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Creative Exercises That Introduce Students to Improvisation

By Matt Turner | September 21, 2017

Creative Exercises That Introduce Students to Improvisation

Imagine this scenario: A classically trained violinist from Germany, a jazz musician from the United States, a sinawi musician from South Korea, and a master drummer from Ghana converge to perform at a predetermined location.  These musicians are unable to communicate using a common spoken language, and two of the musicians do not read traditional notation.  Yet, after rehearsing for a few hours, they take to the stage to perform an hour-long concert—no music stands and no written music.  Remember, they have just met for the first time and are able to find enough in common among them that they are able to successfully improvise an inspiring performance.

Is this scenario a fantasy? No. This kind of performance is becoming a common reality more and more. The above described situation is my dream world—one in which musicians can come together to make music (here, through improvisation) in a creative space.  It goes beyond a multi-cultural approach and instead, embraces a method that is transcultural—a creative approach that finds commonalities among and across cultures, styles, and genres that are used to create something fresh and new.

All musicians should create their own music, whether it is through improvisation, composition, arranging, or some other collaborative endeavor. Painters and sculptors create art; musicians should create music as well—not only interpret music from the written page. Yet, it is still common for musicians—especially in the classical arena—to learn music only through interpretation. Should not all musicians create music?

In Sound Innovations: Creative Warm-ups, we offer a unit designed to give both teachers and students opportunities to improvise in safe and simple ways. One approach is to improvise using a chaconne and its subsequent variations in jazz, Latin, and rock styles. Another unique way is to improvise an Arabic taqsim—a non-metrical improvisation created using a drone and a macam (mode).

Sample Taqsim Exercise:

Taqsim Exercise
  • A small group of students quietly performs a drone on E.
  • During the drone, the teacher (or a designated student) performs a short p  hrase or riff; the ensemble echoes the phrase (call and imitation).
  • Keep it simple—use only two or three pitches (E, F, G) to introduce the exercise.
  • As students become more comfortable, add a few more pitches. In Creative Warm-ups, we explore taqsim using an E Phrygian mode. Eventually, you will introduce all of the pitches in the E Phrygian mode (E,F,G,A,B,C,D,E).
  • When using call and imitation, it is important for students to focus on rhythm and style (including inflections and articulations) first, and then to focus on correctly performing the pitches. Rhythm first!
  • Next, the teacher performs a short phrase or riff, and each student individually improvises a phrase using any of the pitches from the E Phrygian mode. The teacher begins the “sentence” and the student completes it (call and response).
  • Finally, a small group of students performs the drone, and two selected students go back and forth improvising a performance based on the E Phrygian mode. Student A might improvise for 15 seconds followed by Student B improvising for 20 seconds. And, so forth.

Not an expert in taqsim? No worries! The overall concept is more important.  Model for your students in a style (or non-style) that you feel comfortable performing—classical, baroque, fiddling, jazz, rock, etc.  I use this exercise with my college-aged students when they are struggling with improvising within a particular mode. The non-metrical nature of the music allows us to slow everything down to better get inside of the mode and gives the performer the opportunity to use space—an important component in improvisation.

I hope that teachers find this lesson informative and that they will treat improvisation and composition as core components in the education of their students. Creative Warm-ups gives us those opportunities. Go for it!


Matt Turner

Matt Turner is widely regarded as one of the world's leading improvising cellists. Equally skilled as a pianist, Turner performs in a myriad of styles and has shared the stage with Cape Breton fiddle sensation Natalie MacMaster, avant-garde musicians Marilyn Crispell, Peter Kowald, Guillermo Gregorio, Scott Fields, and John Butcher, country musician Wanda Vick, singer-songwriter LJ Booth, and jazz musician Bobby McFerrin to name a few and has performed in Canada, Europe and Asia.

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