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Can you 'teach' improvisation?


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Improvisation or creative music making has certainly become a major talking point during the last couple of years. How to teach improvisation or to facilitate a creative musical environment has left many teachers scratching their heads. There seems to be very little support material to draw on to help overcome the misgivings people may have with how to deal with egger students wishing to learn. What is available is fine in theory but not so easy to put into practice.

The initial question is can improvisation be taught, this needs to be answered. With 25 years of teaching experience primarily addressing jazz and blues I feel the answer is no. What a tutor needs to enable a student to learn is not the notion that he/she is able to teach improvisation but to establish in the lesson a creative musical environment where the student can feel comfortable and secure enough to experiment and search and find their own musical voice. This can only be achieved if the tutor is confident in that creative musical process. This is where a majority of problem lies.

Most musical training is very much centred on reading and examination taking, but the balance of adding creative processes has been ignored. The examination boards have realized the need to add ‘jazz’ to their financially motivated system, but have still managed to leave the first stages of improvising unaddressed. This has again left tutors who in the main have had the normal training in Western Art Music struggling.

Many tutors I have meet over the years actually fear improvisation, and obviously have no hope, until that fear is addressed, in ‘teaching’ improvisation. It is time for many tutors to learn the techniques necessary to facilitate a creative musical space. The books that I have created have been designed to help young and beginner musicians start on a creative musical journey. But since publication teachers have commented on how it has helped them address their reticence toward improvisation and have enabled them to encourage their students with success. The booklet layout is very simple so as to allow 10 year olds to understand it and slowly guides the students of jazz and blues through a number of musical and learning processes that will allow creative playing to be expressed. The booklet has been designed to be used as a reference to the recordings on the CD (50mins). Each CD contains 15 tracks, 6 of which have drums and bass added to the piano. Track one is for tuning. The whole musical structure of the series is based on the blues scales and the book can take a student to the point where they are playing the complete blues sequences in G minor and C minor on any instrument. Each tracks is almost four minutes long so that there is plenty of time for experimentation to take place before the track needs to be repeated. One of the most emphasized issues within the series is to take as much time with each section before moving on, even if it is months. If attempted to fast important realisations or improvising experience will not be absorbed fully. So I continually stress not to rush. This is an issue tutors may find difficult because often there is immense pressure from parents, schools etc to have results or quantifiable development. Improvisation development is not gradable in normal experience because each individuals musical ideas are different and dependent on their playing facility and must be allowed to form naturally. Tutors must not rush their pupils but have faith in the long-term objectives of helping somebody to improvise and not to feel pressured by outside forces.

In each ½ hour lesson only 10 –15 minutes can be given over creative musical playing so a teachers has to be content with little or sometimes no progress whilst the student absorbs and feels the improvisation process. A very relevant term here is ‘feel’. You are creating a space for a pupil to hear and create their own musical voice within the structure of the blues idiom. Feel is one of the main objectives of my book and yours as a teacher. We are endeavouring to help players feel the music they are playing so that listeners of their performances in later years can benefit. To have the patience and an objective view of the improvising process to allow the student to musically grow with your guidance is difficult and a challenge in today’s results or else environment. Patience is paramount. Those wishing or needing to address the issue of improvising will find an ally in my books. It is ideal for tutors who have a fear of improvising to follow the guidance in the books and can then pass the process on to their students from a position of understanding and confidence. Understanding and confidence is vital to the creative musical process you are trying to develop within a lesson, for you and the student, add patience and you have all the necessary tools.

- Mark Buckingham Apr '05


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