Improvisation in general music education – a literature review

BJME ident

About this series

Dr Steven Berryman, Curriculum Lead for the Music Teachers Association (MTA), has launched a collective blogging project working with the editors of the British Journal of Music Education (BJME), Martin Fautley and Ally Daubney.

Martin, Ally and Steven have curated a selection of articles from the Journal highlighting some of the key debates in Music Education in the classroom.

Teachers have an article to read each week, and can submit a response by the end of the week. Responses are gathered together to form one blog post shared on MUSIC:ED.


The place of composing in curriculum design

The Music Teachers Association’s second collective blogging project continues with excellent responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Christina Larsson and Eva Georgii-Hemming – ‘Improvisation in general music education – a literature review’ (2018)

  • You can read the editorial here whilst it is open access and the abstract is below.
  • Thank you to the teachers who have contributed this week. We hope you enjoy reading their reflections.

Abstract 

The overall purpose of this article is to provide a convenient summary of empirical research on improvisation in general music education and thereby provide guidance to researchers and practitioners, using a systematic, narrative-review approach.

By analysing 20 music education research articles, published from 2000–2015 in peer-reviewed journals, we firstly provide an overview of the key features and knowledge of existing research. Secondly, we identify how improvisation has been characterized, conceptually before, thirdly, describing the implications of the literature for improvisation in practice. Our article reveals that improvisation tends to be an overlooked activity both in music education contexts and in music education research.

Broadly speaking, music education research tends to characterise improvisation within two conceptual frameworks, which have different implications for implementation; ‘structured’, teacher-directed improvisation and ‘free’, child-directed improvisation. We conclude by arguing that music educational research on improvisation is an underdeveloped field and outline a number of questions to be addressed in future research.


Responses

Kay Charlton

In February 2021 I delivered an online webinar for teachers on improvising in primary music lessons, so I read this article as preparation. The article states that ‘improvisation tends to be an overlooked activity [both] in music education contexts’ and that it tends to be characterised within two frameworks: ‘structured’, teacher-directed improvisation and ‘free’, child-directed improvisation.

I decided to prepare my workshop around these two frameworks and to check general attitudes to improvisation by asking participants about their experience as musicians and teachers. I am a confident teacher of improvisation, but less confident as a performer; I had trumpet/music lessons to degree level whist at school and university during the 1970/80s and I don’t remember improvising being part of that classical music experience. I later discovered that this was the era of Paynter/Aston’s Sound and Silence (and Aston was my professor at university), but their ideas on creativity didn’t seem to penetrate my fairly extensive music education in the midlands. As a young musician starting to play with bands in London it was suggested that I took a trumpet solo and I was terrified… I then embarked on a new era of self-education, exploring jazz and other global styles where improvisation is fundamental.

There were 11 participants in my workshop, a mixture of classroom/instrumental teachers. At the beginning of the session I asked people how they felt about improvising; I was pleasantly surprised that most people were positive. In discussion, people generally felt more confident in teaching improvisation than improvising themselves – particularly those with a classical education like my own, but all included improvisation in their lessons, time permitting.

I presented some ideas from the BJME article on ‘structured’ versus ‘free’ music-making and we moved on to exploring the ideas through practical work. Amongst the improvisation activities, these two exercises stood out in terms of the comparison of structured/free improvisation:

1. Playing call and response phrases over a funky backing track with scaffolded activities

  • Warm-up – take turns to clap the rhythm pattern of your name
  • Copy-backs using body percussion
  • Listening to a backing track, feeling the pulse
  • Clapping name patterns over the track
  • Copy-backs on instruments, using a D minor pentatonic scale
  • Call and response using name rhythms as a basis for improvising a reply

2. Improvising over a drone in an Indian style using sitar sounds and no pulse

  • I gave no instructions, except to play long notes, slowly and to explore the soundscape
  • After a while I added some simple directions – focus on dynamics, focus on duration – play combinations of long/short notes, find the key-note

The discussion after this exercise was interesting – some people preferred playing over the funky track:

  • It was easier
  • I knew when to play
  • I knew what notes to play in the copy-backs
  • I could respond to the ‘call’
  • I got ideas for my improvised response from the ‘call’

Some people preferred the freedom of the open-ended drone:

  • It was liberating
  • Peaceful
  • Could have carried on for ages

One person said they didn’t know what to play – it was too free. We suggested that children might more easily come up with ideas and that they may be less inhibited by the open canvas than adults.

At the end of the workshop I asked participants again how they felt about improvising and participants were generally happier/more confident. On the evidence of this brief exploration of improvising in primary music, my conclusion is that improvisation is not an overlooked activity, but that some teachers don’t feel confident or have the skill-set to deliver it. The exercise on structured and free improvisation showed participants the possibilities of both styles and also gave these teachers the confidence and tools for delivering improvisation activities in the classroom.


David House

Delighted to find so many references to improvisation. Fascinating to look into perceptions and implications within the curriculum. It will be good to follow some of these up, but my main thoughts after reading this were centred around how important it is to encourage students to improvise regularly within a spirit of play and to aim for fluency and clarity of purpose. I link improvising with aural awareness, copying material and developing a dynamic library of rhythms and melodic phrases. Plenty of scope for all students. The freedom to experiment, take risks and engage is so important and helps develop a positive approach to music making in class and beyond.

Related Articles

The place of composing in curriculum design

The Music Teachers Association’s second collective blogging project culminates in this final post in the series with excellent responses from teachers and academics reflecting on the article by Martin Fautley and Alison Daubney – ‘The place of composing in curriculum design’ (2019)