Garrett Michaelsen, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Improvisation is music theory and ear training with immediacy. The command of theoretical concepts required to create music in the moment, combined with the necessary abilities to hear internally and recognize what is being performed by others, make improvisation an ideal activity for all theory classrooms. As a result of the integration of complex skills required by improvisation, it is important that activities be scaffolded, or supported by constraints and preparatory activities, before being attempted. Even more importantly, improvisation is a creative and fun activity for engaging with music theory. Using improvisation to teach theory has been receiving growing recognition, as evinced by its inclusion in recent aural skills texts by Jones and Shaftel, Phillips, Piper Clendinning, and West Marvin, and Rogers and Ottman. What these approaches do not typically focus on, however, are group improvisations. When improvising together, students engage their audiation, recognition, and creative skills simultaneously while forging stronger musical and social bonds. By placing well scaffolded group improvisations at the center of theory and ear training curricula, students will gain a deeper and more personal understanding of theoretical concepts that they will carry into their lives and careers as musicians.
Improvisation is an activity that simultaneously develops and integrates the two fundamental aural skills emphasized by most curricula: recognition and audiation, or what Michael Rogers called “the understanding ear and the hearing mind” (2004). In traditional aural skills instruction, recognition is developed primarily through passive listening activities like interval and chord identification, dictation, and transcription, and audiation through sight-singing. Kate Covington described these teaching methods as “objectivist” and argued that improvisation is a “constructivist” approach that allows students to construct their own knowledge through context-rich activities. Improvising in group settings therefore requires recognition and audition to be employed simultaneously. During an improvisation, students must decide on what to play, audiate the materials internally, perform these materials externally, and then evaluate whether or not what came out was what they intended. Well designed group improvisations activate the recognition skill by requiring students to listen to each other, incorporating the contributions of the whole group before deciding on their next utterance. Furthermore, improvisation facilitates what Steve Larson termed “integrated music learning”: the “aural, vocal, visual, intellectual, digital, kinesthetic, and emotional understanding of musical relationships” (1995). By designing activities that require interactive listening, group improvisations can effectively develop audiation and recognition together, as well as multiple modes of understanding that span both the mind and body.
To illustrate how a common improvisation activity can be improved through scaffolding and group performance, consider the following: A student is given a simple harmonic progression in a key, such as I–IV–V–I with one chord per bar, and instructed to improvise a melody that makes the progression audible to a listener. Achieving success at this activity requires precise knowledge of key, chords, scales, nonchord tones, patterns of metric emphasis, and melodic aesthetics. In a similar manner to the preparatory steps offered by species counterpoint, the following scaffolding will help students synthesize this knowledge and prepare them to perform it in real time:
Adding in a group dimension pushes the activity even further. Ask a second student to accompany the first at the piano using the same chord progression. At first this student might sustain the chords in simple block voicings, but later on he or she should try out various accompanimental patterns (e.g. Alberti bass). Eventually, the accompanist should adapt his or her playing to fit the style of the melodist. Through close listening, the accompanist will learn to mimic dynamic levels, manner of articulation, and musical style, and to fill in gaps in the texture by supplying more active utterances. To further challenge recognition, allow the students to interactively determine a chord sequence from a specified menu (e.g. I, IV, and V). This activity requires extremely close listening between the two improvisers in order to pick up on cues indicating each new chord. Particularly for the melodist, this activity requires careful attention to metrical emphasis and voice leading connections in order to make the chord change audible and obvious to the accompanist. A number of scaffolds will help:
The improvisation activity I have been discussing can be used across an entire theory sequence by adding in harmonic complexity as it is introduced. As students practice it semester to semester, they will increase their harmonic vocabularies and reduce their need for scaffolds. I find this to be an essential activity for ingraining principles of harmonic progression in students and an ideal example of the constructivist principles inherent in improvisation. In order to give an idea of the broad range of theoretical concepts that benefit from being taught through improvisation, here are three activities to consider using in theory classes:
With the goal of engaging students using complex, real-world, constructivist teaching methods, no tool is of greater value than improvisation. The complexity of improvisation is both a blessing and a curse, however, making the thoughtful creation of scaffolds even more essential. Group activities with clearly defined roles and constraints provide inexperienced students structure and peer support, helping them to overcome the hesitancy many feel towards improvisation. Moreover, improvising in group settings closely mimics a real-world music making context. As students are improvising to learn theoretical concepts, many of them will also be learning to improvise, and thus scaffolded group improvisations will give them the support needed in order to integrate music theory into their lives as musicians.
This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Garrett Michaelsen and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.