I’ve recently been reading some older papers from around twenty years ago which discuss whether music improvisation is an acquired or a taught skill. Hall (1992), an ethnomusicologist, thought that improvisation couldn’t be taught and was only acquired and absorbed through culture and unconscious learning. He thought that musicians primarily learnt to improvise through being in a musical improvisational culture ( ie, jazz) and learning was through hearing and seeing others improvise.
I wonder if the question of whether improvisation can be taught was a contentious issue in the 1990’s? Since other educators and musicians at the time wrote very clearly about the teaching of improvisation and championed the introduction of courses into formal music education. One such American educator was Kraus (1991) who devised a seven step method (based on the Dalcroze style of music teaching, 2014) designed to help musicians develop improvisational skills, from first steps to the development of stylistic playing and individual style.
Indeed my own experience of formal music education in the 1990’s was very dismissive of improvisational skills, and several times at music college I was told that improvisation couldn’t be taught, and one tutor even stated that jazz musicians were only playing jazz because they couldn’t make it in the classical world! Thankfully, the world of music education has moved on, and now improvisation, especially jazz improvisation is part of the mainstream for music students studying at Higher Education level.
So, back to the question;
‘Is Improvisation an acquired or taught skill?’
In my opinion it’s probably both, children are natural improvisers and music improvisation is part of childhood play and development (Flohr, 1979). If any of you have ever read the wonderful book by Iona and Peter Opie (1985), ‘The Singing Game’ which is a rich collection of playground songs created and sung by children, its obvious that musical play is a natural and human inclination. So if we all have music play within us it must be possible to develop our natural inclination to play with sounds and learn how to harness the skill when we go to school or college. I expect that both types of learning continue into adulthood, and we continue to unconsciously absorb musical cultures and influences, but also learn from tutors, mentors, recordings, performances, workshops, lessons and lectures.
Right now, at the beginning of my research journey, I am interested in stories of how people have learnt to improvise and what your experience has been. Please feel free to share and contact me about any of your experiences of improvising, how you learnt to improvise, was it at home playing along to a recording, or was it with a teacher? Feel free to leave a comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dalcroze (2014) Dalcroze. Available at: http://www.dalcrozeusa.org/. Accessed 24th August 2014.
Flohr, J. (1979) Musical Improvisation Behaviour of Young Children. PhD. Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Hall, E. (1992) Improvisation as an Acquired, Multilevel Process. Ethnomusicology (online). Volume 36. (2.), pp. 223-235. [Accessed 21st August 2014].
Kratus, J. (1991) Growing with improvisation. Music Educators Journal. Volume 78. (4), [Accessed 21st August 2014].
Opie, I and Opie, P. (1985) The Singing Game. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.