I view improvisation as a form of conversation. Unless we are giving a prepared speech, people don’t know ahead of time every word they are going to speak. We speak thoughts as they come to mind, respond to what we read, see and hear other people say, forming thoughts that turn into words we speak to others (or possibly even to ourselves). We draw on our known vocabulary and connect what we have observed with our experience to come up with what we say in conversations and in teaching students in a classroom.
The same process is used to from musical thoughts which are played on a musical instrument or sung instead of spoken. We sing or play thoughts as they come to mind, respond to music we read and hear and possibly see (think of pictures or colors to portray with musical ideas, for instance). We draw on our known musical vocabulary of motifs, chords, scales, themes, rhythms, timbres, and meters, and our experience with a diverse repertoire of music to come up with what we say in musical conversations, which we commonly refer to as improvising.
The difficulty most students and truth be told many music educators face when asked to improvise, is that our musical vocabulary is not nearly as developed as our language vocabulary. Even if children have had appropriate musical training from early childhood, they probably haven’t been asked or even thought of on their own using music as extensively and as frequently as language, and rare is the person who hears as many musical ideas, and has as frequent experiences with music as he or she has with their language.
In order to teach students to be improvisers, we need to treat music more like language. This is not to say music is a language; I will not enter to that debate here. But to treat music like a language means that we provide opportunities for children to spontaneously sing musical ideas in a kind of musical conversation. The music teacher sings to a child, “Bod-ee-ba-beep” and the child repeats it back, or sings back a different response, such as “bop-bop-bee-bop.” Eventually, both teacher and student grow a vocabulary of these motifs, and begin to reuse them in different combinations and in different musical settings, using them like the words of a language vocabulary. By doing this frequently, everyone becomes comfortable with improvising, and in fact begin to look forward to improvising, which becomes a fun game to play with combinations of musical sounds, these motifs and patterns of a musical vocabulary.
With a familiarity and background like this, students are never put in the position of pulling an improvisation out of thin air. Improvising music becomes natural, approaching the naturalness with which we regard speaking. Then the mind becomes more musical. No longer does a person just think of a melody, but now delights in playing with it, out loud or silently, privately entertaining him or herself. I have enjoyed this private music making for as long as I can remember. People have frequently caught me softly singing something to myself, and frequently ask me what I’m singing. I often don’t know what I was singing, or can’t tell them because I was just playing around with a rhythm or motif that interests me at the moment. In this frame of mind, music doesn’t get old or annoyingly stuck in my head, but is always an exciting opportunity for musical enjoyment.
An important point in all of this is that improvising is not something an older student can just start doing by “making something up.” It is not reasonable to first bring up the subject of improvisation to a middle school or high school student and expect him or her to quickly be able to pick it up. Musical improvisation is not making random sounds; it is thinking of and performing musical patterns that are typical of a particular musical idiom. Both the patterns and the idiom must be well enough established so that they are familiar and so that the student can fluently think in and perform them as complete musical thoughts. Desperately grabbing at notes from a given scale to fill time in an improvisation section of a jazz chart is not improvisation, because the student is not equipped to organize pitches and rhythms within a known musical syntax. An older student can certainly begin to learn how to improvise, but must go through the same process a young student would: learning musical patterns and styles and beginning with short motifs, gradually building a vocabulary with which the student can fluently work with.