Thursday, January 1, 2009


Improvisation Exercises for Musicians is an adaptation of an earlier paper, Pedagogy in Improvisation, a work that started as a documentation of improvisational exercises found within classical, contemporary classical, and "non-idiomatic" (or sometimes called "free") styles. The purpose of the original work was to create a practical list of exercises and activities for musicians, especially for those within the classical medium whom the opportunity to participate in improvised musics tended to be rare. Since then, the project has expanded in scope and have begun to incorporate methods and techniques from jazz, pop, rock, and many strains of musics from around the world. Many of the methods listed here are also adaptations of ideas found in composition and musicology, as an attempt to bridge the gaps that exist between theory and practice.

As such, this project will be partially intellectual, partially practical, partially analytical, partially pedagogical -- but always with the intent of creating a unified methodology that integrates aspects of theory, performance, history, and aural training. In music classes these skills are normally taught separately and students often have trouble understanding how they relate to one another. Improvisation can, however, enable the musician to do all of those things simultaneously, allowing them to connect the dots and refine their skills in a holistic sense. At this point in time there has been enough research done on the matter to substantiate the argument that improvisation can be a useful tool toward improving one's musicianship -- and it seems very likely that it will become a commonplace activity in the near future.

It is, however, also common for musicians to express frustration with improvisation because it lacks the directive quality that notation provides for its performers. Improvisation can sometimes overwhelm the musician with so many possibilities and choices that they lose the ability to make decisions and are left paralized. The exercises listed here are designed to address these concerns -- while some musicians are naturally predisposed toward playing "freely", others may be more comfortable improvising within defined parameters that give the sessions direction and structure. Over time most improvisors find a healthy balance between freedom and structure, tailored to their personality and skill level. It is usually within this process that the activity becomes a form of self-reflection which allows musicians to gain a greater awareness of their own tendencies and preferences.

As any good improvisor would argue, the primary and most important objective for any jam session is active listening. Regardless of style, if musicians are listening to one another interest is automatically generated for both performers and audience alike. The exercises listed here may suggest activities for musicians to do, but at the same time it should also direct their ears toward certain ideas which allows it to become an ear-training method as well. The list of exercises here have been collected over the course of several years, from workshops, classes, lessons, and meetings with musicians involved in the art of musical improvisation, and it is hoped that the list would continue to grow into something substantial.

If anybody has anything to add to this list, please do share! This is an ongoing project and there is plenty of room for outside contributions. ryant at (Send your name, email, and website if you would like to be credited.)