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Here’s why every music student should learn to improvise!


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So you thought improvisation is only for Jazz musicians? Think again.

When talking about improvisation in music, the styles that are most likely to pop in people’s minds would be Jazz, Blues and occasionally Rock n’ roll or Bluegrass. As a matter of fact, most people who grew up on western music and pop culture are somewhat oblivious to the fact that musical improvisation is based in the foundation of almost every musical tradition around the world, Classical European music included.

In Western musical tradition, musical notation stems back to the middle of the 9th century. Didn’t they have music before that? Of course they did! People learned music by ear and monks would improvise melodic lines over the main melody of a liturgical chant long before the idea of functional harmony was even thought of. While other folkloric musical traditions have been able to maintain their ancient music and their methods of improvisation until this very day, Western Classical composers and educators have pretty much forsaken the idea of improvisation in favor of through-composed music and since around the end of the Baroque era the place for improvisation in Classical music has gradually disappeared. Although Bach, Handel, Mozart and also several later composers have been valued for their improvisation skills, especially improvising Preludes or Cadenzas for their pieces, musical improvisation has ceased to be a common part within compositions and is no longer taught to music students.

Interestingly enough, it was colonialism and slavery that was significantly important in the reintroduction of musical improvisation to Pan-European music. One instance is the influence of the aural musical tradition of Africa and the inseparable part of improvisation in it, over European music. Blues and Jazz music which was emerged by the African slaves brought to America, play an integral part in shaping American and European contemporary music and education. Many non-African musicians have adopted, learned and been influenced by those styles, thus improvisation has regained its place in music composition and pedagogy. Still, musical improvisation is yet to be regarded as a fundamental skill every musician, regardless of style should own. While every Jazz or Rock musician these days is being taught basic tools for improvisation, that is not that case among classical musicians who many times have an “Improv-phobia” in my opinion.    

Because science!

Different studies have been showing the benefits of practicing improvisation and the advantages improvising musicians have over non-improvising musicians–

A recent study by researchers from Columbia University shows that trained improvisers can more easily detect different nuances within interchangeable chords and that their brain makes better distinction between different types of musical structures.
Studies by the music aficionado surgeon and otolaryngologist, Charles Limb, show that during improvisation, the parts of the brain associated with self expression are highly active whereas parts involved with self-monitoring are quieting down which enables dampening of inhibitions and better access to creativity.

In another study for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., conducted by neuroscientist Emily Przysinda, a group of 12 jazz improvisers, 12 classical musicians and 12 non-musicians, were tested for their creative aptitudes.

What they have seen is that jazz improvisers preferred unexpected chord progressions and that they also engaged quicker and owned better comprehension of  unusual musical patterns. In the researcher’s words, these behaviors are “significantly correlated with behavioral measures of fluency and originality on the divergent thinking task. Together, results highlight the role of expectancy in creativity.”

My own philosophy about it

A subject which I personally find very intriguing and fundamental to every artist, and perhaps every person, is the use of improvisation. I find it very important to add an aspect of improvisation to everything we do. Adapt to an extemporaneous way of living, improvise on life and be able to embrace the unexpected. Many artists, musicians in particular, have an irrational fear of improvising with their skills and using them in a way which is completely new, out of context or incoherent. In my eyes, improvisation over your instrument, be it the most simplistic way of doing it, is the most fundamentally musical thing you could do as musician. Before you play other people’s music, wouldn’t you like to just pick up your instrument and play a simple melody that YOU came up with? As a teacher I want to encourage students to break out of their safe zone, to try things in a completely fresh manner, dismantle their perception of failure and help them break out of their normal thought patterns. Through practice of improvisation in art, in basic life skills, in personal communications and more, students may develop better sense of self consciousness and skepticism, and will better philosophically grasp the idea of becoming an objective observer which will greatly serve them in the process of becoming better independent learners and musicians.

Omer A. is one of our gifted violin instructors and specializes in jazz and improvisation on the violin. He is available for in-home lessons in NYC.

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