving my readiness to take ownership of the music, to take musical decisions without hesitation, and communicate expressively through improvising).

Extract from: Mobilising improvisation skills in classically-trained musicians. Author, Jonathan Ayerst

Book chapter (in press)

In, Sound Teaching: A research-informed approach to vocal and instrumental music (Henrique Meissner, Renee Timmers, Stephanie Pitts, Eds.). Taylor & Francis/Routledge.