Tag Archives: Teaching Improvisation

How do you Teach Improvisation in Music Therapy?

A question that has perplexed me for many years, and an area I am working on is –  how do you teach improvisation?

And further more –  how do you teach improvisation in music therapy?

Scanning the literature … There are many approaches, often courses follow idiosyncratic teaching styles of individual tutors, for example Kratus (1991) created a course on free improvisation with levels of learning – exploration, process, product, fluid, structural and styles and Ford (1995) who thought about learning outcomes as improved collective decision making, enhanced communication or sustained concentration. In the world of music therapy teaching has focused the building of both technical and relational skills (Nordoff and Robbins, 2007, Wigram 2004), or breaking down into the elements (melody, harmony, timbre), (Alvin, 1966; Bunt and Stige, 2014).

Through my PhD research and a collaborative book I am currently working on, I have begun to think about the usefulness of teaching improvisation through themes.

Themes that arise out of improvisation itself, such as:





It seems to me, taking our starting place as the components of improvisation, it is then possible include all the relevant material you might need to teach, like the role of the elements of music, use of intervals, instruments, music as social and relational or contextual role play of music therapy scenarios.

The next question is what areas of learning and teaching does the music in music therapy cover? I am thinking about it in terms of domains of learning … relational, technical and expressive, cultural and heritage etc.

I am in the middle of writing up my PhD, and hope to expand on some of these ideas in the near future

… so … watch … this … space!

Becky White copyright 9th March 2019.

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Alvin, J. (1966) Music Therapy. London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd.

Bunt, L. and Stige, B. (2014) Music Therapy: An art beyond words. (2nd ed). London: Routledge.

Ford, C.C. (1995) Free collective improvisation in higher education. British Journal of Music Education, 12 (2), pp. 103-112.

Nordoff, P., and Robbins, C. (2007) Creative music therapy: A Guide to Fostering Clinical Musicianship. (2nd Ed). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Kratus, J. (1991) Growing with Improvisation. Music Educators Journal. 78 (4), pp. 35-40.

Wigram, T. (2004) Improvisation: Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



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Teaching Improvisation – a balance between the creative and the technical


Over the past two weeks I have started teaching an improvisation evening leisure class at a local FE college. Whilst being very happy to have the opportunity to try out some of my new knowledge in music improvisation, I have found it challenging to really get the heart of how to teach improvisation and meet the needs and expectations of the students. The course is set as fairly broad, and students are at all differing levels of musical skill and experience. Teaching lessons like these is not totally dissimilar to planning music therapy sessions in special education. As a music therapist working in special needs schools I had to devise educational objectives for children with special needs, and find ways of meeting these objectives in the sessions. In running this class for adults, I have to find out what the students want to learn, what their expectations are and then find ways of helping them learn.

I began the workshops by discussing with the students what they wanted to get out of the course and also did some careful observation and listening to their playing and responses during the first lesson (a bit like doing a music therapy assessment). I then decided to adjust the lessons plans week by week to fit into the students needs and learning path. The lesson last week seemed to be a success it used the following format:

  1. Focusing on defining the difference between pulse and rhythm using clapping exercises.
  2. Dorian mode, and inviting the class to improvise using a bass riff.
  3. Free improvisation (supported by myself on the piano).

I think one of the main challenges in teaching improvisation maybe striking a balance between teaching technical musical skills and encouraging creative exploration. It’s common for courses to either fall into one camp or the other. Traditionally teaching in Jazz has placed emphasis on the importance of learning technical music skills before learning creative expression (Murphy, 2009). Although I think there is some truth in this, that learning a technical skills (such as the scale of D major) is important and facilities being able to find creative expression and freedom. It is also important to explore creative expression at whatever level, from complete beginner to advanced musician. In a study of musical identities amongst improvising musicians Wilson and MacDonald (2012) found that jazz musicians placed more emphasis on the importance of technical skill in improvisation and freely improvising musicians placed more emphasis on the importance of the social and relational aspects of improvising. The groups were polarised into their culture and way of thinking about music. However, I think, that both aspects are important, that its important to have a technical grasp of music but also important to have a creative grasp, the challenge is doing both at the same time.

In the class I am currently running, the students have expressed a wish to learn both aspects of improvising. So last week I included specific technical information and then also a free improvisation. I was also open to any initiated music by the class, for example one student started a blues jam and I encouraged the class to go with it, letting the class take the lead in their own learning experience. This may be a key skill in teaching improvising, providing the right technical musical information but also providing what Winnicott (1971) called the ‘potential space’ in which people are free to explore play and creativity.


Murphy, J. (2009) Beyond the Improvisation Class: Learning to Improvise in a University Jazz Studies Program In Solis, G. and Nettl, B., eds. (2009) Musical Improvisation, Art, Education and Society. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Wilson, G, B. and MacDonald, R, A, R. (2012) The Sign of Silence: Negotiating musical identities in an improvising ensemble. Psychology of Music. 40(5), pp.  558 – 573.

Winnicott, D, W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London and New York. Routledge.









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Filed under Academic, Music Therapy, Research Methods, Teaching improvisation