The Value of Improvisation in the Classroom

by Mike Waddell


My parents brought me a Conn clarinet the summer before I started sixth-grade band. When I produced a bunch of squeaks, my parents urged me to wait until September to learn to play correctly. "But those are the high notes," I told them unconvincingly. Gradually, on my own that summer, my tone improved just enough to get the notes out. I worked out simple tunes by ear, playing the wrong notes before the right ones. I'd done this two years before on guitar, starting with chords and simple lines. During my early band years, I couldn't wait to get home and work out popular tunes from Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Herb Alpert, and Ace Cannon records, which had been swimming around in my head all day at school. I got to where I could play the albums note for note and eventually figured out the chord progressions on guitar. Having my own universe of music to explore through these instrumental records inspired and motivated me more than the traditional band setting. 


The idioms of folk, country, bluegrass, rock, and the improvisational aspect of jazz are all approached by ear. Here, a distinction should be made between:


a) Playing by ear-- figuring out and playing existing tunes, no improvisation

b) Improvisation-- making it up as you go-- embellishing existing tunes, creating original lines in any musical idiom, such as jazz, country, rock, bluegrass, Indian Classical music, etc. 


But the concept of playing by ear is off the beaten path for those pursuing Western Classical music in school band programs, lessons, and on through college. The value of advanced reading skills is obvious for those choosing this musical path. After all, centuries-old masterpieces by the great composers would not be available to us otherwise. And the discipline is rigorous. 


National and State standards for Music Education include "improvisation" and "creating rhythms, melodies and harmonies" as part of the core curriculum at every grade level. [cited from the National Association for Music Education--2014 Music Standards]. Therefore, we should encourage young players to do some playing by ear and improvise. This would not compromise their reading skills and good playing habits. Improvisation adds to the richness and depth of one's musical experience and provides the right-brained creative experience lacking in other areas of study. 


While playing by ear is impractical in a formal concert band/orchestral setting, directors can encourage students to do this on their own and share their creative work with the group. Improvisation is more practical in a lesson situation where private teachers can coach students in this direction. However, since most music teachers have learned solely from the printed page, they are unlikely to offer other valuable avenues of learning, such as to play by ear and improvise. As a rule, people tend to be down on what they're not up on, and most teachers are not up on improvisation. I have found such training to be lacking in higher education music programs. 


When I started teaching college music, I gave ear-training students an assignment involving improvising on the piano black keys within a prescribed rhythmic pattern. They were ill at ease at the prospect of being guided by the ear alone. Inhibitions and self-consciousness had settled already settled in by that age. I suggest starting creative exploration young. Those songs that I started learning at age ten are still under my fingers today after decades of jazz and classical woodwind performance. 


Certainly playing by ear will not appeal to every student. Yet many more students should be experiencing this terrain. Often they sing pop melodies and have them floating about in their heads. Why not work them out on their instruments? It's slow going at first but gets easier with time. As a result, students learn to get around the instrument well. He becomes familiar with the various scales and keys, learn to phrase and express in ways commensurate with a given style, and memorizes music more easily. Students can ultimately experience something quite liberating and satisfying to the soul. 

Mike Waddell is a Vandoren Regional Artist. The goal of a Regional Artist is to enhance the quality of the music experience through education and the assistance of Vandoren. These highly trained professional educators and performers will engage your students through educational and fun sessions. The clinics they conduct cover a broad spectrum of topics and, based on your input, can be customized to fit the needs of your students. Contact us today to arrange your free Vandoren clinic.

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