Recently I took on an advanced flute student for musicianship studies. A jazz improvisation teacher told her she had no musicianship skills and needed remedial training before she could study with him. Hearing this, I was perplexed. I knew that she’d taken years of courses at a local conservatory’s preparatory program. Plus for many years she’s been studying with a top flute teacher, who I knew made sure her students had a comprehensive mastery of both their instrument and music theory. So out of curiosity I asked her, “Just what did you do in your lessons with your former improvisation teacher?” She replied, “He would start to play a song and then would tell me to improvise with what he was performing. When I couldn’t, he would start again and tell me to do the same thing again. I still did not understand what to do. That is when he told me to go learn musicianship.”
I was flabbergasted. Throwing someone a piece and saying, “Improvise!” is akin to throwing someone who can’t swim into shark infested waters and saying, “Swim!” They don’t have a chance.
Far too many musicians still think improvisation refers only to jazz idioms, but jazz improvisation is just one type of improvisation. It entails a certain set of skills used in a specific context, just like the improvisation skills of a continuo player are focused on realizing the harmony of a figured bass in an 18th-century style. True improvisation is simply the act of making things up. So how do you teach someone to create music? Can you consciously ignite that spark? And how do you handle it with older students? Getting a child to make up stuff is a very natural process, as they like to doodle on their instrument. However, it seems the older the student the more challenging this is, as often their mind has taken over their innate creativity. They think too much about what they’re trying to do, and they get frustrated more easily than their younger counterparts.
I find I need to approach older students in a more methodical fashion and follow my mantra of starting with the familiar. For example, I’ll have students select one or two phrases from a piece that is in their current repertoire. I then have the students play the phrase again and again, eventually asking them to drop out fragments and replace them with either chordal tones or scale fragments that match the phrase’s key. Once they feel comfortable with this, we then begin to play the chords or scales in rhythms derived from those we had found in the original fragments. By the end of this exercise, they’re usually able to play the original passage along with some additional phrases they have created. Once they realize that they already have improvisation tools at hand, their frustrations and fears begin to subside. They stop thinking about it so much and stop getting in their own way. They begin to make music.