The craft of teaching improvisation improvisationally

In 2015 I attended a conference in Stord, Norway, that addressed the theme of ‘The Art and Science of Improvisation in Education’. What amazed and impressed me was the serious attention being given to improvisation as a vital and necessary aspect of education in Norway. It is noticable that such attention is not afforded to this topic in the UK. At this conference I had the privilege to meet Magne Espeland, a Professor of Music and Education at the Western Norway University of the Applied Sciences. I presented a paper on the relationship between improvisation and teacher expertise and this led to being invited to contribute a chapter to Music Education as Craft: Reframing Theories and Practices. This book is a Festschrift for Magne in honour of his career as a music educator, researcher and national and international influencer in music education.

This book brings together leading international authors in the field of music education who take the concept of ‘craft’ as a starting point to deconstruct and reconstruct their understanding of the practices and theories of music education. You can find out more about this book here:

My contribution offers a theoretical framework (shown below) to inform the craft of teaching musical improvisation improvisationally. I see this as a hybrid craft that draws on the craft of musical improvisation (what is being taught) and the craft of improvisational (expert) teaching (how to go about teaching musical improvisation). What follows is a brief outline of the framework that hopefully will engage your curiosity to seek out the full chapter.

The craft of musical improvisation (what we are trying to teach) comprises four dimensions:

  1. The contextual. This is the source material, tradition or idiom that informs the basis of the improvisation and includes the musical techniques, resources and vocabulary with which to improvise.
  2. The dialogic. Musical improvisation is a relational activity and requires the ability to engage in a dialogue with other musicians and the audience. Improvisers need to develop the ability to listen and respond in the moment.
  3. The affective. The essence of improvised music is feeling, of being able to go beyond the notes and engage with the affective dimension of a musical situation. This is principally gained through the experience of engaging in improvisation both as a participant and as part of an audience.
  4. The cultural. The concept of culture is about “the way we do things around here” and this dimension is concerned with the permissions that we give ourselves, and are given, to improvise. The cultural dimension acknowledges the democratic and egalitarian nature of improvised music making, making sure that all participants are heard and valued equally.

The craft of teaching Improvisationally is characterised by four processes (the how of teaching musical improvisation):

  1. Utilising tacit knowledge. Teaching improvisationally demands that you are able to make decisions and professional judgements in the moment. These decisions are not random but a grounded in experience, they have become ‘unconscious competences’. Teachers with this tacit knowledge are able to draw upon a broad range of responses to situations in order to provide what may seem like automatic responses in what they do.
  2. Employing a dialogic pedagogy. Teaching improvisationally involves seeing teaching and learning as a relational and interactive process, the characteristics of dialogic teaching. Dialogic teaching is by definition improvisatory, as you can never predict which ways a conversation will go. Being adept at teaching in this way means being able to take a range of different, and sometimes unexpected, contributions from students and relate them to the lessons main learning objective. Eliciting ideas in this way allows students to inform the direction of learning and is a way of engaging and empowering them in the learning as co-constructors of knowledge.
  3. Personalisation (of learning, the teacher and the learning environment). An important aspect of teaching is having the confidence to engage with students on a personal and human level. Expert teachers are adept at doing this and the personalisation of teaching is particularly significant when teaching musical improvisation, as one of the major milestones for the improviser is to develop a personal sound and an approach to improvising that is identifiably theirs.
  4. Continual adaptation through self-reflection. One of the key aspects of teaching improvisationally is being able to make ‘in the moment’ adaptations of the lesson plan. As Schon (1983) point out ihis can happen in two ways: reflection in action (imediatley responding and apdating the lesson) or reflection on action (critically reflecting and reviewing teaching after the event).

The theoretical framework for teaching musical improvisation improvisationally is created by bringing together the four dimensions of teaching improvisation (the what) and the four processes of improvisational teaching (the how). This framework emphasises the congruencies between  what we teach how we teach it.

Given the elusive, fleeting and embodied nature of improvisation as a phenomenon it is not possible to ‘tell’ someone how to improvise but it is possible to create learning experiences that enable individuals to engage with the affective aspects of improvisation and through reflection (both in and on action) to articulate their own identity as an improvising musician.

I am fascinated by the relationship between improvisation and learning. The best way to learn how to improvise is to improvise. By improvising we also learn about how we can learn to improvise. Simon Rose (2019) talks about the “modes of creative, collaborative, embodied learning that improvisation presents”; Guy Claxton (1999) considers learning to be something to do with “what you do when you don’t know what to do”, a mandate for improvisation if ever there was one.

The craft of teaching musical improvisation improvisationally draws upon the two domains of musical improvisation and pedagogic improvisation. The transfer of knowledge between these two areas creates a metacognitive dialogue that I hope will be a fruitful starting point for those that wish to develop their craft as music educators.


Claxton, G. 1999. Wise Up: the challenge of lifelong learning. London: Bloomsbury.

Rose, S. 2017. The Lived Experience of Improvisation: in music, learning and life. Bristol: Intellect.

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