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Should My Child Learn to Improvise?

January 5, 2012

Drumming at the CMCImprovisation—the spontaneous creation of music—is an ancient art practiced in cultures worldwide. We tend to think of it these days in terms of jazz, where improvisation, the making of melodies in the moment, is an essential element. But there’s a long tradition of spontaneous music making in Baroque and classical music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin were all brilliant improvisers whose compositional themes often came out of their spontaneous keyboard inventions.

Encouraging young music students to experiment with improvisation “nurtures their creativity and confidence,” says Mark Levine, the noted Bay Area jazz pianist and teacher who studied classical piano for many years. “It’s such a big part of music today. Kids growing up now, even those studying classical music, want to know something about improvisation. It’s great for ear training and getting young musicians to think.”

Skilled jazz improvisers, of course, need to know a great deal about harmony and theory; the music doesn’t just come out thin air. It takes years of practice and study to master the art. But for kids just starting out on their instruments, improvising—making stuff up on the spot—can be great fun and inspire them to want to learn more about music.

“With improvisation, there is no right or wrong answer, no judgment, so it makes kids feel good about playing,” says Susan Muscarella, the classically trained jazz pianist who founded and directs the JazzSchool in Berkeley. “That’s important. It makes them feel free, and accesses a different part of their brain. It encourages them to be creative, to be in the moment and listen.”

There’s a lingering notion that too much classical training can inhibit a musician’s ability to improvise. Muscarella and many other musicians and educators don’t buy that. “Not at all,” she says. “As improvisers, we’re coming up with a thought, a musical sentence, and we need to have the technique to articulate that thought. Not only is Western European music beautiful and artful, it helps students develop finesse, technique and musicality. I’m inclined to feel that everybody can improvise to a certain extent. It’s just that people like Keith Jarrett do it better.” (Jarrett was a classical piano prodigy who embraced jazz as a teenager.)

Sometimes older students who come out of classical music freeze up when they try to improvise because, as Levine puts it, “its’ been drilled into them at an early age that you have to be perfect. They don’t realize when it comes to improvising, there is no perfect.” The more exposure a kid gets to different kinds of music and ways of playing, the better. “It all helps,” Muscarella says. “I really feel that a student is best off with both—reading music and improvising. It not either/or." 

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.