Jeffrey Agrell’s Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is one of the most inspiring and innovative books I have come across since reading John Steven’s revolutionary “Search and Reflect” fifteen years ago. In a world where the musical landscape seems to change every minute and where styles, genres and performing traditions from every corner of the world combine daily in myriad ‘unheard of’ ways, it is clear that one of the most valuable abilities that any music can possess is the ability to improvise. For those musicians who have never improvised, Agrell provides a huge number of easily accessible and comprehensible ways to get involved with the process. Though the book’s title clearly suggests an audience of musicians in the classical tradition, I feel that the majority of the exercises would be equally challenging, effective, and educational for musicians from established improvising traditions such as jazz or Indian classical music. Many of the ‘game’ pieces could serve as both simple classroom exercises or as conceptual guidelines for extended improvised performances. The musical range and variety of games, exercises, suggestions and methods presented is astonishing in both breadth and depth. The book is a real ‘must read’ for music educators (either in private tuition or in ensemble settings) who want to open up their student’s understanding of the real creative possibilities of music. It will be equally useful to any musicians of any level of experience who wish to expand the creative and expressive range of their playing.
–Jared Burrows, PhD, author of Resonances: Exploring Improvisation and Its Implications for Music Education
Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is a treasure. One of the most imaginative, helpful, friendly, liberating books about being a musician that I’ve ever seen.
– Composer/Critic/Educator/Writer Greg Sandow, in his blog on the Future of Classical Music
An extraordinary ground-breaking and enjoyable textbook is Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-Jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else by Jeffrey Agrell (2008). This book includes a syllabus for an Introduction to Improvisation course for eight to sixteen students. The section devoted to the general music student includes warm-ups, drum circles, call and response games, body percussion and soundpainting (www.soundpainting.com).
– Michael L. Mark and Patrice Madura in Music Education in Your Hands: An Introduction for Future Teachers, 2011, Routledge, p. 36.
[Letter to the author]
About 4 years ago, I discovered your book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians at Mid-West [international band clinic in Chicago]. At that moment, we had made the commitment to write new curriculum at the junior high level for Band Instruments and Music classes. Your book was a Godsend! It was exactly what I was looking for, and in fact, became the foundation of how we approached our new curriculum. I knew we wanted to focus on creativity and developing independent musicanship in our young musicians, and this gave us a cornerstone. I have distributed this book to every junior high music teacher in the province and this year, the grade 10 band teachers will be getting a copy. In addition, the grade 9 band teachers received a copy of the Improv Games for One Player last fall. So, your name and this resource is widely known here.
Our new Band Instruments 7-9 curriculum is comprised of 10 sequential modules. I am attaching one of those modules for your perusal, so you will have an understanding of how we are approaching learning opportunities for band students. This is still in draft format, but it is getting close to becoming a final document. I have to tell you, I am so excited about this curriculum and the results we are having in our programs. The students are SO engaged in their learning, and are loving the composition, creativity and improvisation opportunities.
–Ardith Haley, Arts Consultant, Dept. of Education, Province of Nova Scotia
Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians by Jeffrey Agrell is an amazing contribution to both the education and enjoyment of all who are interested in musical performances of any kind. The design, the content, and especially the manner in which Jeffrey has presented his wildly creative materials is brilliant. Add to that the fact that what this book addresses is the most neglected and, perhaps the most important aspect of classical musical growth. With this book teachers and performers alike have a wide open door to years of exploration and learning in how to express themselves through their music and free themselves from a total dependence on the printed page and the deeply ingrained traditions of the classical music traditions.
The book is a joy to read, and I can only imagine the impact it will have on students, teachers, and professional musicians who take the time to step outside the rigid confines of their limited training.
–Douglas Hill, Professor of Music, University of Wisconsin-Madison
[Jeffrey Agrell’s new book] provides classical musicians with a more-than-generous pool of inspirations, whether teaching or working solo or in any ensemble, and jazz as well as experimental musicians can also benefit from it. The presentation form is almost encyclopedia-like in its systematic disposition of the material. A must-have for so many college and university libraries – an innovative resource not to be overlooked.
–Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen, lecturer in ensemble improvisation in Music Therapy, Aalborg University, Denmark
A dazzling array of stimulating formats that open entirely new doorways to the art of improvisation for virtually any musician imaginable. Ideal for classical musicians who are just getting started, but also a useful tool for experienced improvisers seeking to expand their horizons. Jeffrey Agrell has made an important contribution to the field.
–Edward W. Sarath, Professor of Music (Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation Studies), University of Michigan; founder of ISIM (International Society of Improvised Music)
Jeffrey Agrell’s book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, provides simple and powerful activities which can open up whole new worlds to musicians of any level of experience. He really hits the right notes as it were, in giving students something, but not too much, to hang on to as they explore the world of improvising. It’s a fantastic compendium of ideas, a set of procedures which are fun to do and which lead to profound results. Bravo!
-Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is an essential book for any teacher or musician who is truly serious about learning or teaching students to “speak” their own music. I give it my highest recommendation!
-Dr. Charles Rochester Young, Composer/Professor of Music, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
I was most intrigued by Jeffrey Agrell’s book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. As a classically-trained hornist, improvisation has always been a world of both mystery and fear. During my 27 years as a high school band director, I was always fearful of improvisation. I knew I could “fake” my way through the style issues, but you can bet I searched for the jazz ensemble arrangements that had the solos written out! This book takes much of the “mystery” out of improvisation.
This book has made me think of “why we play” and “how we learn to play” in a completely different context. Agrell’s correlation between how we learn reading and language and how we teach music has given reason to question many of today’s music education methodologies. What is amazing is that for years we have approached music instruction in ways that defy the logic so plainly laid out in other subject areas. It is surprising that we have been as successful as we have been and clearly, we can be much more effective utilitizing many of the processes described in this book.
I especially see great potential for Agrell’s games in beginning music classes. The first six months of beginning band don’t have to be the nightmare they so often are. I think in our efforts to get them ready for the next level we have forgotten the most important ingredient – fun. These games are much more than games. They could be the keys to success for all the students, not just those who survive traditional instructional methods. The innate motivation that comes from student successes, student involvement, and student ownership would be instant byproducts of these games. Most beginning methods focus on reading notes before playing them. We don’t teach students to write language before they can speak the language – so what are we doing? I think we probably are working harder than we need to and are unintentionally denying success for many of our students. by incorporating many of the games in this book and using them in conjunction with existing methods, I think we can increase retention, learning, and content at all levels of music education.
Jeffrey Agrell’s games are applicable at any age and for every level of development and instruction. The games provide ways to make teaching music technique at multiple levels as well as daily warm-ups fun, exciting, and most important, delivered in a way that maximizes comprehension. This is definitely a book that is long overdue, and all music educators should take a look at it.
-Mark Lane, Associate Director of Bands, Professor of Music Education, Central Washington University, President, Washington Music Educator’s Association, review in The Horn Call, journal of the International Horn Society
Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-Jazz Games for Performers, Educators and Everyone Else by Jeffrey Agrell is a virtual encyclopedia of creativity-enhancing musical experiences that, simply put, could not be more enjoyable or satisfying. Truly, every level and style of performer can benefit from the “games” that are designed to teach listening skills and freedom of expression through experimentation with sound musical concepts. The games are clearly explained, impeccably organized by musical goal, beautifully presented, and enhanced by inspiring quotations from master improvisers. The book is perfectly suited as a textbook for a complete course in musical improvisation, or as a creativity supplement to any music course, ensemble or studio. I cannot wait to use it in my classes, and to personally play all 500+ games! This book is a unique and desperately needed contribution to help all musicians, even the most sophisticated, to “play” music better. Kudos to Jeffrey Agrell!
-Dr. Patrice Madura, Associate Professor of Music, Indiana University
Written to assist classical musicians in developing their improvisational skills, Jeffrey Agrell’s book will offer great resource material to teachers and students who seek a fun manner in which to practice these skills.
–Journal of the International Trumpet Guild
There is little doubt that classical musicians can grow enormously by feeling part of the creative process. The author provides an exhaustive set of games for getting from here to there. These games are designed to develop listening, melodic, technical, and motivic chops. There are created for nearly any number of players to work on simultaneously. Improvisation Games is… a broad resource for all musicians interested in diving into the improvisation pool, whether entering head-first or perhaps only after a tentative testing of the waters. It is for the fain-at-heart and for those with a bold streak who wish to energize their musical life. Let the games begin!
–The Flutist Quarterly [journal of the National Flute Association]
This collection of over 500 improvisation ‘games’ delivers a non-stylistic approach to introducing and developing musicians’ improvisational confidence and abilities. The text points towards methods of de-coding the ‘rabbit-in-headlight’ syndrome that improvisation can induce in many musicians and seeks also to engage with creative inquisitiveness. The somewhat misleading title disguises its applicability to many different types of musician: classical to rock; inexperienced to the well-versed; community musicians to the professional performer. It also offers alternative approaches for those already steeped in the improvisation language: I know at least two jazz educators who, impressed with this book’s approach, have incorporated some of its elements into their own teaching.
Some texts in this area of work try to be inclusive of all forms of music and fail because they are too dull or not specific enough in their directions. Conversely, some are too steeped in stylistic tradition to allow for inter-stylistic learning, such as the scale/chord improvisation theory that I am told is the foundation of jazz studies. Fortunately, this is not something that Improvisation Games suffers from. It neither falls into the trappings of new-age hyperbole nor limits participation by stylistic elitism. In the form of musical games of exploration, Jeffrey Agrell provides work on motivic and rhythmic development, harmony, musical interaction and many more areas, even exploring modes and chromatic ii–V–I progressions.
The genesis of this collection comes from Agrell’s own teaching of an undergraduate introductory improvisation course at the University of Iowa, but the range of this book is not confined to undergraduate training. Indeed, its beauty lies in its adaptability: Agrell gives enough information to describe each game’s aim and content but allows enough flexibility to enable them to be translated for many different age ranges and abilities. Originally, Agrell wanted his students to focus on learning how to improvise through listening to themselves and each other, so the book is set out with no musical notation. This means that students who are both musically literate and those who are not confident with musical notation can participate equally in any of the games. Clear, concise, practical and fun, the games are adaptable for any situation but focused enough that you know that your students are learning key musical concepts through the improvisation process. Agrell also includes a useful resources list and there are some very well-formatted tables of musical information (e.g. chord structures and scale constructions) that are easily usable by any music teacher.
Written using American musical terminology, Improvisation Games is jargon-free, approachable and adaptable for music education ranging from primary to university studies. This book is highly recommended to anyone who wants to expand their understanding and utilisation of improvisation to enhance and entertain their own and others’ musical creativity.
–Louise Jackson (University of Chichester, UK) in the British Journal of Music Education (2010), Vol. 27: 103-104 Cambridge University Press
Comments on Improv Games for One Player
In addition to providing almost fifty different improvisation games with a variety of applications, Agrell also includes chapters at the end of the book that present different patterns and scales, list different styles and forms, and list a selection of familiar tunes. All of these additional chapters contain information that can be applied to the various improvisation games throughout the remainder of the book. The games are designed for one player, but it is possible for more than one player to participate in many of the games.
This book would be quite useful for classical musicians with a good grounding in music theory that want to get experience improvising in a way that builds upon traditional classical music education. This book would also be valuable for instructors of all levels because it provides good exercises for improvisation that can be as simple or as complicated as needed. Many tuba and euphonium students receive few opportunities to improvise on their instruments unless they pursue jazz performance. It can give tubists and euphoniumists another way to experience improvisation outside of the jazz idiom. This book is highly recommended for students and educators alike.
–Journal of the International Tuba and Euphonium Association
The May 2008 review of [Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians] was very positive and those positive aspects are echoed here. Since this volume is for one player, however, I believe it addresses the needs of classical musicians more directly, giving them virtually an infinite number of ideas to play with in practice (i.e. in private) – well, infinity will be possible if his encouragement is followed: “1. Open Book; 2. Get idea; 3. Close book; 4. Play. And play. And play.” While the big 2008 version is especially recommended for teachers, this volume is recommended for every individual. I’ve used his ideas on my own, in classes (my studio did a 10-week study of the big book), and in lessons. Once “buy-in” is achieved, the results are remarkable – more willingness in risk-taking, and a more highly developed sense of humor (we’ve even performed improv games in public!). These are all things we need to keep music alive in ourselves and in the world. Play. And play. And play.
–Journal of the International Horn Society
Horn player and teacher Jeffrey Agrell makes a convincing argument in the introduction to Improv Games for One Player that learning to improvise should be part of the training of any serious musician; after all, the ability to improvise was considered an essential skill for classical musicians until the mid-nineteenth century. For many twentieth-century classically trained musicians, improvisation is an alien language that is reserved for jazz, folk, and pop musicians. Many classical performers are terrified of being asked to play anything that is not on the printed page. Improv Games, Agrell provides a wealth of resources and encouragement for the classically trained musician wishing to take the plunge. It also provides hundreds of ideas and games for teachers that can be used in the context of private or group lessons to develop skills in improvisation. It is a slim volume that fits easily into a case or music bag, but contains enough material to keep any aspiring improviser busy for years.
Many classical musicians become overwhelmed with the demands of jazz methods that require endless hours of learning scales, patterns, tunes, and transcribing solos. Agrell takes the approach that a good musician does not need to aspire to be a jazz virtuoso in order to learn to improvise and can have a great deal of fun in the process. Some of his ideas can be found in traditional jazz methods, but most are not.
Games focus on specific musical elements of rhythm, harmony, or melody. Examples are as simple as using a pentatonic scale and a poem as a basis for improvisation, or more complex games that involve taking specific scales and improvising melodies that utilize more than one key based on prescribed chord relationships. Games can be incorporated into the daily practice routine and freely adapted to the experience, time constraints, and needs of the player. Agrell urges all musicians to memorize songs, transposing them to different keys and modes, and provides a list of hundreds of song titles to use as a starting point. There are many other lists that can be used as part of the musical games: musical styles, genres, adjectives describing feelings or emotions, patterns, scales, chord progressions, and just about anything that could be useful when thinking about composing or improvising.
Improv Games for One Player provides a wealth of source material for aspiring improvisers. I can’t think of a musician who wouldn’t benefit from this book
–Mark Nemoyten, review in the journal of the International Trumpet Guild, January 2012 Vol. 93, p. 93
Comments on Improv Duets for Classical Musicians
Jeffrey Agrell is one of the most important advocates for improvisation in the classical music world today. His greatest gift is his ability to create games and exercises that make learning improvisation fun not scary. The approach is engaging, insightful and humorous. Players of any instrument will love these fun and imaginative improvisation duets
—Charles Young, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Jeffrey Agrell has been, for many years, one of the most inspiring and enthusiastic advocates for the art of improvisation. His new Improv Duets book is a must have for all musicians. The possibilities here are endless and offer opportunities for musicians of all levels to explore the rewarding world of improvisation. Performers will delight in becoming active participants in the creative process. I highly recommend this wonderful book
—Paul Basler, Professor of horn and composition, University of Florida
Jeffrey Agrell continues to contribute, through his intense enthusiasm, his immense intelligence, and his relentless pursuits, to provoke us all to step inside ourselves to find out what we already know and can already do, but don’t think that we know or feel able to do. Creativity through equal partnership is the angle here. Duets are what we do every day as we converse with another person. Through our own words we communicate feelings, emotions, and thoughts. We attempt to convince, cajole, or confuse via spontaneous (improvised) verbal actions and reactions with others, most often without a script of any kind. Improvisation through one’s musical instrument in reaction to another is what Agrell encourages as he presents a multitude of intriguing ways for us to discover and enjoy our innermost capabilities to communicate through the abstractions of pitches, timbres, rhythms, and dynamics. This is a book to buy, study, use, and cherish as it encourages classical performers to relax, relate, and ultimately realize the music that is their very own.
–Douglas Hill, Professor Emeritus of Horn, University of Wisconsin-Madison
This portable volume has everything you need to get started improvising with a partner. Unlike the usual printed duets, these duets provide an opportunity for two people playing any (or multiple) instruments to create music without written notation. This is especially valuable in a pedagogical setting, where improvising with a partner can provide a fresh approach to working on technical as well as musical issues. I know I will use this book frequently with friends, colleagues, and students to help me incorporate improvisation more regularly into my musical day. With Professor Agrell’s improvisation resources, all musicians (but especially “classical” musicians) now have an outstanding set of tools that will help them dare to try something new, while also further developing deep listening skills, refining technique, opening up musical creativity, and providing hours of fun for a lifetime of music-making. No matter what your previous experience with improvisation (none or a lot), you will definitely want this volume in your library.
– Dr. Lin Foulk, University of Western Michigan
Comments on Improvised Chamber Music
Jeffrey Agrell has written some of the most lucid material there is to open up the realms of improvisation for classically trained musicians. Each of his games provides a nugget of form around which an improvisation can crystallize. He provides a wonderful balance between a feeling of security and the freedom for musicians to play as themselves.
– Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play
Improvisation is an essential component to the musical development of our students. In this latest offering from Jeffrey Agrell, teachers and students will discover the joys and benefits of improvising. Jeffrey removes the fear and mystique of the improvisational process and empowers all to explore their creative capacities. With his imaginative and accessible suggestions, suitable for any context, the door to limitless possibilities will be opened. This is a resource that needs to be in every band room. Students have astonishing abilities to create. Give them the opportunity. Start today – your program will be forever changed!
– Ardith Haley, Acadia University and Arts Education Consultant for the province of Nova Scotia
Improvised Chamber Music offers a treasure trove of inspiration and ideas, in sound structures and musical games, a reference to patterns, styles and forms, but moreover a playful invitation into the adventure of improvising in ensemble with others. The games work well and are fun for any group, regardless of skill level, instrumentation or experience, with a wealth of suggestions to guide participants through the exploration of collective improvisation.
–LaDonna Smith, author, recording artist, and editor of The Improvisor
Jeffrey Agrell’s new book Improvised Chamber Music is an extremely useful and delightfully portable resource for classical musicians looking for ideas and structures for improvising in small groups. I’m excited to use it as a text for my improvised chamber music students, and as a resource for my own music making.
–Eric Edberg, classical improviser and Professor of Cello at DePauw University
Comments on Creative Pedagogy for Piano Teachers
Jeffrey Agrell and Aura Strohschein start out with the premise that Homo sapiens is also Homo ludens and that play is an essential part of any cognitive development, especially musical play and musical development. In this brilliantly conceived book, the authors by no means negate the importance of musical literacy. But they do advocate for the too-often neglected “first step” of listening and creating, even before reading, and remind us that music is a primal part of human activity. Above all, Agrell’s and Strohschein’s exercises are fun! Adults and children will be engaged and are certain to develop improvisational skills of which they may have never known they were capable.
-John Salmon, recording artist, author, Professor of Piano at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro
Piano teachers know full well that “Fear Factor” is more than just a television show. It can just as well describe the gripping paralysis that so often impedes our students’ innate creative process. Counterintuitive as it may seem, nothing is more daunting than total freedom; an infinite canvas of white space can leave us as frozen as the proverbial deer in the headlights. Want to vex a class royally? Say something like, “I am assigning you to write a paper on any topic, any length, due whenever the spirit moves me to ask for it, and it may or may not impact your final grade.” I guarantee hands will fly up with comments like, “Whoa! Give us a doggie bone – some clue as to what you’re looking for!” Therein lies the root of blocked creativity: fear of the vast unknown, and a nagging suspicion that only “special” people can create. Hats off to Jeffrey Agrell and Aura Strohschein for dispelling those notions in Creative Pedagogy for Piano Teachers. The book is a smorgasbord of imaginative games – rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, aural, depictive, stylistic, technical, etc. – that provide musical parameters for activities that serve as catalysts for creativity. Any artistic soul can tell you that getting started is the hardest part. Agrell & Strohschein provide numerous clever ways to get past this psychological hurdle. Many students will require assistance from a teacher to maximize the effectiveness of the musical games. More advanced students, however, will benefit from the various ideas with or without assistance. While the book is pitched to pianists, many “games” can be applied to other instruments. The sprinklings of wit and humor (e.g., the “OK Chorale”) help convey that playing piano (or any instrument, really) is – or should be – a joy, not a chore. My inner clairvoyant tells me a delightful sequel is in the offing, chock full of nuggets like “The Low Key Okey Dokey Hokey Pokey.”
— Dr. Arthur Houle, Professor of Piano, Colorado Mesa University, Director of the Festival for Creative Pianists