The Value of Improvisation in Music Education

learn+violinI 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 photo-1431069767777-c37892aa0a07their 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?

Suzuki Talent Education and the Growth Mindset

Salzburg Violin
© Jorge Royan

I so like this interview, and what Carol Dweck is describing as the growth mindset. It fits in nicely with the philosophy of teaching of Shinichi Suzuki. The use of appropriate praise is part of his teaching. Also, the idea of ongoing growth and development of technical skills, musical understanding and personal growth.

I like to show a student two ways of doing something, likely the way they just did it and a more effective way of doing it and then ask them if the two ways were different or the same and encourage and guide them to figure out the difference for themselves. Then we also look at how the new method is done. Then of course, the next question is, can you do it that way? I provide encouragement and guidance where needed for them to use their wits and abilities to work it out for themselves. This gives them a chance to be proud of themselves and learn the value of working their problem through for themselves.

I highly recommend both the interview and the book below; I find them congruent with the philosophy of the Suzuki Method.


Karen Lauffer, Teacher and Performer

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.

Suzuki Ideas Only? (Video on Improv)

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.

Some Thoughts on My Teaching and My Life

Being a Suzuki Violin teacher does shape my life path and my teaching path. I like to hang on to what works best for most kids. Lately I’ve been thinking through why singing through the folk tunes which make up the first half of the Suzuki Violin School Vol. 1 make it easier for the youngsters to memorize the tunes. I find two reasons.

No. 1 We can break up the tune into its underlying form, ABA, ABCB etc. as we sing. This helps fix the whole tune in the youngster’s mind before he/she starts to learn the notes, one part at a time. Then when all the parts are mastered they can be strung together to form the whole.

No. 2 The youngster has learned to sing the scale to the words, “The little train goes up the hill. The little train comes down again.” So he/she has a notion of notes going up or coming down. This helps him/her follow the melody in his/her head and recognize the next notes as going up, coming down or skipping up or down.

So there is the mental concept of the form of the tune. There is also the melody we follow in our head, which contains the pitch movements and the rhythm. It forms the path through the tune. I believe these two concepts come together to make memorizing the tunes easy.

I have found kindred spirits in ideas about teaching in other blog sites.
In the blog Young Human’s Music Teacher, I love that blog author Sara Buller says,

“Never stop learning to do what you love better. That is what keeps us interested and enthusiastic.”

That fits in with the Suzuki approach to teaching. We keep taking in summer Institute courses, local workshops, chances to watch each other and learn. We try new things, like my projects using improvisation to teach music theory.

Another quote I like, found on the blog A Music Student’s Thoughts, is:

“A painter paints his picture on a canvas, but musicians paint their pictures on silence. We provide the music and you provide the silence.” Leopold Stokowski.

Truly, music from the heart can be welcomed into the silence.