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How to integrate improvisation into instrumental music lessons?


Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, to name a few, were all exquisite improvisers (Alberge, 2020; Azzara, 1999; Schau, n.d.), and until the end of the nineteenth century, improvisation was central to classical music (MacDonald, 2022). However, as notation became more detailed and listeners wanted to hear the same cadenza being played repeatedly, improvisation in Western classical music gradually disappeared. At the same time, jazz music became popular, and improvisation became viewed as the defining technical aspect of this genre (Azzara, 1999; MacDonald, 2022).

So how can we make sure that improvisation once again becomes part of instrumental music lessons and thus adds to a young musician’s skill set? In the following section, we will examine the benefits of practising improvisation, why instrumental music teachers might not be confident in teaching it, and how we can help them overcome their resistance.

Current literature

Benefits of improvisation

“In spite of the fact that the most widely performed and listened to musics are rooted in fundamentally improvised genres, formal music education is focused on teaching instrumentalists to accurately read sheet music and does not teach them to improvise.” (Sawyer, 2007)

With this statement, Sawyer claims that improvisation should be at the core of music education. He argues that music students would have a better foundation when they have a firm basis in improvisational practice (Sawyer, 2007). The benefits of a curriculum that emphasises improvisation are a better understanding of how music works, improved creativity and musical expression (Harmon, 2015; Hickey, 1997; Sawyer, 2007; Scott, 2007; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022). Knowing how to improvise also enables students to comprehend better musical traditions in non-Western cultures, where collaboration and improvisation are more common. (Sawyer, 2007). Other benefits include improved listening skills and social interaction (Biasutti, 2017; Kratus, 1995; MacDonald, 2022; Scott, 2007; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022), as well as increased empathy and experiences of flow (Dolan et al., 2018; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022). Lastly, practising improvisation has been shown to facilitate personal expression Veld (Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022), improve technical and aural skills Veld (MacDonald, 2022; Scott, 2007) and prepare students better to interpret written scores (Sawyer, 2007).


The teacher’s perspective

Despite all the benefits listed above, music teachers are still hesitant to incorporate improvisation in their instrumental music lessons. One of the reasons is that they are too focused on teaching students how to read music and master their instruments (Sawyer, 2007; Scott, 2007). Teachers also find it challenging to teach improvisation, mainly because they have not received any education on teaching it (Azzara, 1999; Hickey, 1997; Stringham et al., 2015). Therefore, it is important to examine how improvisation can be taught and how teachers can create a proper environment for teaching improvisation in instrumental music lessons.


Improvisation exercises

MacDonald (2022) defines three categories when implementing improvisation in education. The first one is based on movements and signs. For example, when the teacher touches his/her palm, students play a long note; when he/she touches her knuckles, they play short notes. The second category is based on visual information such as graphic scores in which colour and shape might denote instrumentation, articulation, pitch, etc. The last category is based on the translation of the text, where students would interpret a single word like ‘happy’ or even whole sentences. Other exercises provided by the research of Verneert and Verbeeck (2022) and Scott (2007) could be placed in these same categories.

Both also introduce improvisation based on melodic or rhythmic material, where students start with a specific melody or rhythm and create variations or embellishments on the theme. Another aspect they introduce is the use of specific scales, such as pentatonic scales, blues scales or, more specifically: ‘Gamelan Pelog’, an Indonesian scale, which provides the students with a limited choice of notes and thus reduces the possibility of playing wrong notes or creating dissonance. Next to specific exercises, research also emphasises the importance of learning music by ear as well as singing and clapping certain melodies or rhythmic patterns (Azzara, 1999; Scott, 2007; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022).


A safe environment

In addition to having access to tools and exercises to teach improvisation, research also shows the importance of creating an environment where students feel safe to improvise (Hickey, 2015; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022). Therefore, it is essential that the teacher takes on the role of a guide or facilitator instead of a leader or director. This implies that the teacher is an equal part of the group and approaches the exercises with the same curiosity and openness to experimentation as the students (Hickey, 2015; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022). Hickey (2015) also found no place for judgmental feedback in improvisation. To create a safe space, it is essential to offer constructive feedback and dialogue about the improvisation rather than criticising it. This gives students the freedom to make mistakes while learning from reflecting on the improvisation they played (Hickey, 2015).

My own practice

..I teach in part-time art education in Belgium called “Deeltijds Kunstonderwijs (DKO)”. In this context, students have one hour of instrumental lessons each week, mostly in groups of two to four. Because of the possibility of creating dialogues and interplay, for example, improvisation exercises are helpful to involve each student as much as possible throughout the hour. I am comfortable with improvisation as I studied classical and jazz saxophone. I felt that being able to improvise helped me grow as a musician, and I, therefore, integrate improvisation exercises into my teaching. As a teacher, I always like to participate and become an equal part of the group. When I am involved as a player, I can present them with musical examples without talking, so it becomes a conversation which I like to compare to a conversation between a native speaker and someone who is learning a new language; you learn whilst doing. It also helps the students to open up more easily. This way of participating in the improvisation exercises relates to the findings of Hickey (2015) and Verneert and Verbeeck (2022) on creating a safe space.

When talking about improvisation in instrumental music lessons with my colleagues, Cédric and Nele, who both teach saxophone, I realised not everyone is as comfortable with teaching improvisation. This confirms the findings of Azzara (1999), Hickey (1997) and Stringham et al. (2015). Both Cédric and Nele tried to use improvisation in their lessons but gradually stopped doing it because students were struggling with improvising. Cédric let his students play over a backing track, and Nele worked with one student to improvise over chord changes. They stated it was difficult for them to match the exercises to the levels of their students and missed the skills/knowledge to present them with the necessary intermediate steps to overcome certain obstacles (C. Delvaux, N. Vandeweyer, personal communications, January 23, 2024).

To provide them and others with examples of how I integrate improvisation in my instrumental lessons, I filmed some of the improvisation exercises we did in my class over the past weeks. These exercises fit well into the three categories presented by MacDonald (2022).

Improvisation exercises

Improvisation on a word

The first exercise is an improvisation on one word. In this example, my students chose the word “Knikkerbaan” (marble track). They played one by one to recreate the marbles rolling through different obstacles and routes on the marble track.

improvisation – “musical chain”

The second exercise is what I like to call the “Musical chain”, and the first step goes as follows: Everyone can play two notes of their choice, which may vary in dynamics, length, articulation, etc. The order of the players is determined in advance, and you should start once the previous one has finished playing. In the second step, the order of the players is still fixed, but they can start to play from the moment the previous player has started his first note. This will create an overlap in sounds.

improvisation of a graphic score or painting

The third exercise involves improvisation on graphic scores or paintings. The exercise is simple: The students are presented with some graphic scores and/or paintings, and they can choose an image or graphic score they like most. I ask them to play the image or graphic score. At first, I gave some examples and talked about different approaches they could follow (sometimes the graphic score had specific rules they had to follow, f.e. in this video, they had to go around the circle at least once before stopping). However, now they know what to do when I bring paintings, images or graphic scores, and they often surprise me with their creativity.

improvisation on a drone

In the fourth exercise, we took turns playing over a drone using a scale Jonas struggled with. After a first run, we adapted the scale to match a problematic passage in the first movement of Recuerdos de España, a piece Jonas was working on. This way, he got used to the shape of the scale and the fingerings while improvising.

diatonic improvisation on a major triad

The fifth exercise resembles the previous one, but the students played a major triad instead of using a drone. They took turns improvising but had to make contact when they finished their solos to hand over the solo to a fellow student.

improvisation on chord changes

The last exercise involves playing over chord changes and shows how I approach this with one of my students.

1. Get to know the chord tones/changes.
2. Improvise with chord tones.
3. Improvise on a pattern with a passing note
4. Play 4 bars of a written solo followed by 4 bars of improvisation.



In conclusion, incorporating improvisation into instrumental music lessons is a valuable and effective way to enhance students’ learning experiences. Although it has been largely absent in formal music education, improvisation can help students develop important skills such as improved listening, musical communication, social skills and technical mastery (Harmon, 2015; MacDonald, 2022; Sawyer, 2007; Scott, 2007; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022). Current literature and personal examples show various ways to integrate improvisation into music lessons, even if teachers feel they need to be more proficient in it. It might be interesting to look at how these exercises could translate to different teaching environments, such as private teaching, as most of the personal examples work well because of the specific teaching environment in Belgium. As a teacher, it is essential to create a safe space when practising improvisation by taking on the role of facilitator (Hickey, 2015; Verneert & Verbeeck, 2022) and by taking time to reflect on the improvisations together with the students (Hickey, 2015). By doing so, students can explore their musical ideas and develop a deeper understanding of the music they are playing (Sawyer, 2007). Future research could explore the effectiveness of different improvisation teaching methods and their impact on students’ musical development. It would also be interesting to look at the importance of teacher training in improvisation and how it can be incorporated into formal music education programs. By exploring these areas, we can gain a better understanding of the benefits and challenges of integrating improvisation into instrumental music lessons and develop more effective strategies for teaching and learning this musical skill.


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Azzara, C. D. (1999). An Aural Approach to Improvisation: Music educators can teach improvisation even if they have not had extensive exposure to it themselves. Here are some basic strategies. Music Educators Journal, 86(3), 21–25.

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Stringham, D. A., Thornton, L. C., & Shevock, D. J. (2015). Composition and Improvisation in Instrumental Methods Courses: Instrumental Music Teacher Educators’ Perspectives. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 205, 7–25.

Verneert, F., & Verbeeck, J. (2022). Improvisation for all! Hoe beleven leerlingen collectieve vrije improvisatie in het leerplichtonderwijs? LUCA School of Arts.

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