Does Creative Improv evoke the image of playful, creative engagement? Perhaps in spirited play with fellow musicians or as you privately explore and express your own “voice.” Or, does improvisation evoke mild panic—“not learned here, I don’t do that, not my thing,” and, “Where’s the score?” Let’s for a moment set aside our own history of teaching and learning to ask the question, “Which of these orientations do you wish for your students?”
The word “creative” typically resonates with aspirations and is readily embraced. The word “improv” may be scary, however. No surprise if you feel conflicted…both drawn to and a cautionary moving away. Be assured that with a toolbox and a few practiced routines, you can readily invite creative participation with your students. “Developing musical minds and hearts” does take some guts.
We’ve observed young children to be open to creative exploration. Teens may be plagued by a judgmental censor due to social pressures. So, an early start is advised. Adults are often open, but tentative and without tools. One wouldn’t expect a student (or yourself) to immediately improvise a composition or even a melody. Instead, we can ramp into improv skill.
Imagine a family playing folk music together. The younger children participate by moving in rhythm. The teens contribute by strumming chords. The adults take the solo lines. These roles suggest three stages for improvisation skill. Each develops through participation and imitation.
The first stage is resonant participation.
This is finding the shared groove. It is both rhythm and movement. We have this in teacher duets, where the student explores the “attunement” of ensemble. Take time for the student to listen and resonate with your part before they play. You can swap positions and have the student play two or three tones taken from the Teacher Duet and rhythmically ad lib, while you play the student part from the score. The student can approach their part as a drummer, or a bassist playing an ostinato. You might nudge a few extra notes into your part as well. Resonant participation is finding the “groove” and working it together. As we emphasize in My First Piano Adventure®, we’re bringing rhythm into the body.
The second stage of improv is contribution.
Attuned to the groove, the student now adds onto the notated or practiced part. Shift octaves, add 5ths, attach an arpeggio, intro, coda or a slight variation. With a touch of exploration, build on what’s already there. In My First Piano Adventure we recommend reassigning a piece with “creative variations.” This extends the practicing of important perceptual and motor skills over several weeks. Those early-level creative variations are typically teacher-directed, yet the student can help in finding a creative variation. You might give a sticker for a job well done and then assign some creative improv as a playful reward.
The third stage moves from participation and contribution to spotlight.
In the rock ‘n roll era of the 60s, bands typically designated a “rhythm guitarist” and a “lead guitarist.” The improv “contribution” stage is like playing rhythm guitar—it contributes to the groove. Now, in the spotlight, we take the lead line. This simply can be the melody an octave higher or played hands-together. Perhaps it is a variation on the melody. Or, how about a solo that draws from an appropriate scale? This is where it gets fun. We’ll soon see the glow of personal competence and creativity.
Watch for emerging self-agency. Curious, playful exploration becoming confident self-expression. And, importantly, music theory moving from abstract to practical—from remote to “hot,” from pencil to the fingers, from left brain to the heart.
Over the next months, we’ll be rolling out the Faber Creative Improv video library in support of your teaching. Check out the Jazz & Blues KIT, upcoming webinars, tutorial videos, and more. All available in the Teacher Atlas.
Welcome to a new adventure!