Can improvisation be 'taught'?: A call for free improvisation in our schools

  • Hickey M
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The purpose of this article is to present the idea that the music education profession's current drive to include improvisation in school music is limited in its approach, and that teaching improvisation, in the traditional sense, is not possible. These beliefs are based on an examination of current methodologies and texts in light of the historical evolution of both improvisation and the teaching of improvisation. The article provides an examination of Jeff Pressing's historical conceptions of improvisation as a continuum model and then briefly looks at the short history of improvisation in American music education in the 20th century. Current methods are examined in light of free improvisation techniques. This leads to a final argument for more free improvisation in school music balanced with the current skills approach used in the USA. The conclusion of this article examines the issues and realities for current practices in music education in light of the beliefs set forth. Nothing seems to raise a heated debate among musicians faster than the question of whether improvisation can be taught. (Borgo, 2005, p. 8) In the beginning of his recent book titled Sync or Swarm, free improviser David Borgo recalls a conversation with noted improvising musician George Lewis about the unease he faced when first presented with the prospect of having to actually 'teach' a course on free improvisation at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). Noting that he was very comfortable actually doing it, Borgo realized that the practice of teaching free improvisation was not common in any university setting that he was aware of: Entering into this new pedagogical terrain I had no immediate models on which to draw. So I contacted George Lewis, the noted improviser, researcher, and the professor at UCSD in the Critical Studies and Experimental Practices Program … In his response to my query, George mentioned that he often begins the class in much the same way that they used to teach swimming – throw them in the deep end and work with what naturally happens. (2005, p. 9)

Author-supplied keywords

  • Creative music education
  • Free improvisation
  • Improvisation
  • Jazz

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  • Maud Hickey

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