for classical musicians

Workshops in classical improvisation

Workshop templates in improvisation for classically-trained musicians

INSTRUCTOR: DR. Jonathan Ayerst


These workshops assist classically-trained musicians of all ages with no previous experience of improvisation. We live in a culture which usually trains musicians to faithfully interpret the works of others, these 'others' being the historical composers responsible for creating the celebrated masterpieces of the classical canon. As a result musicians are quickly alienated from creating their own music, and feel afraid and unable to improvise in a similar style to the works they interpret.

My approach to teaching is based in research and practice. As a performing improviser I draw on my own experience and studies to empathise and identify with students at all stages of learning. As a music psychologist I draw on many branches of research including cognitive psychology, ethnography, philosophy, cultural studies, and analytic musical theory to design a learning environment which can introduce students to the excitement and rewards of improvisation. I explicitly address the fears arising through the novelty of creating one's own music, setting exercises which balance the abilities of the individual to match clearly defined musical challenges. Using my own games and exercises which break down musical structure into many different elements, I show students how to recombine these elements into recognisable codes and languages similar to classical models and scores.

The aim of these workshops is thus to instigate a long-term transformation in students' knowledge and practice: through an immersive experience in improvising, students also gain in confidence, musical insight and creative agency through learning to manipulate musical structure and to redefine their role as a creative musician.


Workshop 1 (3 hours)

Overview: In this session students begin their experience in creating and organizing musical elements, using their imagination in response to constraints. They engage in critical reflection of classical music as a cultural practice and learn to challenge their role as solely interpretive musicians.


  • A discussion which explores the reasons why classical music is now a predominantly non-improvisatory cultural practice. 

    • Who improvises? Why don't more classical musicians improvise? What/who prevents improvisation? What occurred in the interim between Baroque musical practice and the present day?

  • Free improvisation through games and graphic scores. 

    • Firstly, each student in turn makes a small (1 minute) improvisation on the piano in response to an instruction, i.e. make a crescendo, use only the black notes, use two fingers, make clusters. No particular keyboard skills are necessary.

    • Secondly, we make graphic scores in small groups as a basis for improvising. These scores are created in response to illustrate contrasts i.e. large-small, Farm-Light; or a descriptive concept, i.e. large-small, safe- dangerous, the four seasons; or a narrative, such as 'journey to the North',  etc. 

  • Closing discussion in which students articulate, discuss, and share impressions of their initial experience in improvisation.

Learning objectives: to gain a new perspective on classical music as a cultural practice and a new perspective on one's creative role within his practice. To understand how to represent music graphically, using the graphic score to organize music over time. To separate and select elements of a musical texture, recombining these to describe a narrative or expressive concept.


Workshop 2 (3 hours)

Overview: This workshop builds on the techniques and creative freedoms gained in the previous session, extending these towards more defined classical styles.


  • Working from preparatory instructions students prepare group improvisations which replicate the following styles:

    • Medieval

    • Contemporary I/II/III

  • Each of these improvisations define constraints through which certain musical characteristics of the style can be identified. These constraints are notated using a mixture of musical notation, theory and graphics to create a template for improvisation.

  • At this stage the particular constraints of diatonic tonality (voice-leading principles which control dissonance and consonance) are introduced and explained. This leads to two more group improvisations in the following styles:

    • Renaissance

    • Baroque

Learning objectives: to understand how musical structure is not fixed but flexible, and capable of manipulation towards expressive ends. The students now have first-hand experience of recreating recognisable musical styles through identifying and selecting musical elements such as characteristic scales, rhythms, textures and then using these elements conceptually as a basis for improvising.


Workshop 3 (3 hours)

Overview: This workshop extends the techniques and creative freedoms gained in the previous session, to allow individuals to improvise solos using their own choice of scores as models.


  • Each member of the group submits a score as a model for improvisation. These scores are treated singly, in turn.

  • Within the group we examine each score and analyse all possible elements that one could use for improvising, for example: rhythm, melodic contour, harmony, timbre, texture, mood etc.

  • The student is then asked to improvise on a single element or a combination of several elements, with the aim of replicating some features of the original model, style or genre. This step is repeated several times using different elements. 

  • The effect of each combination and selection of musical elements is discussed with the student and with the group.


Learning objectives: to overcome interpretive (Werktreue) attitudes to a score by experiencing at firsthand the creative choices behind musical structure. By creating their own music the student understands that music is not fixed but flexible. The student learns to identify multiple musical elements, to select from these elements and to treat each element as a conceptual principle for improvising. Each of these principles allows for many different versions of a single idea; thus, in the same way, a score can be perceived as one version amongst many of similar conceptual ideas.