for classical musicians

Individual exercises

1. Pentatonic scales. An improvisation combining three different pentatonic scales. Follow this link for full instructions

2. Alternating hands. An improvisation which uses multi-track recording. (You can also use the recording function on a digital piano). Full instructions

3. Black and white notes. A simple idea for an improvisation, switching between the black and white notes of the piano keyboard.

4. Trill improvisation. This improvisation is built around a technical exercise in trills and tremolos.

Group activities

These exercises came out of my experience teaching improvisation to secondary-level music students at the Academia de Música de Espinho, Portugl. from 2008-10.

1. Warm-up

Long, sustained notes are passed around the group focusing on a beautiful quality of tone. Each student chooses their own pitch though the dynamic is P – PP, forming a link in a musical chain.

Attention can be directed towards the silence in the room, to make a conscious dialogue between sound and silence.

After a while suggestions such as tremolandi, harmonics, audible breaths through wind instruments help to develop the exercise.

One of the students can be asked to direct the other musicians, adjusting the tempo, giving dynamic and expressive indications, controlling the number of musicians playing at any one time, etc.

2. A musical ‘conversation’

              This begins with an improvised spoken conversation. For example, two people talk together, with one trying to borrow money from the other. The first is insistent; the other is strong in refusing. While they talk they notice the pitch and inflection of their spoken words. After the spoken conversation, they repeat the exercise but using music rather than words, trying to copy as closely as possible the inflections and pace of the spoken conversation.

              This exercise can also be done as a ‘Fugue’, between three or four people. They should work out and agree to use a common subject (theme) and answer (counter-subject), then begin the conversation. Each students enters in turn, stating the subject in a solo fashion before switching to the answer as the next person joins; after this they adopt an accompanying role, improvising their material. As much imitation as possible amongst the players should be encouraged. The whole exercise can be practised as speech and as music.

3. Using graphic Scores:

Each student draws a shape or simple design on a blank sheet of paper, (at this stage the simpler the better!) after which the shape is interpreted as music. A little experimenting will show which designs work well in inspiring a good phrase and these can be used as examples.

Once a few simple phrases have been established and the papers exchanged around, various tempo changes can be used turning the design from being a phrase into several phrases and by degrees even into an entire piece. To assist this process and explain the different tempos, the tutor may need to run a pencil over the shape while the student is playing.

Different ways of interpreting the graphic can be discussed, with extra parts being added i.e. dashes in the bass or light flourishes above to form a descant. Basically, the exercise is about interpreting sounds as graphic shapes, and vice-versa.

Graphics can be used to structure a longer piece of music. Visualising musical texture in this way helps students to make musical decisions and develop their creativity.

4. Creating scales:

              Another composition-based approach to improvising. Scales can be freely designed or used to model a particular style or genre, i.e., modal scales can be used to make medieval style improvisations

On a piece of manuscript paper each student creates an arrangement of 8 tones and semitones within an octave range.

The resulting scale can be used immediately as the foundation for improvised melodies, duos, trios and group work.

Each player should stick to their own notes in their individual scale and, once a tempo or rhythm has been decided upon, it can be seen that a great amount of music can be created.

Different scales can be combined to create polytonal improvisations.

5. Rhythmic studies:

              Many options can be used to develop a rhythmic study. It’s rewarding to focus just on the rhythmic element of music, developing patterns of rhythm regardless of melodic or harmonic considerations. Dance movements such as gavotte, minuet, mazurka, march, scherzo, waltz etc. can also be explored. Although many dances have similar compound or duple time-signatures, each dance has a distinctive rhythmic pattern and character.

4. Accompanying films:

              If a projector is available, films can be used for improvisation exercises. Experimenting with music to accompany silent film is an exciting activity in the classroom, and helps to divert attention away from wrong notes and other critical feedback. Imaginative animation films, action sequences or highly atmospheric scenes often inspire contemporary, atonal textures which some students are reluctant to explore without the visual context. Extended instrumental techniques can be introduced alongside film accompaniment:

on string instruments this can be moving the bow on the wood or body of a violin; working on different bow strokes in different parts of the bow such as tremolandi, whole-hair or half-hair; col legno, sul ponticello, and sul tasto; pizzicato at different tempi; harmonics on all strings, even knocking, clapping whispering can be used so long as it remains clear and organised!

on woodwind and brass instruments key clicks are possible; audible breathes or speaking through the instrument; exploring extreme dynamics (particularly towards silence).

in the piano a number of effects can be used, (though great care should be taken not to touch the dampers as these are very delicate and easily damaged). Knocking on the wood, metal, strings etc. with or without the sostenuto pedal; plucking the strings with or without a plectrum; holding the sostenuto pedal open while specific notes are played over the piano strings by other instruments: this is a most absorbing effect (n.b. Berio 'Sequenza' for trumpet) and provides a practical demonstration of sound frequencies and acoustics.

5.Solos and accompanying:

               An exercise aimed at developing chamber-music skills

firstly a tutti playing session is started from a common rhythm i.e. a waltz or march etc. themes are suggested and the players settle down to improvising together... now, in response to a given signal a player is told to create a solo, taking the lead and setting a dynamic level for others to follow, while another is signalled to accompany the solo (listening directly, adjusting their own dynamic, finding a suitable figure to compliment the soloist etc.

this exercise is useful for identifying what actions make a 'solo' and what makes an 'accompaniment' within a particular musical context and texture; then, while playing, to be able to switch quickly from one to the other.

a student can be asked to direct the group, giving the instruction of solo or accompaniment.

As in all the exercises, one can discuss and reflect on the experience afterwards. This was one of the few exercises where I ask students to comment on each other's efforts - whether the soloist had stood out enough, or if the accompanist had supported the soloist sufficiently. If the different roles are still unclear then speech can be used, or even standing up or sitting down as this helps to define what is going on.