What is improvisation?

I say jump, you say cheese!

When engaging oneself in improv I think it is appropriate to take a moment and consider what it is and why you wanna do it? I have found, through the years, that the concept of improvisation may take many shapes and interpretations.

One person said: “It is putting together phrases you learned in a new way”, another person that it is “singing freely selected notes from an appropriate scale”. A classical pianist, that “it is his interpretation of the composers written music”. On the other side of the spectrum there are people who think of improvisation as “creating brand new music on the fly”, “challenging all boundaries and go somewhere you never went before”. Wikipedia states: ”Improvisation is a state of being and creating action without pre-planning.” Bobby McFerrin often says: “Going from one note to the other”.

The answers ranges from “interpretation under restrictions” to being “completely free”. What they all have in common is leaving something open to the individual choice of the moment.

I enjoy improvising! And that should be enough reason to do it. But as a teacher and artist I need to ask myself; why am I bringing this playful, process oriented and daring approach into peoples lives? On stage, in the classroom and at the choir rehearsal.

  • What qualities does improvisation have?
  • Why should I use it in my teaching?
  • How will I use it in my teaching?

I am asking these questions because it is good pedagogical practice always to have a goal in mind when choosing exercises and approaches. But I am also asking these questions because I think improvisation is really a continuum going from “leaving one thing open in the music” to “Everything is open! Let’s not play anything anyone ever heard before. No key. No rhythm. No-nada-nix-known-nothing.” and I want you to consider when and why the qualities of improvisation are coming into their own. Especially when using it in front of an audience.

  • What qualities does improvised performance have?
  • Which settings or approaches bring out these qualities?

If there is a higher goal with what we are doing, it could be simply “making good music” or it could be “connecting people in singing” or it could be “spiritual journey, inner alignment and free flow of chi”. What ever your answer might be, it is important to be aware of. Also as a group working together.

  • What is the higher goal of singing together?


This article is part of a workshop handout I wrote in November 2013. You can read the whole handout here:

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