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A Magazine for Sheffield

The importance of improvisation

Music in our schools is important now more than ever. Our children deserve to experience all the depth and richness of a musical education, not only because it supports other areas of learning, but because it is a transformative discipline in its own right. We are lucky in Sheffield that we have a fantastic Music Hub committed to delivering quality education to all pupils. We also have a thriving scene that encompasses all genres and many resident professional musicians who perform regularly all over the city. I have been involved in teaching music privately, as a peripatetic musician and workshop leader, for over ten years. My specialist interest is jazz and improvised music, which I believe is accessible at some level to all music students and highly beneficial to school pupils who are just starting their musical journey. Improvisation is often viewed as niche or specialist, but it spans centuries and genres. It was common in Western art music in the Baroque and Classical periods and is an inherent component of Indian classical music, where the raga is used as a template for both improvisation and composition. It is most often associated with jazz and blues, but is widely used in many different musical settings. Improvisation is an amazing performance device and can be exhilarating to experience, but it can also have great merit in an educational context. Much of my teaching in schools was at Key Stage 1 and 2, and I would often work with classes of up to 30 pupils. Inevitably, the groups had a lot of variation in terms of ability and potential achievement. Although I catered for all levels, I found that some pupils lost focus, especially if they were frustrated by their lack of development. When I introduced improvisation as a way of changing emphasis and making sessions a bit more fun, I found that it had a lot of surprising benefits, even at this level. The first thing I realised was how creative and imaginative my pupils were. We would improvise movements and sounds, words and rhymes before we even got to the instruments. They weren’t afraid to be 'wrong', to sing or play something dissonant or crunchy, and many of them loved creating strange tensions. They started to listen carefully to each other, as well as to me. They reacted to what was being played and strove to develop ideas. I discovered that students whose attention had previously wandered were now involving themselves. They had a chance to share their unique creations. Pupils developed a range of transferable skills, from listening and focusing on a task to the ability to analyse and problem solve. The confidence of many students grew as they realised their contribution was valid and interesting. The strength of spontaneous music making was that it empowered my students and gave them an interest in music and a desire to learn more. I came to understand, however, that not everyone had been able to use improvisation in this way. For many colleagues, improvisation was a barrier, something that created trepidation in them. It had not been a major part of their musical education and was often associated with jazz and difficult chords. Many teachers only had access to a repertoire that was quite directionless and unsuitable for beginners. Nevertheless, I felt sure that such obstacles could be overcome with the right materials, and this inspired me to create a resource for teachers, In the Gap! Fun Improvisation For Young Musicians. It is aimed at Early Years, Key Stage 1, and Key Stage 2, and is suitable for individual, group and whole class teaching. Beautifully illustrated by Lisa Maltby, it includes a CD featuring Sheffield-based musicians, Jamie Taylor and Nicola Farnon, with tracks for demonstration and performance. It has concert and Bb transpositions and clear teaching notes, so no experience of improvisation is needed to deliver it, nor does it confine improvisation to any specific genre. There are many advantages to teaching musical improvisation, not least that it’s fun. If it becomes integrated into lessons at beginner level, students have the door opened onto the whole world of music, with no barriers and no fear. Photo by )

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