I use an introduction to the basic tools of improvisation with my students in several basic ways.
First, I use improvisation in conjunction with key orientation. For the violin, the first three, one octave scales are A major, D major and G major. So as the student learns each scale, the notes of that scale become available for him/her to make up some melody phrases. So the first step we tackle is to be able to improvise within a given key.
The second step is to be able to keep within the key, of course, and also within a chosen rhythmic meter, 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, etc. We can start with the familiar, the metronome.
Part of improvisation is to be able to transpose tunes to different keys and be able to “play around” with them. So, to this end we transpose “Twinkle” and other tunes from the Suzuki repertoire, into the various keys by way of the scales we learn. Dr. Suzuki, of course, did this very thing with the piece Perpetual Motion in the context of learning the positions. Hey, we can tack on one more idea.
Arpeggio sets; within the Revised Suzuki Violin School books are scales followed by arpeggio sets which I expand and use to teach chord based harmonies. I expand the concept as printed by adding in the V7 chord.
I find that the students enjoy the freedom these concepts bring them. Also, it is a good way to do “applied theory”. But even more, I am in awe of the way their faces light up as they are invited to share even a couple of phrases from their heart and soul! To me this goes way beyond the mechanical learning of music theory or violin technique, to what Dr. Suzuki referred to as “a good heart”, or what sometimes is referred to as the inner person or soul.
Below you will find articles from my blog related to improvisation in my violin studio. Be sure to check out the videos of students’ improvisations!
I was recently contacted by fellow strings teacher, Liam Calhoun. He wrote a blog post that I found very much in line with my views on improvisation in music education. I like the thinking in this piece! For example, in reality, are improvisation and creativity really in opposition with technical skills and sight reading, or are these concepts/entities two sides of the same coin of being a fine musician? I agree with the latter idea. We have indeed for too long divided “classical” orchestral and chamber music playing according to a given score, from the more free wheeling improvisation in it’s own right, or improvisation on a known melody or theme. We have seen these two venues as two different kinds of music, which in a sense, they are. However modern usage is blurring the distinctions of this kind and we are beginning to see just music. I like this trend. Liam gives further ideas.
I also like his thinking on “playing by ear”. Of course it is a vital part of the whole. When I play “from memory” my ear is definitely guiding me as well as muscle memory especially in the more technical parts. Playing by ear also opens up more space in the improvisation area. One can transpose a melody or theme more easily. One can hang on to the theme and weave an improvisation around it.
One more thought. The students and their families who come to us come with their own ideas of what their favorite musical activities might be. Some are not a whit interested in doing a Mozart Concerto, but would think they had reached the mountain top if they could participate in a garage band with their friends. Well, the I, IV & V7 chords that we teach in the Royal Conservatory of Music theory work are indeed the same chords used in lead sheets for the garage band or the church praise band. I have a family now in which big sister can play the arpeggio form of the chords while little brother plays Twinkle. They can do it in A major, D major and G major. The grins are the rewards! Why not meet people where they are?
I made some revisions to my booklet, Elements of Music Theory/Improvisation, and gave it a new cover. I actually had two new covers made and would like to get some help in choosing which one I should keep. Other than the covers, all contents of each booklet are identical. Please download the version that has the more attractive cover, in your opinion. I will keep the one that gets the most downloads.
While we received a lot of votes for both covers, we received slightly more for version B. I’m now adding new material and finalizing my Master booklet as well as one each for violin, viola and cello and these will be available for purchase soon!
The baroque and classical composers included in their concertos a spot where the orchestra could stop, and the performer was on his own to improvise on the theme of the movement he had just performed, in order to show off his virtuosity, but also his ability to improvise. This was the Cadenza. Antonio Vivaldi wrote several student concertos, possibly for his students. On this video, my student, Ryan is playing the 1st movement of the Vivaldi A minor concerto, which is a student concerto. I took the liberty to designate a spot for Ryan to add in his own improvised cadenza. Ryan’s cadenza is a little different each time he does it.
This video was taken at one of my students monthly play-ins. We get together informally and play what has been prepared for the occasion, like an informal recital, at Everyday Joe’s, a local coffee house. There is background noise from the coffee house patrons, but do enjoy anyway!
Karen Lauffer has video demos on her YouTube Channel of familiar tunes embellished by use of improvisation; she adds a new idea here, a new twist there, all adding interest and freshening already familiar material. Karen demonstrates the advance technical skills one learns in classical music training.
Here is the point! Lets start teaching improvisation right along with the classical techniques and understanding of music. Classical technique and sight reading of musical notation and improvisation can all grow together.
I recently read this article on Christian Howes’ blog and right away I understood that this violin/improvisation teacher is passionate about teaching improvisation to children. This is right up my alley! I could not possibly write a better intro to this site and the Bach case study than what Chris wrote himself on his site.
Before I got heavily into jazz, I improvised using the only vocabulary I knew. Jazz has a history of drawing from classical composers, but I predict an explosion of new music once improvisation is taught to classical musicians from an early age.
This so exactly states my view!!! That is why I have spent time and energy organizing my experiments in teaching the first baby steps in improvisation to my young Suzuki students, into a booklet, Elements of Music Theory/Improvisation. Here is Chris’ video below. Enjoy and be sure to check out his site as it is full of great resources!
Sometimes among Suzuki trained teachers there comes up a question. Do we use only Suzuki’s ideas or do we incorporate ideas from other famous teachers for the best success of the student? For my part, I can only see any experienced effective teacher eager to exchange ideas with other teachers and then try those same ideas out in their own studio. Honest exchange of ideas brings us as teachers into a more open space of heart and mind, which in turn, allows our students to see and feel this in us and thus be able to process this into their own frame of being. How else can any of us, teacher or student, progress beyond our present state, mentally, musically or in any way? Yes, we must to the greatest degree possible, understand and assimilate and utilize our gifts from a loving seasoned and dedicated teacher! I am convinced that going beyond where we are now would also be one of his goals for us! Isn’t going beyond where we are now, the goal of any of our endeavors?
Actually, I see the idea of developing theory and improvisation abilities in our students in the same context. For a long time our educational system has taught music with the same goal in mind as for most of the other subjects, namely, to prepare the students for the work place. Music classes were there to at least start to prepare the student to play in the professional Symphony Orchestra. So, it was thought, what they needed to learn was to properly read and play orchestra parts. I have no wish to put down orchestra playing or the ability to read musical notation. May we long enjoy both! What I am saying is, can we also get beyond the printed page? That is not something new. Music is and was always improvised back through time, until it began to be written down. Why are our students unacquainted with this musical form? I think we teachers are involved here. We can actually, take the first steps to remedy this situation. I have outlined how I deal with this in Elements of Music Theory/Improvisation.
Below is a Ted Talk by musician and researcher, Charles Limb, on the effects of music improvisation on the brain. The findings of his research are basically that there is heightened brain activity associated with music improvisation versus activities of memorized musical performance. Thus, a music curriculum that includes music improvisation should stimulate more brain activity than does a music curriculum based on memorized music only. Personally, this does not mean I will abandon learning and memorizing the music of the baroque and classical masters, but it does mean that I embrace forms of improvisation, in addition to classical methods.
I attended the Suzuki Association of the Americas 2014 Conference in Minneapolis, MN, held May 22 to 26. I was delighted to find other people doing improvisation with young children there and holding sessions on their experiences.
The first one I heard was John Hamil from the Kansas City area. He is a bassist and teaches young children as well as older ones. He brings them into improvisation by means of some of the basic bassist skills needed in pop band gig work. He then develops these concepts into more advanced techniques. That sounds practical to me.
The next Improvisation session I attended was was done by Lisa Rebecca Caravan and Meredith Blecha-Wells, both cellists. They worked with cello students to show how they start improvisation work in their studios. They also start with basic skills that the beginning student has and give them a new idea; make something up within a given framework/key. Then they moved on to more parts of the improvisation set up. The kids pick it up easily when we start simply and they feel at ease.
The third Improvisation session I attended was given by Nancy Modell of Springfield, NJ. She brought video recordings of her piano students performing their compositions. She explained how she leads them to composition by way of improvisation, which of course is a natural progression. She has them perform their pieces in a performance setting, for parents and friends. They love the sense of accomplishment.
I was so excited by being able to watch others teach improvisation and talk about what they are doing. I don’t feel like I’m the only one with this idea. I’m happy that the idea is gaining traction in studios around the country.
In the booklet I recently prepared on music improvisation/applied theory, I related the following anecdote about asking a question of Dr. Suzuki.
The last year that Dr. Suzuki came to the American Suzuki Institute in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, I was there. When we were given a chance to ask our questions, I asked about sight reading musical notation, as there was at that time, some question as to whether we Suzuki teachers should be teaching this skill. He inquired as to whether the children in my area learned to read musical notation at school. I replied that not always did they learn this skill at school. Where upon, he brightened and replied,
“Whatever the student needs to know, the teacher needs to teach.”
This has been my guiding principle in all of my teaching. So, because improvisation is more and more a required skill for young musicians, I propose that we need to introduce it early on, as we do the other skills that we need to develop. Let’s take on the challenge of the present!
Alice Kay Kanack has developed a very informative improvisation method for piano students and also extended it to violin (see Fun Improvisation for…Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano). She does a very good job of laying out the philosophy and method of creative development. I highly recommend her books! She also makes the very well placed point that the famous classical music composers such as Hayden, Beethoven and Mozart all practiced improvisation exercises as young students. It is self evident that improvisation feeds into composing skills. With all this in mind, what I am proposing is an approach more through the use of Theory of Music. As soon as the student can play the first one octave scale with ease, he/she can use those notes as building blocks, mix them up and make up/improvise something. At first the attempt may sound labored and inert, but the student is becoming aware of the sounds of different consecutive intervals and what he/she likes better and they start to develop and use their imagination and get adventurous. Things get interesting and fun.
To start working with the idea of harmonic accompaniment to tunes or improvisation, I start with “Twinkle Twinkle” in A major. I make sure the student understands the A major scale and arpeggio set.
Next, I give them a simple accompaniment pattern and show how to put it in all keys. Here is an example. Then I also give them a chord chart. The part marked “guitar” contains all the first position notes the violin player can choose from for the pattern. Of course not even the guitar plays all the notes given. The letter names above the chords indicate the name of the chord as the guitar player uses it. The roman numerals below the chords indicate their relationship to the A Major scale.
The first pattern on the “Patterns and Keys” document gives the chord patterns beginning on the open strings, G, then move to D and repeat, move to A and repeat. The second pattern starts with the A major chord pattern beginning on the G string. That gets out of the range of the written “Twinkle”. I use this set up until the student can play the accompaniment to “Twinkle” guided by his/her ear. I like for them to be able to do that in D major and G major also. At that point we can try another tune.
For putting a beat with what the kids are playing in their “improv” game, I wait until they have lost any hesitation about trying something new. Then I show them how I might put a beat with something I might play, using my feet to tap out a straight beat, preferably a rather slow beat so as not to intimidate the youngster. The parent can do the same thing with the youngster at home. When they are at ease with that idea we can set up a metronome beat.
Next step would be to set up a meter as in STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, or other combinations of strong and weak beats, again preferably slow beats to begin with. I do this first by clapping the beats for the student and getting the parent to join me. As the student gets used to this I can then turn to a metronome which is programmed to give meters. I use simple quarter note beats at first as in 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4 meters. We are still on simple little made up tunes of roughly one phrase. We have not set up phrase parameters other than, start on the key note and finish on the key note. I let all of this percolate for a while.