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Breaking Down the Barriers:

Teaching Classical Musicians to Improvise

George J. Hess
Associate Professor of Music
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music
National University of Singapore


Improvisation has always played an important role in western music. Only in the last
century has the art been lost to classical musicians. There are very good reasons for
classical musicians to reconsider and include improvisation in their training and
performance and conservatories should include non-idiomatic improvisation in their
curriculum. An introductory course in improvisation should be designed to overcome
the primary barriers -- fear, motivation and time -- and provide students with the skills
needed to improvise successfully. Such a course can be organized according to the
various practices – melodic, harmonic, rhythmic or free -- should include general
exercises as well as repertoire-based. A well-designed course can provide students with a
basic understanding of the role of improvisation in music as well as the basis for lifelong


Somewhere along the way, classical musicians lost the desire and therefore the ability to
improvise. There are many reasons for this, but when the practice was lost, an important
part of the concert experience that makes live performance vital was lost as well.

Classical musicians would do well to reconsider the practice. From a musical standpoint,
improvisation helps promote a deeper understanding of the music we play. It also can
provide an opportunity to explore one’s instrument more completely and become more
aware of performance techniques. But an inability to improvise may also have
professional consequences as it can limit performance opportunities. Most historically
accurate performance requires it and many contemporary composers now include
elements of improvisation in works that can hardly be called experimental. As younger
audiences in particular seem to embrace new music and improvisation, it is likely to
become even more common. (Kozinn, 2006)

The case can be made that a non-idiomatic improvisation class should be a part of every
classical musician’s training. From a historical standpoint, they should be aware of the
significant role improvisation has played in western music as well as the music of other
cultures. Musically, students will develop unique skills and insights not found in other
ways. And for some, it will develop into a passion and career path.

The Barriers

Of the barriers to teaching the conservatory student to improvise, none is so great as

overcoming the ego. Unlike beginners, students at a conservatory are generally very
competent performers who expect to play well. As most pieces in the repertoire have
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already been vetted, only their performance and interpretation is subject to evaluation.
Not so with improvisation. The performer is now at least an equal partner with the
composer and the quality of the music and the performance rests with them. As most
performers recognize that they are not composers on par with the masters, they are
intimidated, which further limits their performance. For some, this results in paralysis.

Lack of motivation is another barrier. Why bother to learn to improvise? It is clear that a
classical musician can have a successful career without ever improvising a single note and
it is far easier to stick with what you know and work on interpreting music. For many
students (and their teachers) improvisation is something a jazz or experimental musician
does, not a potential concert soloist.

The third barrier is simply a lack of time. Improvisation is not something that happens
spontaneously. It requires a great deal of preparation and an understanding of the music
that goes beyond that required for interpretation. And unlike Mozart or Liszt who were
improvising in the style of the time (Gould & Keaton, 2000), the modern improviser
must choose to study the music of one or more periods extensively to become
competent and confident enough to improvise in public. Unfortunately the demands
placed on conservatory students by studio instructors, ensembles and coursework leaves
little time for “extracurricular” activities such as learning to improvise.

The Case for Improvisation

Convincing a classical performer of the necessity of learning to improvise is not easy and
not every classical performer will learn to improvise at a concert level. However, there
are good reasons for all musicians to learn to improvise to some degree.

For performance students, the best reason to learn to improvise is to develop a greater
understanding of their repertoire and their own performance practices. Through their
explorations they may also develop greater insight and perhaps even greater technical
command of their instrument. Composers on the other hand, will find improvisation
can often be an important source of new ideas. Indeed, improvisation has been
responsible for many developments in music.

Historically, much of western art music before 1825 included improvisation. Baroque
melodies were highly embellished and ornamented and realizing a figured bass left a great
deal up to the performer. Mozart and Beethoven improvised the cadenzas to their
concertos only writing some of them down later for other, lesser players. Well into the
19th century many other well-known composers such as Schubert, Chopin and Brahms
were all accomplished improvisers (Moore, 1992). Much of the modern repertoire, from
the aleatoric works of Cage and Stockhausen to interactive computer music, is entirely
improvisational. Clearly, the non-improvising musician is placing severe limits on the
type of music they will be able to play.

The modern musician will not only need to be a creative artist, but also a creative
business and marketing person as well. Only a select few will become members of a
major orchestra and even fewer will be concert soloists. For others though,
improvisation can be a way to help create a unique identity and audience. Whether in a
historically accurate ensemble, a contemporary group or one that specializes in the music
of another culture, there are opportunities for improvising musicians to promote their
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Even students whose careers will take an academic turn will benefit from a study of
improvisation. Those moving into musicological fields will find an understanding of it
essential for most research areas and computer musicians will need to design systems
that include a significant improvisational component. It is clear that improvisation is a
skill that all musicians should develop.


Based on the above suppositions an introductory improvisation class for conservatory

students can be designed. The primary objectives of the class are to stimulate student
interest in improvisation in one or more styles, leading to further investigation; and to
breakdown the barriers to improvisation by providing necessary skills, demonstrating
relevance and promoting successful experiences in improvisation.

A decision needs to be made about the basic organization of the class. As a great deal of
material from many eras and cultures needs to be covered, the course could be primarily
organized chronologically and geographically. However, there are many similarities in
the improvisational practices found in all music. Therefore a parametric-based
organization was chosen dividing improvisation into either melodically-based practices,
harmonically-based practices, rhythmic-based practices and “free” improvisation in
which all parameters are considered.

The course is designed for twenty-six class meetings, one lecture/discussion class and
one performance lab each week. The course has five primary topics, the four mentioned
above preceded by introductory exercises and discussions.
Each unit includes lecture and resources, exercises and assessment activities. All
assessments are performance-based.

Unit   Styles/Concepts   Exercises   Assessments  

Preliminary   What  is  Improvisation   Parametric  Exercises   See  “free”  
Parameters   Call  and  Response  
Transforms   Transformations  
Melodic   Chant  –  Organum   Descants    
Baroque  Embellishment  and     Prelude  
Ornamentation     Embellishment  
Jazz  Embellishment   Rag  a  Melody    
Indian  Raga     Raga  Melody    
Harmonic   Baroque  Figured  Bass      
Modern  Comping   Jazz  –  Bebop  Blues    
Classical  Cadenza   Cadenza  
Rhythmic   African  Polyrhythms   Percussion  Circle   African  Dance  
Indian  Tala   SuperDivision  
Indonesian  Gamelan  
Free   Aleatoric       Group  Improv  
American  Blues,  Cambodian  Chapei   Solo  Improv  
Interactive  Computer  Music  

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The first exercises have two purposes, one to “break the ice”, but more importantly to
form the basis for the final project. By introducing them early in the class, students have
enough time to develop the skills to perform a coherent free improvisation at the end of
the class.

The first discussions focus on the students’ perception of improvisation, dispelling

misconceptions and presenting the reasons they should learn to improvise. Following
this they identify the basic parameters of music—pitch, time, dynamics, articulation, and
timbre—and the way they can be transformed. An important objective of these exercises
to get students to be more conscious of articulation, dynamics and timbre as
development devices and to develop listening skills that go beyond pitch and rhythm.

Exercises can be performed individually or in a group. Group exercises are of usually of

a call and response type. One student will play a note or idea and the others respond
either alternately or sequentially. The responses can be preset as either similar or
contrasting ideas based on one or more parameters

Sample Exercises
Play the Worst Sound Ever.
This exercise has a number of purposes First, students see just how hard it is for
them to sound terrible. It usually takes a few rounds before some truly terrible
sounds are produced. Second, by the time the exercises are completed, they
students are usually laughing and enjoying their instruments in a way they haven’t
for some time. Finally, they have experienced playing badly with no consequences.

Musical Alphabet
Students try to play the alphabet with their instruments. At first it seems a daunting
task, however as the students listen to each other’s interpretation, they begin to
hear more the articulation, pitch and dynamic changes that occur when producing
the vowels and consonants. (Damian, 2001)


Repertoire-based materials are fairly easy to construct, but require more practice and
discipline by the students. As noted above the style of improvisation is classified by the
dominant parameter, melody, harmony, rhythm or free where all parameters are in play.

Melodic-based Improvisation

Organum is a chant-based style that evolved through improvisation of additional lines.

Chants are beautiful melodies and it is fairly easy for students to hear and improvise lines
in parallel and free styles using syllabic or melismatic styles. While pitch and intervals are
the most important part, they can also explore isorhythms.

Baroque ornamentation and embellishment is perhaps the clearest example of

improvisation in the canon of western music. Students can examine some of the early
works of French keyboardists such as D’Anglebert’s unmeasured preludes and
Couperin’s dance suites along with included tables of ornaments. A comparison of
historically accurate performances and more Romantic interpretations is also a useful
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activity. The solo sonatas of Archangelo Corelli and other middle Baroque composers
are an excellent vehicle for students to practice ornamentation and embellishment.
Students should play each section twice, the first time as written with only basic
ornaments such as trills at the cadences, followed by an embellished repeat. If an
accompanist who can realize a figured bass is available to play the continuo part, the
exercise is that much more effective.

Modern jazz also uses a similar technique of embellishing melodies of standard songs.
Comparing recorded examples of the same song by different players will reveal many of
the techniques used. The basic embellishments involve displacement of notes by a half
beat and using stepwise approach notes. More elaborate embellishments are often
harmonically-based and can be excluded from this section. Any standard song, either
from a fake book or published edition, can be used as the basis for this exercise.
Accompaniment by piano or guitar is recommended so students can hear the tension
created by their modifications.

Indian (Carnatic) Ragas offer another type of improvisation experience. Students can
construct modes (mela) not found in western music, create melodies based on them and
learn some of the traditional embellishments (gamaka) including microtonal ones other
involving large leaps. The modes are constructed using two overlapping tetrachords, the
last note of the first tetrachord being the first of the second.

Tetrachord  construction  

Example  raga  

Harmonic-based Improvisation

Improvisation is not limited to soloists. Keyboardists in Baroque and Jazz both

improvise accompaniments based on a sketch harmonic framework. The following
exercises are not intended to provide a comprehensive study of accompaniment
techniques, but only to give the student a basic understanding of what is involved in
improvising an accompaniment.

Realize a Figured Bass

Prepare a short (4-8 measure) bass line with figured bass. A 2 beat harmonic
rhythm generally work best to allow for some freedom. Students identify the
progression and play without notating it. Variation: have students add non-chord
tones and ornaments.
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A blues or other simple chord progression works best. Students should learn to
play 3rd’ and 7ths and add one or two color tones (tensions) to fill out the chord.
Variations include changing the color tones and inverting the 3rd and 7ths. Accompany
the student with bass and/or drums or use a recorded or computer-based
backing track.

The classical cadenza could be considered either melodic or harmonic. While it occurs on
the tonic six-four chord of the final cadence, the soloist is in no way limited to playing
only on that chord and frequently implies any number of chord progressions borrowed
from themes and other materials found in the concerto. To prepare the students discuss
the form of the cadenza and role of the cadenza and play examples of improvised
cadenzas by Robert Levin or Joshua Bell and compare to the written cadenzas played on
other recordings. One important point to make is that the cadenza is not expected to be
the height of composition, but is really a place for the performer to show off a little
(Tarloff, 2010). Students should be encouraged to use all means at their disposal, as there
is little chance of excessive virtuosity. However, it should be clear that the cadenza must
relate to the movement and not merely empty pyrotechnics (Swain, 1988).

Classic Cadenza
For this exercise, choose a Mozart solo concerto (the Bassoon concerto is a good
one) as the themes are clear and memorable and harmonic rhythm is slow. Play a
recording of the recapitulation of the movement stopping at the fermata on the
tonic six-four, where the student takes over and plays the cadenza ending on the
characteristic trill. Restart the recording to complete the movement.

Free Improvisation

Free improvisation is the easiest to do but most difficult to do well. With little traditional
structure or composed material to work with, improvisers are left to their own devices.
One of the more common pitfalls is to revert to scales and arpeggios and other familiar
patterns. Exercises need to encourage students to explore new material and use their ears
rather than their fingers to guide them. As noted above the preliminary exercises are
intended to provide the student with exercises to work on throughout the semester to
provide a basis for the final exercises. There are many examples available to use in class,
including Aus den Sieben Tag by Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Notations (out of print)
by John Cage.

Tell Me a Story
Students write a short story about an event in their life. They then play the story
using the rhythm and phrasing of the text while trying to convey the feeling of the

Group Improvisation
Group improvisation requires some unifying principles. Students can use scales,
meters, images, verbal ideas, or any other idea to provide a basis for the
performance. Some elements that can help ensure success are: scales where all
notes sound good together such as pentatonic, whole tone or octatonic; mixed
meters; and call and response. Assigning roles can also ensure that the
performance doesn’t get too cluttered, a common pitfall in free improvisations.
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Any of the exercises can form the basis for assessment. It is important to include a
reflective component on any assessment where students describe and evaluate what they
did and discuss how it could be improved.
Consider also that not all assessments need to be for a grade. As the student is already
experiencing a certain amount of anxiety, non-graded feedback can be an excellent way
to alleviate it, while providing needed guidance


Improvisation has been a significant part of music since the first person sang or banged
on a hollow log. It has also been a part of western art music for most of its history and
still plays a significant role in much modern music. Classical musicians should not ignore
the tradition and the potential improvisation brings to music. Conservatories should
include and encourage improvisation throughout the curriculum. A survey of
representative historical and cultural practices can provide students with a basic
understanding of the role of improvisation in music as well as the basis for lifelong study.

Bibliography (* denotes Student Reading List component)

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Cage, John. Notations. West Glover VT: Something Else. 1969. Print
Damian, Jon. The Guitarist’s Guide to Composing and Improvising. Boston MA: Berklee 2001.Print
Donnington, Robert. “On Interpreting Early Music”. Music and Letters 28.3 (1947): 223-241. Jstor. Web. *
Edberg, Eric “Improvisation for Classical Musicians.” Eric Edberg. 2010. Web.
Gould, Carol S., & Kenneth Keaton. “The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance.” The
Journal of Aesthetics and Criticism 58.2 (2000): 143-148. Jstor. Web.
Kozinn, A. “Check the Numbers: Rumors of Classical Music's Demise Are Dead Wrong.” New York
Times. 28 May 2006. Web.
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Nettl, Bruno. “Thoughts on Improvisation.” The Musical Quarterly 60.1 (1974): 1-19. Jstor. Web.
Rush, Philip Eugene. (2004) A String Player’s Guide to Improvisation in Western Art Music. Unpublished
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Swain, Joseph P. “Form and Function of the Classical Cadenza.” The Journal of Musicology 6.1 (1988): 27-59.
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Tarloff, Erik. “Classical Cadenzas” The Atlantic. 9 February 2010. Web.
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