Contemporary Music Students’ Experiences with Improvisation in the Classroom

May 15, 2024

Abstract

Improvisation is a central part of many contemporary musicians’ practices—from developing an accompaniment from chord symbols to soloing in an ensemble. Despite the ubiquity of the practice, improvisation skill—outside of jazz programs—is seldom explicitly addressed in contemporary pop music curricula in Australia. This study took place over three years in a small music department in regional Queensland, Australia, where the researchers interviewed student musicians in an undergraduate contemporary music program. The purpose of this study was to collect participants’ ideas about how a one-semester course in improvisation influenced their ideas about musicianship. Data was collected in semi-structured interviews with participants, after the course in which many had encountered the structured practice of improvisation for the first time. The results capture a wide range of positive responses to the course material, describing changes in listening to and hearing music as well as how the study changed their understanding of “music theory” and its role in practical music-making. Data was also captured concerning their challenges and apprehensions around the challenge to their musicianship and musical confidence gained by improvisational activity.


Contemporary Music Students’ Experiences with Improvisation in the Classroom

Introduction

The ability to improvise is at the core of the skill set of the contemporary popular musician. Beyond simply “taking solos,” contemporary popular musicians often freely manipulate the elements of music during rehearsal and performance. Explicit instruction in, and the sustained exploration of improvisation remains a feature of jazz or improvised music programs, but is not central to contemporary popular music programs that increasingly focus on song writing and studio skills, despite improvisation being crucial to many popular music styles. This research seeks to document the experiences of students in their final year of an undergraduate degree in contemporary popular music as they encounter a semester-long course on improvisation and explore questions about any perceived interrelationship between the study of improvising and other facets of musicianship.

For this paper, and the improvisation course at the center of this study, improvisation is defined as the creation of melody over a defined set of harmonic, tonal, rhythmic and structural parameters, aligning with the definition used by Limb and Braun (2008): “Spontaneous musical performance, whether through singing or playing an instrument, can be defined as the immediate, on-line improvisation of novel melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic musical elements within a relevant musical context” (p. 1). Kratus (1991) discusses process or product orientated improvisation, and while process is an important element of the learning, our musical goal aligns most closely with what he designates as Level 3 improvising: “product oriented” (p.38), with consciousness of constraints of harmony, meter and structure. While we acknowledge that different traditions and musical styles infer nuanced approaches to the practice and teaching of improvisation, for the practice reported here improvisation is understood in terms of the musician’s capacity to create consonant melody over given chord progressions and forms, using stylistically appropriate phrasing and motific material.

 

Literature Review

The impact of improvisation on musicianship

In jazz education, improvisation is central to performed and recorded outcomes, and as such is well supported with materials and methods (Chessher, 2009; Spice, 2010). However, for students in disciplines other than jazz, improvisation can be used as a part of the learning process without it being a primary goal of their programs of study, or without an expectation that it will form part of their ongoing performance practice. A number of researchers have found that improvisation instruction reinforces tonal and rhythmic content related to the learning of music notation and a general enhancement of music achievement (Azzara, 1993; Campbell, 2009; Dobbins, 1980; Hirschorn, 2011; McPherson, 1993; Palmer, 2014; Schmidt & Sinor, 1986; Wall, 2018). Bloom’s Taxonomy places creativity—using information to create something new—at the top of the pyramid as a higher-order thinking skill (Anderson et al., 2001). Both convergent and divergent thinking are put to use while improvising (Webster, 1990). Covington (1997) explains: “improvisation by definition guarantees that each learner will be gradually constructing his/her own understanding of multiple musical parameters, represented by schemata which are continually being reconstructed, altered, or linked to other schemata” (p. 54).

Much has been written about the loss of the improvisatory skill from the Western concert music tradition with Campbell et al. (2016) positing that the most revered composers of the Western Music canon if alive today would “likely resemble today’s creative jazz artists” (p. 1). Moore (1992), Campbell (2009) and Woosley (2012) agree that there is much to be gained by learning to improvise within a stylistic set of parameters that can be codified from analysis of music from Baroque to Romantic and even twentieth century styles. Activities such as improvising within the rules of counterpoint serve to improve musicians’ understanding of structure and harmony. With no expectation that they will ever improvise in front of an audience, a student of any of these traditions can benefit from the process, enabling them to go on to perform such music with a heightened level of understanding and authenticity (Kossen, 2013).

Educators such as Ruth and Norman Lloyd (Lloyd & Lloyd, 1975) advocate for improvisation, not merely to teach the skill itself, but “to teach the basic tonal elements of music―that is, intervals, scales, and chords―and the uses of these elements in music composition” (p. xii). One example approach to improvisation as a harmony education technique is outlined by pianist and teacher Melanie Spanswick (2014):

It’s the element of thinking “on the spot,” which builds the foundation for advanced study. Theory exams are a great tool for understanding and practicing harmony and counterpoint; they could be considered the “first stage” of learning, however, the realization of harmony is truly grasped whilst improvising or harmonizing at the keyboard (para. 5).

Listening skills and auditory imagery

The term “audiation” (Gordon, 1999) refers to the difference between hearing—that is having the receptors in your ears and brain exposed to sound—and analytical listening, which encompasses two musical activities. These are, broadly speaking, the ability to imagine the music you are hearing as it is written on the page, and, conversely, the ability to mentally “hear” the music you see written on a page. The centrality of audiation skills in the improvisation process was observed by Wallace (2012): “Reconsidering improvisation education as an embodied, situated and distributed practice highlights the importance of developing listening and audiation skills” (p. 34). Students can be guided to identify distinct musical elements that they hear to promote understanding of the building blocks of music and give them a musical framework with which to understand musical performances.

The perceived value of improvisation in music learning

Although many researchers have supported the proposition that improvisation is beneficial to all music learners, the Larsson and Geogii-Hemming review of improvisation in general education (2019) concluded that improvisation activity is still somewhat overlooked as both an educational practice and a focus of educational research and identified a need for more research into the role improvisation could play in general music education. Korošec et al. (2022) reach a similar conclusion, theorizing that providing students with the experience of improvisation is not prioritized because education policies “demand clear and measurable outcomes that are in line with the materialist mind-set” (p. 341). Wallace (2012), writing in the Australian context, contends, “Improvisation… is currently undervalued as an ecological community practice in academic environments” (p. 46). Siljamäki and Kanellopoulos (2020), from their literature review concerning improvisation in education between 1985 and 2015, conclude that this research is still “far from becoming a widely acknowledged and discussed subfield” (p.128). The largest percentage of the literature they reviewed (31.2%), was, like our project, focused on using improvisation for musical development. These researchers also categorized the improvisation types that they encountered in their survey, as the search for writings about improvisation in education prompts many different definitions and foci of improvisation including “free” and “jazz and blues.” The majority, 38%, were concerned with “tonal but non-genre-specific” music that encompasses the type of improvisation that our study addresses.

The value of improvisation study for educational phases

Young children are often encouraged and provided with models for creative music making from day one of their formal education. Early childhood music education is well served by philosophies and methods from such luminaries as Jacques Dalcroze and Carl Orff, and these ready-made materials make it easy for the non-improvising music teacher to introduce improvisation to their students (Song, 2013; Whitcomb, 2013). However, students that may have been encouraged to improvise as young children are in often later life “funneled” into either classical or jazz education, with improvisation becoming a complex, intimidating area for those not comfortable in the relevant genres (Beckstead, 2013).

Observations by researchers such as Rinehimer (2012) and Spencer (2013) describe the way in which teenaged classical musicians can lose interest in their instrumental studies unless they are encouraged to engage in music with their own creative agency. A degree of improvisational ability is invaluable for furnishing such students with a sense of ownership over their musicianship, as well as giving them a tool for self-efficacy. Authors such as Woody (2012) and Cope (2005) have observed the way in which musicians who have more agency over their playing continue to participate throughout their lives in comparison to classically trained musicians who only play from notated scores.

The inclusion of contemporary popular music in college music curriculums is relatively new, and much of the research conducted is focused on its legitimacy and availability (Mantie, 2013), peer-learning (Lebler, 2008), entrepreneurship, and the use of technology (Lebler & Hodges, 2017). Green (2002) has made an indelible mark on the popular music education space with her Informal Learning theories, but these have been focused largely on secondary students, with a few authors such as Mok (2017) enquiring into the use of these methods at the college level. For students of contemporary popular music, there is scope for the practice of improvisation to be used to explore and consolidate theoretical musical concepts. Baker (1980) and Guderian (2012) outline how improvisation can be used to teach any aspect of music, calling forth knowledge of materials with an alertness not required for composition.

Incorporating improvising and composing activities as a natural outgrowth of course content and instruction is an effective way teachers can provide students with opportunities to reinforce and expand their understanding and skills in the objectives at hand while simultaneously nurturing their development of creative thinking in music (Guderian, 2012, p. 6).

The study of improvisation enables teachers to guide students towards integrating many aspects of their learning and skill, enabling students to express their musicianship. “Improvisation is important because it is able to fuse the three primary musical activities of composition, performance, and critical listening/analysis; it involves all three simultaneously” (Covington, 1997, p. 49). As Wright and Kanellopoulos (2010) state: “Improvisation leads to the immersion in a form of musical experience that moves beyond the conception of musical knowledge as an object to be mastered” (p. 78). The ability to improvise indicates that a musician has “internalized a music vocabulary and is able to understand and to express musical ideas spontaneously” (Azzara, 1993, p. 330).

 

Context

The University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ) is a regional university that has offered music in one form or another for at least 30 years and has had a thriving classical music program in decades past. Since 2012 the focus of the program has changed to an offer of contemporary music, with a full complement of contemporary music courses offered in the Bachelor of Creative Arts (BCA) in 2015.

        The students who enroll in the BCA, although they are diverse in ability and interest, can be said to fall in to one of two categories, albeit with some crossover.

Formal learners: This cohort includes those who have studied music at high school, taken Australian Music Examinations Board exams, private lessons and/or played in school or community ensembles. As a result, they possess some facility with musical literacies; the ability to decode conventional notation, and a basic understanding of how Western music and its history are organized.

Informal learners: The music learning of this group occurs among peer groups, via technology/Web 2.0 and promotes a different set of musical literacies.1In earlier years, these players may have been said to be “playing by ear,” although the abundance of user-generated video and instructional tools afforded by Web 2.0 mean that it is possible that the “ear” was less engaged than in previous generations of musicians who learned informally.

The two groups usually share a paucity of experience with improvisation.

To bridge these different competencies, a suite of six music materials courses was designed for the BCA program. Their purpose was to give informal learners access to the musical languages essential to communication, and to enrich and animate the theoretical knowledge of those who learned in other pedagogical traditions, and all were delivered with a focus on student creation animating the theory.

As the focus of their music practice is contemporary popular music since 1950, students are often called on to improvise during performances. To support this, the study of improvisation appears in two music theory courses: MUI2008, Making Music 4: Composing and Improvising (one 4-week module in the 2nd year of study) and the subject of this study, MUI3010, Making Music 5: Improvising.

MUI3010 Course content

Aligning with its place in a contemporary popular music curriculum, the coursework for MUI3010 is strongly grounded in tonal harmony, major and minor tonalities, and the blues idiom. It features relatively straightforward assessment, focusing primarily on the development of a “successful” melody over chord progressions, while addressing issues such as motif development, phrasing, the application of certain melodic pitch sets over certain harmonic sounds, and targeting chord tones. The assessment comprises: transcribing and analyzing an improvised solo by an established recording artist; composing a “solo” over a given chord progression; and performing as improvising soloist over given backing tracks, either “live” (on-campus students) or recorded (online students).

On-campus lectures are delivered workshop-style, with instruments in hand, with as much playing and practical application as possible. In-class exercises include analysis of harmonic schemes, developing melodic and rhythmic motif, and improvising over harmonic progressions. It is worth noting that many students are uncomfortable improvising in front of their peers (Korošec et al., 2022), so getting students to apply course content in lectures in practice is at times difficult. It is also important to note that they do not play as an ensemble in class as they would in a jazz course, so elements of group interplay are not part of the process.

Background of Researchers

The researchers work as full-time staff members at UniSQ. We both have long histories as free-lance musicians in jazz and in contemporary music, postgraduate degrees in jazz, and a personal musical practice built on a combination of formal and informal learning acquired over time. We draw heavily upon our professional and personal experiences to inform the writing of the undergraduate program and its coursework, our teaching and research, and in the conceiving and design of this study.

 

Method

This qualitative study draws data from participants over three years (2017–2019) of student cohorts enrolled in a semester-long course in improvisation. The course, MUI3010 Making Music 5: Improvising, formed part of the recommended enrolment pattern, mandatory for those enrolled in the BCA degree. The project was described during class and students were invited to volunteer, resulting in 11 out of 42 students participating on their exit from the course. Three were primarily vocalists, the rest instrumentalists, with four of these having a significant composition practice. They included 10 Music Majors and one student taking the course as an elective. Interviews were conducted at semester’s end on campus, independently of other class activity. The University of Southern Queensland Research Human Ethics committee (H18REA040) approved the research.

Participants were interviewed individually—once only—for a 10–20-minute duration by researchers. Interviews were audio recorded by the authors, using Garage Band (with iPhone back-up), and transcribed. These semi-structured interviews collected data regarding participants’ experiences of their time studying in the improvisation course, their ideas about how improvisation plays a role in their practice, and their ideas of how the study of improvisation has impacted their musicianship. Course assessment success did not form part of the study; only the students’ comments within the interviews conducted were considered. Key to the integrity of the data was that participants understood that questions seeking to understand their experiences of the course were not meant to serve as a review of the teaching materials or lecture/workshop delivery; these aspects being measured separately by the university in other ways. Participants were invited to read the findings chapter for member-checking purposes.

The researchers worked with the recorded data multiple times using a general inductive approach method (Thomas, 2006), and the resulting themes that form the basis of this paper were constructed from the interviews (Glaser, 1992). The questions used to conduct the interviews are included here as an appendix. Participants’ names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

            Table 1

Participant information

PARTICIPANTS

INSTRUMENT/INTEREST

AGE

Amanda

keyboard

19

Brenda

vocalist

Non-traditional student

Cassie

keyboard

19

Dawn

vocalist

Non-traditional student

Eric

keyboard/composer

19

Fiona

vocalist/keyboard

19

Glen

singer-songwriter/guitarist

24

Holden

singer-songwriter/guitarist

24

Ingrid

flute

19

Julie

keyboard, composer

19

Karl

saxophone/keyboard

19

The responses reported relate to Questions 4 to 11 relating to their perceptions of the skills needed to improvise, what they saw as barriers or problems, and the ongoing effect of the course on their musicianship and understanding of music theory concepts.

 

Findings

The findings are reported under four themes that emerged from the data, while noting that there is inevitable overlap between themes. These themes include:

  1. Increased valuing of analytical listening and aural acuity;
  2. Perceived barriers to improvisation (categorized as song knowledge, performance confidence, practice, and technique);
  3. How the study of improvisation has impacted their musicianship; and
  4. Freedom and expression.

Increased valuing of analytical listening and aural acuity

Students volunteered that their listening skills had improved throughout the semester. The emergence of this theme reflects its importance to the improvisation undertaking and it arose as an aspect of several of the following themes and sub-themes.

Seven participants mentioned an improved ability to recognize musical elements when listening to music, enabling them to better understand how these musical elements work together to create a whole. In answering Question Five, regarding skills thought necessary for improvisers, several acknowledged that listening was an important skill, Amanda describing it as the ability to “hear where you are,” in reference to maintaining one’s place in a harmonic form with shifting key centers. Dawn shared, “It’s affected the way I listen to music. So, I’m hearing things that I didn’t hear once upon a time because I can identify those things now.”

Most participants agreed that the course has resulted in their thinking more analytically about how music is put together and report learning to “think their way through” the music as they are playing. We asked them about the differences between improvising and other musical performance (Question 4), to which Amanda replied: “I think you definitely have to be more aware of the music, and you have to use your ears a lot more, as opposed to other stuff… I think it requires a lot more thought beforehand.” The knowledge gained regarding why an improviser might use certain scales, tones or other devices was felt to sharpen listening and analytical skills. Karl commented, “(listening) definitely improved, like I tend to pick up things more, easier….‘oh, that’s what he played’—it works because this that and the other.” Cassie, who was developing an interest in jazz, stated: “I can hear chord progressions and recognize them in tunes now, and I think, anticipate what’s going to happen in jazz tunes now and that’s been really exciting!” After the course she felt that her ear was better connected with her playing: “I was starting to hear things a lot more in my head before I played them.” As anticipated, students’ listening horizons broadened through the course: “I liked listening to jazz before but I like it more so now that I understand the concepts” (Glen).

Perceived barriers to learning improvisation.

As noted, responses to Question 6 regarding perceived barriers to improvisation fell into further sub-categories.

Song Knowledge

The comments arising here related back to listening. Many participants realized they had not listened to music analytically before—to the point of not keeping an awareness of musical form—and it became obvious to them that this was restricting their musical progress. In Amanda’s words: “You need to understand the structure of the song and the harmonic stuff…if you can understand the song and the harmony then you can hear where you’re up to.” That several mentioned “song knowledge,” described by Eric as “comprehension” or an awareness of song form and chord progression, is indication that they were not previously in the habit of listening with an analytical ear for harmony and structure.

Performance confidence

Confidence was identified as a barrier, unsurprisingly, since most school music students are not encouraged to improvise throughout high school unless they are in a jazz band. Students Amanda, Cassie and Karl were indeed in high school jazz bands, but guidance offered for improvisation depended greatly on the proclivities of their band director, a circumstance observed by Butt (2012) in his exploration of the delivery of jazz education in Queensland high schools. Several of the students had classical/formal instrumental backgrounds that encourage visual learning in the form of notation, and the idea of making music without “dots” to read was confronting for them. Fiona, who had amongst the highest level of pre-existing musical proficiency of the participants, had already come to the conclusion that improvising is “scary”, putting it succinctly: “The dots are safe!” and, “You’re going to make bad sounds you know, and you don’t really want to make bad sounds but you have to, to get the good stuff, and that’s really hard.” Brenda spoke of being out of her comfort zone and the “fear of making a mistake in front of people.” Other students, however, greatly appreciated the opportunity to play often in class in front of others, reporting that their anxiety decreased as the semester progressed. As Julie pointed out, as a musician you need to be used to “doing what you do well with other people watching.”

Technique

Baker (1980) observed, “Improvisation as a means to and incentive for developing technique cannot be overestimated” (p. 50). Our interviewees recognized that technique is necessary to carry out improvisational ideas, with Amanda recognizing it needed to be developed in order to “catch up” with the new awareness and cognition of musical elements. Eric saw it as pivotal, answering when asked about skills required for improvising, “Probably firstly a very strong technical ability on whatever instrument they have so that that isn’t interfering with the actual creation.” Fiona pinpointed “knowledge of your instrument, so that you’re comfortable with it so you’re not freezing up.”

Practice

All participants felt that they had gained from the study of improvisation but keenly felt how much practice it would take to become fluent in the skill. In Julie’s words, “The hardest part was probably that I could understand how to apply some of the different techniques, like diatonic approach and surrounds etcetera but being able to think of those things and do it with your ear at the same time, in the moment, it was sort of hard to apply those things quickly enough.” Likewise, Dawn identified practice as a barrier, along with the discipline to apply the learning. This issue takes on more resonance for singers, who are naturally more able to follow their ears while improvising, not manually operating an instrument. These comments point back to aural facility and in Dawn’s words regarding expert improvisers, “their aural understanding is matched up with their theoretical understanding.” An insightful response from Ingrid was that “the way you practice” was necessarily different from practicing other musics—the difference between practicing the given notes and instead preparing yourself to deal with musical circumstances as they arise.

How the study of improvisation has impacted their musicianship—the theory/practice nexus.

The idea that the process of improvising is a way to create your own transferable musical knowledge can be thought of as the theory/practice nexus. This arose as a theme when we asked what skills and understanding students thought were necessary for improvisation (Question 5), further inquiring if participants thought the semester’s study had impacted in any way on other aspects of their musical performances (Question 10) and whether the course had made them think more deeply or specifically about the materials of music (Question 11). Responses ranged over the aspects of music they hear, play, and even read, Amanda volunteering: “knowing about them (melodic devices) helps me sort of recognize when I listen or read other music; things that they’ve used.”

Dawn talked about the knowledge being integrated and being able to “name what I was hearing.” Fiona, Dawn and Ingrid agreed that it forced them to deal with the materials in a more considered way (Question 9), with Ingrid explaining that the music knowledge that she already understood cognitively was “sharpened … it’s helped me to put different things together…understanding how chords work and how extensions work makes more sense when I’m improvising over extensions.” The experience of manipulating the chord knowledge consolidates the knowledge itself. While much of the course material focuses on harmonic skills, the learning centered on motific development and phrasing also had an impact, Glen having his awareness raised regarding “Phrasing! A lot of that has vastly improved my improvisation and I didn’t even think of how important that was before I did it.” Ingrid reported an improvement in her ability to create rhythms.

Amanda felt that they were learning to translate the theory learned to date “into actual sound.” This serves as a useful description of what we hoped students would gain from the course. When students are asked to manipulate the materials of music, their awareness of the materials of music and how they are successfully put together is significantly deepened. Holden described coming to “translate what I was learning…into performing.” Glen described it thus: “Relating everything together, just mixing it like a cake—I had general information about each thing, I just didn’t know how to use it, so once I kind of had a taste of how to use it, it’s like, how the harmonic structures actually work together with the melodic structures.” Karl pinpointed the realization that scales are not just technical exercises but are used to actually create melody, describing “A whole different way of thinking about them—how important they actually really are.” This observation perhaps goes to support a comment made by Brenda, Ingrid, and Amanda, that the course would have been appreciated at an earlier point in the degree, helping them to better navigate the demands of ensemble performances.

Students practicing as composers reported finding an improvement in their compositional ability, having analyzed phrasing and melodic choices, and been introduced to melodic devices such as chromatic approaches and surrounding approaches: “I hadn’t really thought about those concepts much beforehand” (Eric). Glen found that even lyric-writing was improved through this study, as his awareness of phrasing and melodic choices was heightened. Julie felt prompted to look back on compositions previously written and analyze them in terms of the melodic and phrasing material covered in the course, stating: “it hammers down that we need to be intentional if we want to get better at something.” She also volunteered “I think it’s caused me to look at actual written melodies differently because they sometimes use these techniques of improvisation—I didn’t expect that!”

A result that was a central anticipated finding of the study was summed up by Karl when asked if the course had affected his playing in general: “I think a bit more.”

Freedom and expression

Question 7 concerned the use of strict parameters in the course for developing successful melodies—including not simply adhering to chord progressions and key centers, but melodic exercises that severely limit note choices. None of the students interviewed had enough improvising experience to feel creatively limited by these parameters, with Eric, Glen, Brenda, Julie, Holden an Ingrid responding that they were useful and largely necessary for them to get started. Glen shared: “There’s an exercise…you use two notes…at the start I’m like yeah, nah, that’s ridiculous, you can’t do that…and then I tried myself and I was like oh, ok, that—wow, two notes can, it sounds way better than 16 notes, and it gives more emotion I suppose, I found.” Karl commented: “I wouldn’t say I was limited but it made me think twice before I just jumped in.”

Question 4 asked participants how improvising is different from other playing that they do both on and off campus. Most of them found that they needed to use their ears more and the word “awareness” was used more than once in responses. Cassie, Julie, and Ingrid were appreciative of the opportunity to exercise more agency over their performing, finding it a more personal experience where music came “from me” (Ingrid) and that the practice of improvisation had “freedom in it” (Julie). Amanda left the course keen to introduce the concepts to her own piano students, having seen the benefits for both musicianship and personal agency. Glen crystalized a central improvisation truth “there’s rules but no rules.”

 

Discussion and conclusions

There is clearly scope for improvisation to be used by music educators as a way of connecting students’ creativity with their technique and musicianship in music education paradigms outside of the jazz sphere. The literature indicates that the study of improvisation provides many benefits to musicianship, creativity, and the creation of transferable skills. The materials developed for jazz improvisation study, such as chord scale and guide tone theory, as well as phrasing and melodic analysis, are relevant for contemporary musicians who may have no interest in jazz as a genre. This existing pedagogy can easily be adapted to suit the popular music repertoire. The challenge is to craft a program that does not require immersion in any one musical style, so as not to intimidate students or make them feel like outsiders.

We found that our students valued the semester of improvisation study because it provided them with the tools and framework with which to think more deeply about their perception and understanding of the music that they hear and perform and the learning they had experienced throughout the program. They recognized, without being asked specifically about analytical listening skills, that the semester’s study had improved their ability to perceive the elements of music, impacting their general musicianship. They generally valued the opportunity for personal expression, as well as feeling that their horizons had been expanded as players, composers, teachers and even listeners. Participants’ comments relating to positioning of improvisation study earlier in the program are significant, indicating that students value the skills presented and understand their relevance for their development as musicians.

Participant comments about improvising informing their choices in “how to practice” are worth considering when approaching instrumental instruction. The concept of “practicing to be an improviser” perhaps needs more attention earlier in a contemporary music students’ instrumental study. In future designs of improvisation courses, the authors would suggest students be prompted to regularly consider some of the overarching musical issues earlier in the course of study. This may begin with an exploration of some of the questions we posed here, such as what skills they think are required by a musician to improvise and also asking students to keep a journal detailing thoughts, problems, and breakthroughs throughout the semester.

It is, not surprisingly, a challenge to elicit information from students about higher order thinking and playing issues that have arisen for the researchers over many years of teaching and playing. Our questions regarding cognitive awareness of structures and elements of music were difficult for students to consider and adequately answer “on the spot” in the interview situation. The results of this study would suggest that introducing the concepts of audiation or aural imagery and the theory/practice nexus early in a music program would help musicians to consider these issues throughout their studies, enabling them to keep them front-of-mind as they undertake the activities with which they are presented. The scope of this study was small, but the information gathered indicates that both the presence of improvisation study in contemporary pop music programs, and further investigations into its reception by students would be instructive for future program design. A useful future study would perhaps be to have students undergo testing in both analytical listening and improvisation skill at different points throughout an improvisation course to better delineate the skills gained.

A positive long-term benefit of expanded improvisation study in contemporary music courses may be the appearance in the music education community of teachers who themselves are comfortable and confident enough with improvisation to facilitate student improvisation activities. The reluctance of music teachers to lead study into an area that they themselves are unfamiliar with is understandable, but our study and others indicate that broader musicianship skills can be impacted by the practice of improvisation as a process (not necessarily a goal), making it worth considering as part of any style of music education.

 

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APPENDIX 1

The following questions were used as prompts for conducting the semi-structured interviews.

    Background and beliefs

  1. Before embarking on the course, had you ever improvised before? Either by playing “solos” or improvising as an accompanist?
  2. If so, how did you go about it? By ear, or cognitively using knowledge you have about harmony and melody?
  3. What is your musical background in terms of formal and/or informal study, exams etc.?
  4. How would you describe the process of improvising as different from the other playing that you do?
  5. What musical skills do you think people need in order to improvise?
  6.  

    Dealing with the course concepts

  7. If you were a complete beginner before embarking, what were the things (if any) that you saw as barriers, or problems to be overcome?
  8. If you had improvised before, how did you deal with the specific parameters that were imposed, and did you perceive any problems to be overcome?
  9. Do you feel that thinking of music materials such as harmony, phrasing and melody whilst playing is an imposition? Did you come to a point where you started to conform to the parameters automatically?
  10.  

    Impact/Experiences of practice

  11. Did you find that the activity of improvising forced you to deal cognitively with the materials of music?
  12. Has this had any effect on other musical endeavors in which you have engaged in the months since?
  13. Has learning to improvise made you think more deeply or more specifically about the musical knowledge that you have already acquired during your studies?

 

[1] In earlier years, these players may have been said to be “playing by ear,” although the abundance of user-generated video and instructional tools afforded by Web 2.0 mean that it is possible that the “ear” was less engaged than in previous generations of musicians who learned informally.

380 Last modified on May 20, 2024