Tips for Your Improv Class

Since teaching this type of classical improvisation is relatively new, instructors of a semester course have the simultaneous advantage and disadvantage of few precedents or established teaching procedures to go by. On one hand they are free to structure the class however they see fit, which is not a bad attribute for a class in spontaneous performance. On the other hand, there are certain fundamentals to the process, and it’s nice not to have to reinvent all the wheels. Following are some improv class procedures that have worked well for the author that readers may use as needed.

Size Matters

Although we are completely for the idea of every student musician having to take this course, the ideal class size for learning improv is pretty small so that everyone gets to play as much as possible (if you’re in the position to require everyone to do this, you might try it the way Gary Smart does it at the U of Northern Florida – they have to take the one semester improv course before they graduate, i.e. any time during their four years). The larger the group, the less each person gets to play, and the more difficult it is to shape the outcome with so many “deciders.” The ideal size for an improvising group is two – then each player gets to solo about half the time and solo half the time. That being said, it is usually a good idea to start the semester with pieces for larger groups so that novices don’t feel self-conscious about playing. Soundpainting works well for this purpose. Keep pieces brief at first. As players gain experience (especially in not playing), groups can be larger and pieces can be longer. Basically, you have four options if you have a large group 1) use Soundpainting 2) do sequential smaller groups or 3) do large group improv games or 4) alternate among options 1, 2 & 3.


After every piece, have a time for comments. The first thing to ask is “What happened?” Players usually have to learn how to listen all over again. It is often very surprising how little they can remember of a piece they just played, but acute perceptive listening and remembering what was played are essential to effective improvisation and can be developed with practice. Answering “What Happened” is without judgment (it’s not particularly useful to say that one liked the piece or not); it is simply a listing of who did what when. If players have to reconstruct the piece every time, they get used to listening and remembering more. After that, the question is “What could we have done better? What opportunities could we have taken advantage of? What didn’t we do? What elements were weak? Was there a balance of unity (things are the same, predictable) and variety (things are different, unpredictable)? Usual elements that need improvement are:

•Unity/Variety balance. Unity = predictable; Variety = unpredictable. Ideal is 50/50.

•Texture or density. Usually everyone plays too much. Almost all players need to build in more periods of silence in order to let other timbres and densities come through, as well as to listen intently to what the piece needs.

•Rhythm. The regularity of the pulse is often too flexible; players joining an established beat pay too little attention to it. Most classical musicians have only a vague sense of where the pulse is, especially while they are soloing.

•Too many ideas. Too many ideas sounds like a conversation about every entry in a dictionary. Talk about one thing for a while; develop it, elaborate on it.

•Contrast. Sometimes groups establish a very interesting beginning of a piece (rhythm, motif) and then seem powerless to play anything else. At some point (before an audience would become restless at the predictability), the group needs to go on to a sharply contrasting section.

•Timbre. Another form of contrast is timbre. Players often need to be reminded to use their considerable timbral resources to provide interest and variety, especially extended techniques.

•Form. Groups need to remember what they did first so they can return to it. ABA is a simple form, but very satisfying for the audience.

Taking Notes

The instructor should make notes on pieces in class as they are played – who is playing what, when. Even sketchy notes help supply details to the question of “what happened.” The instructor should also require those in the class who are not performing in a particular piece to do the same.


Whether taking notes on pieces or not, the instructor should record all (or as many as possible) performances, both in class and in concert. Digital flash recorders make this a very easy task. If possible, play the recordings back for discussion in class. Otherwise (or in addition), make CD (or make a CD for them to copy) and/or post it online. Aural feedback from recordings is very informative and essential to the process. We generally take one or two class periods to discuss the recordings of our concerts.