Improvisation—“Musical improvisation means either the creation of something new, or the changing and reworking of existing material in a novel way” (Burnard, 2012, p. 150).

Safe Space for Improvisation—A place where students can relax and be willing to take risks, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, musically challenged, or unwelcome. “A classroom that encourages rather than squelches creative thinking is one that is psychologically safe…and promotes an atmosphere of risk taking (allowing for failure)” (Hickey & Webster, 2001, p. 21).

Philosophical framework:

Spontaneous music making without the assistance of printed music notation is not difficult and can be incorporated from the first days of learning to play an instrument.

Improvisation skill is developmental in nature, and grows naturally from aural-based musicianship (Azzara, 2002).

Performance proficiency and improvisational ability are intertwined (McPherson, 1993).

Improvising and composing are essential components of a comprehensive music curriculum.

If students are encouraged and allowed to improvise from the first weeks of instruction, then it can become an intuitive and natural component of their musicianship.

Teachers must develop their personal creative musicianship to better understand the creative process.

Improvisation can be viewed as either a process or product. When teaching improvisation to beginners I focus on the “process” – improvisation as a way of musical thinking.

When the classroom environment becomes the context for creativity teachers must take into consideration the emotional aspect. Students must feel safe to take risks and experiment without frequent fear of failure (Odena, 2012, p. 516).

It is possible to structure the musical materials and the environment so that students experience success.

Improvisation does not equal “solo.” It is possible to lead an improvisation activity without requiring that individuals take a solo.  

There is no compelling reason to single out students to solo when they are learning to improvise (If my students are learning a piece of repertoire, I don't ask them to perform it as a solo until they have had time to learn and practice the piece).

Students' confidence will build if they are allowed to develop some improvisational fluency before being asked to solo. There will be a time and place for students to have solo opportunities - it just doesn't need to be on the first day they are learning to improvise.

Improvisation does not equal “jazz.” Improvisation is a process that is applicable to all musical styles.

Improvisation activities can focus on individual elements before combining them together:

rhythm, articulation and bowing, dynamics, phrasing, pitch

When students have acquired some skill and confidence in their improvisation ability, then it becomes possible to focus their attention on the  “product.”

When individual students solo, I need to be careful about how I react and what I say—feedback may not function as intended. Duke reminds us, “The function of feedback is independent of its intent” (p. 124) and “a feedback event may function differently for different learners” (p. 125). “The implicit and explicit purposes of feedback in teaching are to inform the learner of the quality or accuracy of her work (emphasis mine) and to impel her to take action or refrain from certain behavior in the future” (Duke, 2013, p. 128).

Characteristics of classroom environments supportive of improvisation

Adapted from Tina Grotzer at Harvard's Project Zero

“Mistakes" are valued for the learning they provide

There are no correct answers

All ideas are okay to share

Ideas are not labeled as "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong."

Validate and respect student responses

Be non-judgmental"

Make time for students to explore

Create a positive atmosphere with encouraging words and actions

Basic approach

Use a harmonic and/or rhythmic background to add interest and keep the pace moving.

•     Step 1- Call and imitation

•     Step 2 – Exploration opportunity

•     Step 3 – Call and response

•     Step 4 – Partners

•     Step 5 – Trios or Quartets

Click here to download sample lessons from beginning through intermediate.


Other improvisation ideas:

•     Variations on a familiar tune (e.g., Bile 'em cabbage down)

•     Use a drone pitch as accompaniment

•     Use an ostinato - short, repeating rhythmic motive created by the students – as the accompaniment, and take turns playing the ostinato

•     Experiment with ornamenting a simple melody in different styles

•     Experiment with non-traditional sounds (slapping, knocking, etc)

•     Use images or stories to stimulate musical improvisation

Q. How often should I include activities like these in my orchestra classes?

A. Include some type of aural-based activity in your class everyday. Strive for including one piece on every concert that offers opportunities for improvisation-based activities as part of the learning process.

There are many great print and internet resources available to help you learn about different styles of improvisation.


Azzara, C. (2002). Improvisation. In Colwell, R., & Richardson, C. (Eds). The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning: A project of the Music Educators National Conference, pp. 171-187. Oxford University Press.

Burnard, P. (2012). Musical creativities in practice. OUP Oxford.

Duke, R. A. (2013). Intelligent music teaching: Essays on the core principles of effective instruction. Learning and Behavior Resources, Austin TX.

Hickey, M., & Webster, P. (2001). Creative thinking in music. Music Educators Journal, 88(1), 19-23.

Kratus, J. (1991). Growing with improvisation. Music Educators Journal, 78(4), 36-40.

McPherson, G. (1993). Evaluating improvisational ability of high school instrumentalists. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 119, 11-20.

Odena, O. (2012). Creativity in the secondary music classroom. In McPherson, G. E., & Welch, G. F. (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of music education (Vol. 1), pp. 512-528. Oxford University Press, USA.

Resources and Further Reading

Aebersold, J. Many recordings and books (

ASTA, Alternative Styles in the Classroom. Alfred Music Publications.

Azzara, C. D. & Grunow, R. F. (2006). Developing musicianship through improvisation. Chicago: GIA Publications.

Lieberman, J.L. – many books, recordings, and DVDs (

Norgaard, M. Jazz Fiddle Wizard Series (

Phillips, B. and Sabien, R.  Jazz Philharmonic I and II. Alfred Music Publications.

Phillips, B. and Dabczynski A. Fiddler's Philharmonic I and II. Alfred Music Publications.

Melinda Crawford Perttu: A manual for learning how to play the violin in the traditional fiddling style of Scotland (recommended to me by Steve Benham).