2012-13 Retrospective
Improvisation: Galaxy Unfulfilled

Like a horse and rider, the piano keys and I galloped briskly along keeping pace with the director and choir. We bumped over obstacles as we sightread a new jazz piece to consider for the next concert, but that’s par for the course. Upon one particular page turn though, this rider slammed the horse to a stop before going over a cliff. The written music stopped and the simple words “ad lib” appeared, along with several measures of a blank galaxy staring at me, just waiting to be explored. The words “ad lib” literally mean “to improvise” or in other words, “make up something here.” My music education had not prepared me for this cliff. I had been trained to read and interpret music as it appeared on the page. This particular day I was faced with a situation in which I felt completely helpless, not to mention humiliated, despite twelve years of training and my parents’ long-term investment into private music lessons. So why was I now unprepared to venture into this galactic “improvisational” moment?

Up to this point, I had been taught by three well-trained, private music teachers with years of experience. They didn’t know any better. To their credit, they taught me according to how they had been taught, carrying on the traditions of typical musical pedagogy (the science of teaching music) including music theory, technique and standard classic repertoire. Occasionally I had heard of a rare species of people who played completely by ear, able to improvise freely over the keys, making the piano sing with their voice. Oh, how I envied them! But my ear did not cooperate in the same instinctive way so I became dependent upon my eyes reading the written music score and my fingers translating it onto the keys. Without the written page, I was lost. Thus, the horse and rider experience in my teen years catapulted me into new thinking about my music education and the lack of creativity within.

Another educator, Dr. Martha Baker-Jordan, describes a similar scenario in which concert pianists are at an informal affair and someone requests a rendition of “Happy Birthday” on the piano. Surprisingly, many were unable to do this on the spot and eventually Baker-Jordan was found and thus the need was met. Having devoted much of her life to the study of music pedagogy, she has gathered information to determine her best suggestions for becoming a well-rounded music educator. She integrated all this advice into a book entitled, Practical Piano Pedagogy. Within this book is a chapter called “The Black Hole,” which pinpoints the missing link in many piano studios. She explains the problem by saying:

There seems to be a huge void in the universe of our classical piano training and concertizing that I call the ‘Black Hole of Piano Teaching and Performance.’ The gravitational pull of this black hole is so strong that the functional keyboard skills of harmonizing, transposing and improvising (all of which can include reading chord symbols) are sucked out of our world into oblivion. Concert pianists, studio teachers, even piano and pedagogy professors, all are affected, and many go through life without ever acquiring these skills. (242-243)

Evidently, I am not alone. I have witnessed the “deer in the headlights” look on many teachers I have met in various circles, social or educational, over the years at the slightest mention of improvisation. Ironically, as frightening as this black hole is, it also seems to be the earnest longing of so many adults – to just sit and create music for their own enjoyment. Unfortunately, many only remember one or two songs from years of lessons and though they are proud of those few accomplishments, that is the limit of their musicianship.

If a parent is willing to invest in private lessons to develop their child’s musicality, shouldn’t they expect their child to have opportunities to explore the creative, imaginative side of music through improvisation, along with learning to read and perform written music? Likewise, shouldn’t the public school music curriculum allow for a window of time devoted to musically creative opportunities? Before exploring the repercussions of this, we need to more fully understand the meaning of improvisation. According to The Encyclopedia of Music, the simplest definition of the word is “the performer’s invention on the spur of the moment” (253). It also explains two different kinds of improvisation: the first is often used by jazz players, making up melodies over a given harmonic structure. The second is more complex in that the musician “plans a form” in which a “theme” is able to work into (253-254). If the improviser has a base knowledge of harmony and a good ear, his imagination can reach for the stars. But I firmly believe improvisation should not be limited to these two different kinds. If someone has no previous music training and is just beginning lessons, it may be as simple as playing on black or white notes to create their own unique “sound” for experimentation. It can also lead to discovery, self-expression or the beginnings of a composition to call their own, with or without a harmonic backdrop provided by a teacher, as will be explained later.

Improvisation is not a new concept in the music arena. It has always held a place of importance in history. Many of the greatest composers including Mozart and Beethoven were known for their improvisations and a keyboardist of the Baroque period was expected to improvise over a figured bass. Opera singers, organists and the earliest church choirs also had a history of practicing it in order to embellish their performances. Most often, in today’s culture, Americans tend to regard improvisation as strictly associated with jazz. True enough, it was a vital part of our jazz history and continues to be used and studied within this category. In Duke Ellington’s published essay “Swing Is My Beat!,” written in 1944 and quoted in Music in the USA,improvisation sounds as easy as eating apple pie when described in this setting: “I might just sit down at the piano and start composing a little melody, telling a story about it at the same time to give the mood of the piece. I’ll play eight bars, talk a bit, then play another eight and soon the melody is finished. Then the boys go to work on it, improvising, adding a phrase here and there” (535). This is how jazz played out. Improvisation led to compositions but frequently there was room within the composition to freely improvise, giving jazz a spontaneity and spice unlike any other genre. This early twentieth century era produced many of our country’s most well-known musicians and beloved songs but it should not be a category in which to box improvisation in.

So if improvisation can be practiced by the novice or the experienced musician, why has it evidently been missed or avoided in many musicians’ training, leading to this major rush of fear in so many adults? This is not to say that all teachers train the same way, for there are a few who encourage such practices. Those that come from a background of playing jazz or had instructors who gave them opportunity to “play around” with notes are obviously more comfortable teaching it, but this is not the norm. One of my childhood friends grew up with a teacher so strict that her knuckles were slapped with a ruler if she played an incorrect note. Her story is not alone and I experienced a similar fear if I played the music in any way but what the composer (interpreted by my teacher) intended for my lessons. There was no room for personal interpretation, improvisation, or “playing around” on the keys and unfortunately, there were few smiles of enjoyment as well.

In answer to the question of what causes this “fear factor” amongst current day teachers, Forrest Kinney, creator of the “Pattern Play” piano instructional books responds:

The problem is at its worst with people who have learned to read because they have a notion of what they “should” sound like. It is very difficult to get many experienced classical musicians to even try to step “off the page.” And yes, this is because we have generations of people teaching people to read [music] BEFORE they learn to “speak.” We need to teach people to improvise in the first lesson and then there is no fear. (Kinney)

He compares it to childhood and how from little babes, we are taught to speak words first and eventually read written words on paper. Likewise, a piano student should be taught to play or “speak” music first, to experience the touch, listening to their sounds and reacting intuitively, gradually working into note-reading. This develops more of a kinship between the student and their instrument, allowing them freedom to express themselves however they wish from the beginning.

It seems the typical approach in teaching private music lessons in the second half of the twentieth century included an emphasis on reading standard repertoire and performance techniques, otherwise known as traditional music pedagogy. Considering this alongside Forrest Kinney’s thoughts, I wonder what happened to the message James Mursell presents to the listening audience of his book entitled, Music Education: Principles and Programs, written in the 1950s? Mursell reminds music teachers that their main “aim” is to provide people a means of pleasure; something they can enjoy here and now as well as the rest of their lives. He outlines expectations for both teachers and students at the elementary school level, reminding those in charge of the importance to be a “creative teacher,” keeping the spirit of enthusiasm for the art alive. We often think those “gifted” few are the only ones capable of being creative geniuses. But he dares to differ in explaining how each of us is capable of discovering something new in ourselves, even in our responses to music when he says, “They are creative responses because from them comes something new. So all creative response is discovery, and all discovery is creative response” (330). He further illustrates his point by saying, “The discovery of an unsuspected ability in oneself is a creative experience. A child whom you may have begun to consider unmusical suddenly finds that he can sing a descant part against a melody. To be sure, the descant may consist of no more than one or two notes. But he can do it! Finding this out is a creative act” (330). Though Mursell does not use the word “improvise” in his book, he does give much attention to the topic of creative teaching, (which could easily include improvisation) and goes so far as to say it is a “requirement” for promoting musical growth (329). I wholeheartedly agree that the most magical moments of greatest joy in my studio have been when the student “discovers” something about their music that comes from within. As a teacher, I can be the source and giver of musical opportunities, I can show them by example and I can encourage but I cannot discover their creativity for them. Once found, it is a rich and rewarding treasure to claim all their own.

Though it seems reasonable for improvisation to be introduced as a creative tool to a musician at any level, educators may feel hard-pressed to implement it. Pianist and elementary music teacher Julie K. Scott explains why in her article entitled, “Me? Teach Improvisation to Children?”: the demands of a public school music teacher include teaching students how to sing in tune, read music, play various instruments and prepare for PTA programs. Their time is hard pressed to allow for anything else. Creativity and improvisation may end up low on the priority list. The other factor for causing an educator to hesitate teaching how to do this is that they may never have been formally trained themselves or trained in how to teach such creativity. She asks if it is worth the effort and “if so, where do we begin?” (par. 5). After suffering an embarrassing “horse and rider” experience similar to mine, her eyes were opened to her lack of training in this area. She then set out to find a program on her own that taught her how to improvise in order to fill in this “black hole” and prevent this from happening in her students’ lives. How many educators would go so far to overcome their personal fear by determining to find solutions to help overcome their fear? Unfortunately, many just avoid the subject completely and stick with what is comfortable.

Likewise, valuable private piano lesson time is eaten up quickly if an instructor is trying to include all major elements of pedagogy including technique, theory and standard repertoire. To further her argument why improvisation is a valuable training tool, Ms. Scott lists five benefits, including how it can:

  1. allow students to be musically creative and musically expressive,
  2. improve their technical skills, aural skills and music-reading ability,
  3. provide links to culture and tradition,
  4. provide opportunities for musical social interaction and
  5. give students opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of musical concepts and skills. (Scott par. 5)

If this is truly the case, then improvisation is a necessary and beneficial asset to music education, richly enhancing the other, more commonly taught skills listed above. Perhaps our focus as a whole needs to be shifted and an expectation of practicing creativity needs to be brought to the forefront so the musician can be “wholly” shaped from the beginning, making music a more personal exploration, one that can be taken out of the studio to be worked and reshaped the rest of their lives into a treasured gem to call their own.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop by David Lanz, Grammy-nominated composer and world-renowned pianist/performer, who encouraged his participants to explore creativity by trying improvisation at home while making our own arrangements of favorite pop songs. When asking him why he thought improvisation could help every musician, he responded: “Improvisation is a way for the musician to reveal his soul and express what is inside of him or her. It is a way to free up the musical intellect and allow the muse to speak directly through the musician…without reading and/or relying on someone else’s work to express your feelings” (Lanz). In response to the same question, Melody Bober, a mainstream composer/teacher/clinician answers, “[Improvisation] allows everyone a certain measure of creativity; it gives everyone a chance to understand the creativity of others as they learn other composers’ music; teaching the rudiments of chord charts expands sightreading skills greatly; provides an opportunity to expand their ear; enhances expression, personalizes; may lead to composition” (Bober). Both agree that improvisation does things to the musician that cannot be taught otherwise, including self-expression and freedom of thought. There are too many benefits to quickly dismiss it from musical training and cast it aside as only for the jazz musician or those who have a good ear and a natural “feel” for it.

In order to avoid creating a “black hole” in training current young musicians, educators need to know the options available today and that they can enjoy learning improvisation right along with their students. Ms. Scott referred to the Orff Schulwerk training as her personal learning method but also mentioned Kratus, who proposed that improvisation be divided into seven sequential levels. Ms. Bober suggests finding method books, more readily available in the market now, that include improvisation as part of the whole learning experience. Mr. Lanz suggests starting with “simple input, like just play […] the black notes (a natural pentatonic scale) so you really can’t play a wrong note, or playing with a “C” pedal tone in the bass and playing any single or group of white notes—these two ways can start most students off on their own!” (Lanz). No matter what method is used, the important point is the starting point. Like putting a crayon in a child’s hand to create their own unique visual masterpiece, let their fingers play the keys, creating their own aural musical masterpiece. When you might be tempted to tell your child to “stop fooling around” on the piano, listen closer. They may be speaking from their heart through their music.

Before we limit the introduction of improvisation to the younger crowd, we must consider those who have already been trained without the opportunity to find their creative voice. Specifically for pedagogy instructors and students, Dr. Martha Baker-Jordan, mentioned at the beginning of this essay, has two suggestions for plugging the “black hole” of classical piano music. First, she recommends a required course that covers harmonizing, transposing and improvising at a level corresponding with their keyboard skills. Her experience has seen music educators take such a course only if required, not realizing it is a practical step in helping teach their future students to “play something they know,” which parents would like to hear as well. The second recommendation is to teach these potential music teachers “how to teach” these skills to their future students (244). I believe her experience of observing students has given her a credible link to discovering a problem that filters down to many students over time. Improvisation may be developed as far as a student wishes, but the basics are learnable and teachable, helping to fill in this gap of the vast unknown to a waiting audience of music appreciators and partakers.

The most effective way of incorporating improvisation into piano instruction that I have personally found is through Forrest and Akiko Kinney’s “Pattern Play” books. They have developed an easy to use format for teachers and students that begins with a new improvisational idea on nearly every page. This idea, known as a “pattern,” is typically easy to memorize consisting of a short sequence of chords/notes and rhythm that is to be played repetitively on the lower half of the piano by the teacher while the student gets to play music of their choice on the top half of the piano within a few guidelines. There are suggested ideas printed should the teacher or student feel overwhelmed by this new open galaxy of creativity. Unlike most piano instruction books, though, Kinney suggests taking the patterns and expanding them, making them your “own,” using them as solo, duet or even trio piano creations. Through these simple little patterns, he paints musical pictures of thoughtful reflections, explosions of energy and various shades of emotion. He also introduces composer “styles,” such as Beethoven or Chopin, and takes you on travels into foreign lands such as Ireland and China. Some patterns lead you into past genres of music such as blues, boogie-woogie and ragtime (Pattern 10-11). Through the magic of improvisation, he explores musical settings using your fingertips and imagination as the telescope and lens.

All four leaders in the music industry that I inquired through personal interview responded when asked what has happened to them as a result of improvising. For Melody Bober, it led to a successful career creating compositions and arrangements played out in pedagogy and repertoire books for all ages. For David Lanz it led to universally acclaimed compositions, arrangements and performances as a soloist and with well-known bands heard around the world, as well as the simplest reward of “a great way to just experience the moments of life.” Robert Lundquist, a successful and distinguished vocal/piano instructor as well as composer responds: “It feeds my hunger for music and I can get lost in it endlessly. Free time and a tuned piano are exhilarating for the spirit and my musical soul!!” And finally, Forrest Kinney, having spent much of his adult life studying and writing about improvisation as well as performing in prestigious gatherings such as for Bill Gates says, “Often I will think deep thoughts, or feel strongly, or feel peaceful, or feel powerful—it all depends on the moment. And that is the power of improvisation–it is a revealing of what is in the moment, right now.” None of these leaders in the music industry would have been able to accomplish their feats without improvisation. Creative exploration was a necessary step to get to their next level of potential. Though not all young students will become such an accredited musician as those listed above, any outlet of personal creativity allows an expression of life, and a place to go to reflect inner thoughts and feelings that may otherwise feel trapped within.

On the contrary, the effects of not allowing children a window to discover their “genius” causes them to shut down their potential, believing they are not “capable” of creating something worthwhile, so why bother trying? It has been my observation that this attitude carries over from childhood into adulthood. It is sad to see many adults come to my studio for lessons, having already put limitations on their ability to create and explore more deeply the world of music. It takes time to break down their fears and destroy the barriers that have been built up unnecessarily. Fear of failure seems to be the largest barrier to overcome even though there may be no audience, no teacher to “fail” anymore, only themselves. Lundquist says adults are afraid of “1) the unknown and for many, composition and improvisation are unknowns, (2) being exposed as not knowledgeable and (3) not being able ‘to do it’, so therefore hide from it, and discourage their own students from exploring music” (Lundquist). There is a distinct issue of pride involved when a person has been trained to excel one-dimensionally but when pressed upon to create spontaneously, suffers humiliation because of lack of experience in this “black hole.” Despite the fact that we can become our biggest enemy, the potential for possible creativity remains in each of us and teachers must be determined to open that door for all, themselves included.

Clearly, the opportunity for students to practice improvisation opens doors for exploration into their imagination. The question is how to weave it into the current curriculum of the private and public spectrum so students of all degrees may experience it and use it to enhance, not deter from their performance skills. Though it takes perseverance to find help getting started, it is not impossible. The day of my “horse and rider” cliff experience was a turning point in my musical education. I determined, with the help of my parents, to find another teacher my senior year to fill in this black hole. My mother found me an elderly but spunky little man named Einar Moen, who happened to be her teacher years earlier, but also happened to be one of the last to ever play for the vaudeville shows at the Mt. Baker Theatre in Bellingham, Washington. I will forever be grateful. From the time he set his fingers to play, I was mesmerized. He was the first to teach me how to see beyond the page, to enter the musical galaxy, to let go of my inhibitions and just “play!”


Works Cited

Baker-Jordan, Dr. Martha. Practical Piano Pedagogy. Miami: Warner Bros. Publications, 2004. Print.

Bober, Melody. Personal Interview. 6 Nov. 2012. Email

Kinney, Akiko and Forrest Kinney. Pattern Play: Create Your Own Music, Melody, Volume II.North Bend, WA: Two Streams Press, 2007. Print.

Kinney, Forrest. Personal Interview. 16 Nov. 2012. Email

Lanz, David. Personal Interview. 6 Nov. 2012. Email

Lloyd, Norman, and Emanuel Winternitz. The Encyclopedia of Music. New York: Golden Press, 1968. Print.

Lundquist, Robert E. Personal Interview. 25 Nov. 2012. Email

Mursell, James L. Music Education: Principles and Programs. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Company, 1956. Print

Scott, Julie K. “Me? Teach Improvisation To Children?.” General Music Today. 20.2 (2007): 6-13. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. Print.

Tick, Judith. Music in the USA. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2008. Print.