Introducing ‘The Improvising Teacher’

At last! My book ‘The Improvising Teacher: Reconceptualising Pedagogy, Expertise and Professionalism’ has been published by Routledge. As any author will confess it is an exciting moment when you are able to hold your book in your hand and witness the culmination of a long journey.

As a way of introducing the book I thought I would share some reflections on why I wrote the book, outlining the personal interests that motivated me to see this project through to its completion.

I have always been aware that one of the characteristics of great teachers is that they have the ability to improvise. In fact most teachers when asked if they think that improvisation is important to their practice will not only say ‘yes’ but will then be able to supply a story about how some of their best teaching occurred when the premeditated lesson plan was abandoned.

Furthermore, when a teacher chooses to improvise, or is forced to do so, it can lead to some of their best experiences as an educator. They come alive as they step ‘into the moment’, respond to the unexpected and gain confidence in their ability to engage with and relate to students. Out of necessity they draw upon their full range of professional experiences and who they are as a person. I consider that teacher improvisations provide a portal into the nature of teacher expertise. However not every teacher has the confidence to talk about the way they improvise and to share that skill with others. Why might this be? I think it is because they don’t have the concepts or the vocabulary to celebrate one of their key skills.

My curiosity about this motivated me to undertake a research project to study the improvisatory nature of expert teaching. Three personal interests drove this research. The first of these is my long-standing interest in improvisation as a musician (I am a jazz saxophonist) and as researcher. My academic interest in improvisation began in the mid 1980s when I enrolled for the Independent Studies MA in Education at the University of Sussex. This provided me with an opportunity to explore improvisation as a significant and identifiable mode of creativity that could be found in all the Arts, not just in music (Sorensen, 1988)

Having gained my Masters I was very aware that there was so much more to be said about improvisation, particularly in the context of ‘everyday life’. In our social lives we improvise continually: whenever we engage in a conversation, try to do something we haven’t done before or ‘make do’ with the resources that we have available. If improvisation is all around us surely it must be happening in the classroom?

The second area of interest, which is derived from the first, came from my professional role supporting the continuing professional development of teachers, initially as an independent education consultant and then as a senior lecturer in higher education (HE) leading a professional masters programme (PMP). I started asking questions about what great teaching looked like.

Thirdly, the debates that arose out of the educational reforms initiated by the UK coalition government from 2010 to 2015 gave rise to a number of questions about what great teaching looked like. What was meant when politicians talked about ‘effective practice’? I felt it was important to develop a grassroots, ‘bottom up’ perspective of advanced professional practice as opposed to the ‘top down’ policy led approaches outlined in documents such as ‘The Importance of Teaching’ (DfE, 2010).

Writing this book has provided me with the opportunity to give a full account of a research project undertaken to explore the relationship between improvisation and expertise for teachers. Additionally it has allowed me to re-engage with ideas that had been developed both prior to and also subsequent to the research. In contemplating the overall design for this book I realised that it would be logical to bring all of these ideas and concepts together in order to be able to explore and articulate the relationship between them.

Early work on the authorised teacher (Sorensen and Coombs, 2010a) and a long-term framework for teacher development (Sorensen and Coombs, 2010b) seemed to complement the arguments for the improvising teacher. More recent writings have explored the implications of the research findings within specific contexts: the craft of teaching musical improvisation improvisationally (Sorensen, 2021a), the importance of the applied improvisation mindset (Sorensen, 2021b) and the development of expertise in Higher Education teaching (Sorensen, 2022).

By bringing these ideas and concepts together in one volume offers a synoptic account of the work that I have done over the past 40 years considering the meaning and value of improvisation and its importance for teachers. The process of writing this book brought about a realisation of how my thoughts have developed over this time and this has resulted in the development of some ideas and the revision of others.

I hope that this book will provide a greater understanding of the creative agency of teachers and the positive impact that this has upon students. Furthermore I hope that it encourages a collective effort by teachers, school leaders and policy makers to create cultures that are conducive to improvisation and the shared development of expertise. Do get in touch if you would like to know more or if you would like to share you stories of teacher improvisation.


Department for Education. (2010) The Importance of Teaching, London: The Stationary Office.

Sorensen, N (1988) The Value of Improvisation in Arts Education. MA thesis. Brighton: University of Sussex.

Sorensen, N. (2021a) ‘The craft of teaching musical improvisation improvisationally: towards a theoretical framework’. Chapter 16 in The Crafts of Music Education: Reframing Practices and Theory. Springer Press.

Sorensen, N. (2021b) ‘Of course we improvise!’ What the best teachers do (and why they do it). Chapter in The Applied Improvisation Mindset. London: Methuen Drama.

Sorensen, N. (2022) ‘Developing the improvising teacher: implications for professionalism and the practice of expertise in improvisation’ in Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: practical ideas for supporting educational development London: Routledge.

Sorensen, N. and Coombs, S. (2010a) ‘Whither Postgraduate Professional Development? Towards a theoretical framework to guide long-term teacher development in England’, Professional Development in Education, 35 (4): 683-689.

Sorensen, N. and Coombs, S. (2010b) ‘Authorized to teach?’, CPD Update, 126 (May 2010): 8-9.

#theimprovisingteacher @RoutledgeEd #creativeteaching #expertise #teacherprofessionalism

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.

Joining the Congregation

John Law’s Congregation

Saturday 23rd October 2021:  The Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford on Avon.

We had to wait (and it was a long wait) but it was worth it in the end. There was a palpable sense of relief and joy, from band and audience alike, when John Law’s Congregation took to the stage at the Wiltshire Music Centre to present music from their critically acclaimed album CONFIGURATION. Released in May 2020, and garnering more than its fair share of critical accolades by the end of the year, the pandemic curtailed the opportunity to promote this first release for the Ubuntu record label.  The question was – how will this music come over in performance after all this time?

The answer is that is that it did so magnificently. John Law’s Congregation offer contemporary jazz that is intelligently informed by a wide range of influences: free jazz, progressive rock, fusion, electronics, minimalism and classical music. Each half of the concert began with a new composition.  The first half got under way with ‘Passion’, a tune ushered in with a sample taken from Bach’s St John Passion whilst the second half commenced with the mischievously titled  ‘Do You Do Voodoo (I Do Voodoo Too)’.

The bulk of the programme comprised compositions from the CONFIGURATION CD. Each of these pieces conveys a distinctive sound world and the musicians John Law has assembled are perfectly matched to realise these intentions and, as Thelonious Monk put it, “to lift the bandstand”. The interplay between Dave Hamblett’s sensitive and precise drumming, Ashley John Long liquid bass lines and and James Mainwaring’s mercurial saxophone was especially prominent in ‘Complex City’, a tune inspired by the bands visit to India. Other highlights included John Law’s transcendent four-minute introduction to ‘Configuration’, James Mainwaring’s ethereal guitar on ‘And Them’ and the well-deserved encore, the appropriately titled ‘Method In My Madness’.

Overall this was a joyful and memorable evening that ran the musical gamut. From complex composition to inspired improvisation, from the knotty theme of ‘Method In My Madness’ to the melancholic lyricism of ‘Scandinavian Lullaby’. The range of moods and sounds was captivating and inspiring. The ‘official’ London launch of CONFIGURATION takes place on Wednesday 27th October at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9AG. If you can get there do not hesitate to get a ticket … if not look out for further dates on this tour. This is a band that is not to be missed.

John Law’s Congregation

The importance of an improvisation mindset

At the heart of great jazz is a great rhythm section and one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time surely has to be the one that Miles Davis put together for a recording session in 1963. Comprising Tony Williams (drums), Ron Carter (bass), Herbie Hancock (piano); together they established an innovative performance aesthetic that remains fundamental to small group improvisation today.

Having become ‘almost too accomplished at playing Miles’s classic repertoire – still the same old ‘Round Midnight, Funny Valentine and So What’ they made what drummer Tony Williams described as anti-music: “Like whatever someone expects you to play, that’s the last thing you play” Mercer, 2004: 108).

Miles’s biographer Ian Carr points out that this rhythm section

  ‘seemed to have an inexhaustible variety of ways of creating and releasing tension, expanding and contracting space. This interaction between the members of the rhythm section was a continual dialogue with who ever was soloing. In fact, there was no longer the idea of a soloist and rhythm section. When a horn was playing it was a quartet functioning on equal terms’ (Carr, 1998: 189).

Their approach to improvisation combined freedom alongside conventional structures. David Toop has commented on the ‘remarkable currents of empathy, (and) almost an extrasensory perception that flowed between these players’ (Toop, 2016: 34).

How did this remarkable transformation come about? In 1963 Miles was booked to play some gigs in Los Angeles where the band played two engagements a night. Ron Carter recalls:

So we were playing there almost seven hours a day as a group and I remember us (Carter, Williams and Hancock) going to one of those all-night cafeterias and just sitting for hours after each gig, just trying to figure out what took place … what happened on this tune and what is this chord, what is this rhythm, what is this note, trying to understand and analyze as best we could what took place and to have a clearer view of it to work on this item for tomorrow night. People think that jazz players just play off the top of their heads all the time, but quality players are aware of what goes on. They catalogue in their mind what doesn’t work and should be discarded temporarily, and what seems like a real gem of an idea to be worked on the next night. And we had hundreds of these conversations. (Carr, 1998: 190)

I have long been fascinated by this anecdote as it says so much about the nature of improvisation that it is not just about ‘playing off the top of your head ‘because’ quality players are aware of what is going on. I am reminded of the distinction Gilbert Ryle (1945) makes between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how to’ and the important relationship that exists between having the practical skills to do something and knowing what you are doing. Ryle not only sees that there is a connection between practice and theory but ‘that knowledge-how is a concept logically prior to knowledge-that (Ryle, 1945: 4). Ron Carter neatly illustrates this point, showing that theory and practice are necessarily interconnected, and that theory feeds off practice. His message to musicians is that if you want to be a quality player your skills (knowing-how to play) need to be matched by knowing what you are doing (knowing-that).

We now have a name for this attribute and it is called having an improvisation mindset. Increasingly the skills and knowledge that we have gained from musicians, theatre practitioners, dancers, comedians and the like are being applied in other social and professional contexts: business, the law, teaching, medicine. The expanding world of applied improvisation is, in the words of Theresa Robbins Dudeck and Caitlin McClure, “profoundly changing how we develop leaders, reimagine communities, and engage youth”.

Their latest book, The Applied Improvisation Mindset: Tools for Transforming Organizations and Communities, London: Methuen / Drama, is an edited collection of stories from eighteen practitioners from five countries who embrace an improvisation mindset to create a more collaborative, equitable, sustainable and joyous world. And in the same way that Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock transformed the way a rhythm section plays and thinks about jazz so these practitioners are bringing about profound changes within their own professional contexts.

I feel particularly privileged to have my work represented within this volume. As a jazz musician and writer I have been practicing and researching improvisation for over forty years. A particular interest has been applying the insights I have gained as a jazz musician to the development of expert teachers. My contribution to this book is called “Of Course We Improvise!”: What the Best Teachers Do and How They Do It and it outlines what an improvisation mindset might look like for teachers. My view is that teaching is fundamentally an improvisational activity and the best teachers are able to make in the moment decisions and adapt their lessons in response to the needs of their students. A teacher with an improvisation mindset gives him or herself permission (and is given permission) to improvise, they are open to continually adapting their practice and they personalize what they do.

In short the improvisation mindset for teachers can be summarized in three words: PERMISSION, ADAPTATION and PERSONALISATION.

The book will tell you much more about this and how the other practitioners view the improvisation mindset. Check out the link below and begin to transform your professional practice and your life!


Carr, I. (1998) Miles Davis: the definitive biography, revised edn. London: Harper Collins.

Mercer, M. (2004) Footprints: The life and work of Wayne Shorter, New York, NY: Tarcher / Penguin.

Ryle, G. (1945). Knowing How and Knowing That: The Presidential Address. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 46, new series, 1-16. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from

Toop, D. (2016) Into The Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom, London: Bloomsbury.

Introducing Nick Sorensen

Welcome to my blog! I am a writer and jazz musician with a particular interest in improvisation: in music as well an in many different social contexts. Learn to improvise and improvise to learn! My blogs will keep you up to date with what I’m up to as well as sharing my insights on the latest happenings in the world of music, art, literature and poetry.

Above all you’ll be able to discover more improvisation, my work as a jazz musician and writer. And if you want to develop your creativity through improvising check out my consultancy company: The Improvising School. Have a look around my site and do get in touch. I’m looking forward to connecting with other musicians, writers and educators; sharing ideas and establishing creative partnerships.

#improvisation #jazz #creativewriting #zerotohero