Improvisation in Ensemble Settings: Building Community, Creativity, and Understanding

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” – Victor Hugo

Schools have a problem with power. We live in a society that values some perspectives over others. It honors the rich over the poor. The white skin over the darker skin. The men over the women. The powerful over the voiceless.

As educators, we are beginning to push over this barrier. Though my district is certainly more focused on the academic achievement benefits of student discourse and engagement, I’m far more interested in the potential of moving education into a more justice-oriented and empowering system for young people.

This is done by providing students with opportunities to use their voice in the classroom. Not only to discuss teacher-chosen content and build understanding of curriculum, but to engage students in constructive conversations about the nature of their learning. To help them build better understandings of the world around them and begin to see their part in creating the future!

Music educators have traditionally been in the top-down, teacher-centered role. While I honor and believe that is a useful model for music education, I have been looking for ways to empower and engage my students in more authentic and engaging musical practices.

Some background: I am in my third year of teaching at an urban school with many students who experience poverty and who are culturally and linguistically diverse. These students do not have strong cultural ties to Western Art Music or the cultural traditions related to it. They do however, bring interesting perspectives to the classroom and diverse backgrounds from all around the world! If you teach in a program that regularly competes at the state level, is equipped with private-lesson teachers and assistant directors, with booster clubs, trips, and master-classes, then this might not be for you. I fully understand my context as a teacher of traditionally under-served students. I love it! It’s a unique challenge that I am only just beginning to understand.

So, with that said, I’d like to discuss one way to democratize the world of music education in traditional performing ensembles through the use of improvisation. Improvisation is the act of creating music spontaneously with or without the use of supports such as rhythms, harmonic changes, or melodic plans. In my class this has looked like a few different things.

Improvisational Music for Technical Ability

After rehearsing the Eb major scale, students in Intermediate band are encouraged to explore and refine their understanding of the scale through improvisation activities. One day at the start of class, the ensemble plays the Eb major scale once and then goes around the class, with each student improvising a short 3-5 second musical idea in the key. The next day they repeat the exercise, with the rest of the class holding a simple tonic drone under the improvisation. Students are encouraged to listen to the way their note choices relate to the drone.

This first type of improvisation allows students to explore a familiar concept in instrumental music classrooms – scales – through a more creative improvisational format. Different supports / restrictions for improvisation can be added to explore other musical concepts (dynamics, harmony, rhythms, etc.).

When designing improvisation activities for your classroom to build technical ability consider the following ideas and questions to get yourself started!

  1. What musical concept or idea do you want to strengthen in your students?
  2. What skills or concepts have you taught recently that your students need to practice or deepen?
  3. What are you hearing or not hearing in your ensemble performance that you would like to improve? Could you challenge your students to improvise dynamics together? Practice listening? Intonation in a scale? Chromaticism? Try designing an improvisation experience that will allow them to explore the concept!

Improvisational Music for Musicianship and Creativity

Another day, students gather in a circle instead of the typical ensemble set-up. After a short discussion of musical ideas (What images do we want to create? What kind of musical sounds might create that sound?), students engage in a collective free improvisation. After this exercise is repeated two or three times, students have a longer conversation through the use of a talking circle about how the music they created effectively or ineffectively communicated the ideas they discussed at the start of class.

The second is more focused on the creative aspects of music-making. Students engage in a creative process in which they generate and test musical ideas to communicate a musical idea. This can be done in a large ensemble process or in smaller groups. By providing students opportunities to be creative through free improvisation, students express themselves through their instruments in ways that they take back to their ensemble literature.

These musicianship improvisations might incorporate thematic material from ensemble music. Thematic could mean melodic material or conceptual ideas in the music. For instance, an ensemble rehearsing Moscow, 1941 by Brian Balmages might discuss the folk text that accompanies the traditional theme and choose additional melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic material that might communicate that theme. This encourages students to consider the compositional choices from the perspective of a fellow creator and encourages them to make more informed expressive choices in their playing.

Planning Improvisational Events

I think most music teachers have about the same approach to improvisation and composition in the classroom. We understand their importance in building musical understanding and creativity, but we prioritize concerts, contests, festivals, and performance of ensemble repertoire: usually for good reasons! At the end of the quarter, we may reflect on our concert preparation process and breath a sigh of relief that students  A) put on a successful musical performance and B) learned something along the way. We may notice Improvisation and Composition down there at the bottom of the priority list and think, “Maybe fourth quarter we’ll find some time.”

In order to build intentionality into your use of composition and improvisation in the classroom, I think it is a good idea to plan ahead for improvisation when planning instructional units around a piece of music. Consider using improvisation to introduce musical ideas, practice concepts in the music, or even give students an opportunity to express emotional or pictorial themes of the music through improvisation!

Improvisation and Community Building

Improvisation builds community among musicians! The key skill of improvisation is not the ability to play scales over changes, or pick the perfect note for each chord; the key skill of improvisation is listening. The key skill of improvisation has less to do with music-making than it does with connection-making. Students who listen sensitively to a given soundscape and contribute their own musical thoughts and ideas to that sound scape are practicing a democratic process. Students consider what they have to contribute instead of being told what to contribute!

Improvisation also gives students a creative voice in the classroom. Many of my students have told me how much they love expressing themselves through the music! I was surprised the first time a student say that to me. I thought to myself, “What-in the midst of the chaotic and strange sound these adolescents created-was this young man expressing?” This was one of the first times we tried improvisation and the instructions were simple – without instruction of when or what to play, play something! With explicit instructions not to focus on creating something beautiful or musical and instead expressing through the instrument, these students were finding meaning and connection through their musical creation.

I think it is often difficult for music teachers, who grow up in traditional large ensembles, to truly understand improvisational music-making. Even jazz musicians, who improvise within formal systems, scales, and changes may not really understand the impact of free improvisation and related ideas for students. For my students, they have vastly different lived cultural experiences than myself or even each other! For these students, they find connection and community in music that doesn’t exclude, isolate, or require certain cultural competencies to understand. They can really love and engage with music at a core level!

Let Go and Listen!

One of my favorite moments this school year since I have started using Improvisation in my classes was after working on a small-group improvisation project in which students were asked to create a piece of music inspired by a photograph (I got these from our art department! Great way to collaborate!). After working for a while, some of my students came up and said that they had decided to use only five notes as a group because they found that they worked well together and matched the beautiful leaves that they were trying to visualize.

When they told me about this 5-note phenomenon, I was floored! On their own accord, my students “discovered” the pentatonic scale! We then got to have a really cool conversation about how the lack of half-steps in the scale allows more chances for consonant intervals between steps of the scale – making it perfect for improvisation! I was then able to let the students teach the rest of the class about the scale and then design a lesson plan (including improv!) around different kinds of pentatonic scales from different cultures.

Let your students be musical! Let them create! Let them improvise! It won’t sound perfect ever, and it may rarely sound “good,” but students will discover musical truths and connect with each other in ways that you could never plan in a lesson!