Teaching Creativity Through Improvisation

March 31, 2010


Teaching Creativity Through Improvisation

It would seem odd that a music educator would say to a student, “be creative”.  Isn’t that what music performance is about, being creative?  Yes and no.  The answer to this question lies in your definition of creativity.  Is creativity the ability to create something that no one else has done or is it the ability to take something that already exists and re-create (I’m thinking musically here)?

In music education the later is most likely the definition that is embraced.  Schools of music spend a great deal of time teaching their students how to take a musical object, a piece of music, and re-create it.  Music students spend countless hours learning how J. S. Bach composed music (this is the basis of much of our undergraduate theory training) and the historical situation(s) that surrounded him, for example. The act of re-creation can be a creative endeavor.  However, due to the use of music notation performers can simply interpret certain symbols in a way that they were instructed and be rewarded with good grades and applause from audience members.  If you can play Bach well, you must be creative….

Creativity, I feel, lies in a persons ability to take something, extant or not, and breathe into it something of themselves.  Imbuing a composition with your own feelings and instincts is what being an artist, and creative, is all about.  Educators must free students from the shackles of that we place on them… do it this way… Bach would have done this… etc., etc.  Improvisation can be a means to help students tap into their innate creativity. When the word improvisation is invoked, most people feel a great deal of fear.  The mere thought of improvising, the act of creating something on the spot, is a form of paralysis to most.  In order to make someone feel comfortable with improvisation the rules of the game, improvisation, need to be established.

Improvisation is somewhat of a misnomer.  It is not creating something from thin air, but following certain guidelines.  When a student understands that there are parameters in improvisation, I would leave free jazz out of this discussion by the way, and that improvisation can be learned the level of discomfort begins to retreat.  In guitar, students can be introduced to improvisation through a simple left-hand finger exercise.  One of the great things about the guitar, there are many, is that it is a pattern-oriented instrument.  When a student learns a pattern at one point on the guitar, a lick for example, this can be moved to another location and played, resulting in something completely different.

Below is an example of taking a four-note, chromatic, exercise, used to work on finger independence and dexterity, and turning it into a major scale pattern.  This is accomplished by changing the order of the left-hand fingering.  What follows below is an introduction to improvisation and not the end, simply a stepping stone.  The foundational elements, knowing how to interpret the guidelines, are the same in all genres and styles.

Chromatic Exercise/Major Scale Lesson:

Objective: Student will be shown how to play a four-note positional exercise across the guitar neck.  The order of the fingers will be changed as to result in a major scale.  Students will then be given the opportunity to explore the sounds of this scale through improvisation.

Chromatic Exercise:

Note: Encourage students to leave each LH finger down after it plays.  This is to work on finger independence and positional playing.  How the strings are articulated is not important in the first lesson.  The RH thumb, p-pulgar, would suffice.  Have students start at the 7th or 9th fret, as the frets are closer here.  Descend fret by fret.

Two-Octave Major Scale:

Note: The 2nd finger on the 6th string is the tonic note of the scale.  Therefore, whatever note the student begins on is the resulting scale.  Have the students start at the 8th fret, 6th string (the note C).  After the students display a level of comfort with the scale, have them mix up the order of the fingers.  They must use the same fingering, just not sequential.  Play the following chords from the key of C to accompany their “noodling”.

C             Am        F             G

/ / / /    / / / /     / / / /       / / / /


Have students practice this scale pattern in different locations on the fretboard.  Later, give students the following chart indicating where the twelve “keys” are on the 6th string.  Students should practice this scale in all twelve keys.  (Students only need to know what note they need to start on, not all of the notes in the scale – this comes later).

Key 6-string
C 8th fret
F 13th or 1st fret
B flat 6th fret
E flat 11th fret
A flat 4th fret
D flat 9th fret
G flat /F# 2nd fret
B 7th fret
E 12th fret or open
A 5th fret
D 10th fret
G 3rd fret

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