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Improvisation in the Aural Curriculum: An Imperative

Author(s): Kate Covington

Source: College Music Symposium, Vol. 37 (1997), pp. 49-64
Published by: College Music Society
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Improvisation in the Aural Curriculum:
An Imperative


has long been a part of the music curriculum, at least in certain areas
study. It is a staple of jazz studies where students learn the skill through ensem
and specific courses. Organists are taught improvisation as a means of addressing serv
playing needs, such as creating bridges, accompanying, and modulating. Recent in
in improvisation is evidenced by an increasing number of publications about this topi
musicians and psychologists, as well as the Handbook of NASM (the National Ass
tion of Schools of Music) where there is a recommendation that music students de
improvisational and compositional skills. Improvisation is important because it is able
fuse the three primary musical activities of composition, performance, and critical li
ing/analysis; it involves all three simultaneously. One area in which improvisation cou
be incorporated into the music curriculum and which would reach all music maj
aural training. Improvisation in aural pedagogy should not be just a discretionary choi
but an essential component; theories of learning and cognition are demonstrating that
skill like improvisation has the potential to be the catalyst for a level of aural synthe
and understanding not being attained by more traditional means.

The Imperative As Based on Theories of Learning and Cognition

Recent research studies in cognition and learning theory, specifically in the areas
constructivism and schema theory, have revealed that meaningful knowledge acquisiti
of complex concepts cannot occur unless learners interact with these concepts
active environment. That is, learners cannot be expected to comprehend the complexi
of musical elements and their integration, nor can they be expected to transfer musi
knowledge and skills to real-life situations unless they have the opportunity to
actively with these elements in some mode of performance.

Learning by Doing in Real-World Contexts

The importance of learning by doing has long been recognized by writers such as
psychologist Jean Piaget, who expressed the idea that concepts are never truly a
lated into one's working knowledge unless they have first been reformed or rediscov
by some activity. A more recent psychologist, Carl Rogers, believed that signif
learning is acquired through doing. Much of what we have learned has been acqui
an experiential context, whether it is bike riding, basics of cooking, car repair, or ba
ball. When we learned to ride a bike, we did not study its history, learn the names of
its parts, or explore the physics of wheels and motion. Nor did we learn this skill seq
tially, spending a week on braking, then a week on steering, and so forth. And y

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adults, even if we do not ride for several years

demonstrate this skill, exhibiting remarkable ret
and sophisticated kinesthetic achievement.
The instruction transmitted daily in written and
show less effective retention than those early bike-
treat knowledge as an end rather than as means to
mation stored as facts often cannot be spontaneo
instruction often fails to produce the kinds of kno
that most educators would like to see. In fact, th
theories are initially learned seems to play an impo
information is used later on.1
Concepts and skills learned in the classroom a
focus, in artificial contexts that are foreign to t
pected to be used in real-world situations, and
Knowledge is "situated;" that is, it is a part of the a
is initially acquired.2 If concepts are initially learne
out-of-context manner, then they will not be servi
environment. There is a significant difference in k
being able to use a skill when one is engaged in an a
Jonassen advocates "cognitive apprenticeships" f
case-based or problem-based learning.3 Joanna D
posed REALs - "rich environments for active le
activities which are complex or "information-rich,"
posed learning environments are characterized by e
ing at topics or concepts from multiple perspective
professional sphere demands that we teach them
music like experts, and to do this means training t
demands required of classroom activities need to
mands of the environment for which we are prepar

Constructing and Integrating Compl

The difficulty of students' being able to trans

another is further addressed by the theory of cons

1 John D. Bransford, Robert D. Sherwood, Ted S. Hasselbring, Ch

Instruction: Why We Need It and How Technology Can Help," i
Ideas in High Technology,^ Don Nix and Rand Spiro (Hillsdale, NJ:
2John S. Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid, "Situated Cogn
Researcher 18 (1989), 32-42.
3David H. Jonassen, "Supporting Communities of Learners with
with Learning in Schools," Educational Technology 35 (Julv-Aueus
4Joanna C. Dunlap and R. Scott Grabinger, "Rich Environments f
room," in Constructivist Learning Environments^. Brent G. Wilso
Publications, 1996), 66-67.

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tion, it is helpful to examine its antithesis, objectivist learning, where the goal is t
for complete and correct understanding of a distinct set of facts and skills. Specif
are identified and their frequency and order of presentation are determined. These
might be procedures for identifying intervals or the process for deciding in which
sion a chord is arranged. Information is simplified for comprehensibility, and extr
information is eliminated; tasks are isolated, subject complexity is reduced, and
aries are artificially neatened. An objectivist learner experiences instruction d
from real-world contexts. Objectivism may call for an active learner, but "the pur
that activity is to cause the student to pay closer attention to the stimulus ev
practice, and to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge" by retrieving and res
with the correct answer as validation that learning has occurred.5 Responses g
can be classified as correct or incorrect, and the assessment is highly quantitat
In the constructivist environment, the natural complexity of the subject's cont
supported and over-simplification is avoided. Each learner is essentially constructin
her own knowledge out of authentic, performance-based tasks, with knowledg
usable as different situations occur. Prior experiences are important, as new in
tion is integrated with that learning already present. The goal is not the final prod
rather the flexible capability of applying pre-existent knowledge to new situa
constructivist curriculum is presented whole to part, with the teachers behavi
interactive manner. An apprenticeship is an excellent model of constructivist l
and certainly one which is important to performers, conductors, and composers.
For both objectivist and constructivist learning, it is informative to consider k
edge as units called schemata, which are structures for representing concepts, how
tiple concepts are interrelated, or the procedures for using those concepts.6 S
which we have already learned may be simply recalled, or may be changed b
experiences, or may be restructured into new schemata. Schemata have variab
example, we have a schema for what to do in a restaurant, and whether we
McDonalds or to a cafe where the waiter presents the menu on a small chalk b
are able to place orders, find places to sit, locate the restrooms and know whether
to leave a tip. These variables are dependent on contextual and situational fact
usually if we are given certain variable values, we are able to make successful
tions about the others. For example, if we are listening to a passage by Bach
certain accidentals consistently used, we can with fair certainty predict the tonalit
next cadence. Rumelhart has said that "the bulk of the processing in a schem
system is directed toward finding those schemata which best account for the total
the incoming information."7
Schemata are constructed in a way that reflects the contexts in which th
learned. Schemata of concepts that are trained in isolation from other concept

5Thomas M. Duffy and David H. Jonassen, "Constructivism: New Implications for Instructional Techn
Educational Technology 31 ÍMav 1991), 7-12.
6David E. Rumelhart, "Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition," in Theoretical Issues in Reading Compre-
hension, ed. Rand J. Spiro, Bertram C. Bruce, and William F. Brewer (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1980).
7David E. Rumelhart and Andrew Ortony, The Representation of Knowledge in Memory, Technical Report no. 55
(San Diego: Center for Human Information Processing, Department of Psychology, University of California at San Diego,
1976), 112.

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become rigid and compartmentalized, rather tha

reassembly into new schemata. If students are tr
norities, they may become quite successful at that
ing to an objectivist model. However their sonor
transfer or use that learning when they conduct a
problem in a particular measure.
When a knowledge domain is "well-structured
with little room for confusion from one context to
well. Labeling an interval visually is an example of
seem that the identification of a heard sonority
considering the many voicings and spacings, not
monic functions ofthat chord, it becomes evident t
edge which is quite "ill-structured," to use term
following about ill-structured domains:

( 1 ) Each case or example of knowledge applicatio

simultaneous interactive involvement of multiple
conceptual structures, and
(2) the pattern of conceptual incidence and intera
across cases nominally of the same type.8

Thus, in objectivist learning, concepts which are

simplified and treated in a way which is differe
structured domains whose schemata in reality are h
isolated way, with their interdependence totally ign
one context, it will be wedded to that context and
sible and able to be used in new settings. An examp
fourth only in isolation and always in connection
cessful learning involves the revisiting of the same
contexts, for different reasons and from different
the goals of advanced knowledge acquisition; Spir
tual landscape."10 Simply expressed, students ca
complexity unless they have the opportunity to do
David Merrill's assumptions about learning are
some of the concerns regarding the way aural t
demonstrate the need for performance-based exp

(1) "Knowledge is constructed from experience,"

so is the learning:

8Rand J. Spiro, Paul J. Feltovich, Michael J. Jacobson, and Richard

and Hypertext: Random Access Instruction for Advanced Knowled
tional Technology 31 (May 1991), 25-26.

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(2) "Learning is a personal interpretation" of one's experience;

(3) "Learning is active," and needs to be based on experience rather than
observation; it should occur in realistic settings, or information-rich contexts.
(4) Meaning is accomplished through multiple perspectives or dimensions; it
reflects the acquisition of an understanding of the integration of
parameters or aspects of the discipline. 1 1

Improvisation in the Aural Curriculum

While composition is taught in nearly every music school and department, imp
sation as a separate course rarely is. And yet, improvisation has had an impact on
every musical field and has influenced in a major way most musical techniques or
of composition.12 Malcolm Goldstein notes that it is ironic that many composers
part of the European classical repertory were noted as great improvisers, bu
composers rarely study it.13 Nor is it included in most performance study. H
pianists today would even think of improvising a concerto cadenza on the spo
improvisation has not been a standard component of musical study in higher educ
except in specialized studies such as jazz and Baroque performance, it has be
integral aspect of some prominent elementary methods such as Dalcroze Eur
and Orff-Schulwerk.

The Imperative for Improvisation

It was stated earlier that NASM recommends that improvisation be inclu

every music curriculum. The importance of improvisation is supported by the psy
gist Richard Parncutt, who states that students entering higher education in mus
lack the simplest of musical skills, including the ability to play by ear and the ab
improvise, and that despite our spending much of the curriculum time on written
als, our students "will never get a really good grasp on theory until they can
hear' and improvise basic tonal patterns."14 Jaques-Dalcroze was amazed that
sation received so little attention in applied instruction, for he believed that it "e
direct communications between the spirit that pulses, the brain which represents
ordinates, and the arms and hands which put into execution."15 Goldstein sees im
sation as "weaving the fabric of many threads - music theory, compositions studi
rehearsed, ear training - into the present moment: the whole musician sounding."

1 'M. David Merrill, "Constructivism and Instructional Design," Educational Technology 3 1 (May 199
12Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Ashbourne, Derbyshire: Moorland P
1980), 2.
13Malcolm Goldstein, Sounding the Full Circle (Published by the author, 1988), 9.
"Richard Parncutt, "How to Teach Reading," In [SMT-LIST] (Santa Barbara, California: Society for Music Theory,
1995 [cited 4 June 1995], Available from
15Marie-Laure Bachmann, Dalcroze Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 107.
16 Goldstein, Sounding the Full Circle, 1 0.

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It is the position of this author that not only can

within the aural curriculum, but should be because
context, it ensures avoidance of over-simplification
content. Improvisation involves active learning,
criterion that real learning is discovered and assimi
Steve Larson discusses the importance of impro
support students' music pursuits, whether perform
By necessity, improvisation occurs in "real- world"
ties to career activities and professional needs than
paper and pencil. Improvisation thus satisfies one o
edge should be acquired from real experiences. B
experiences will be the same, ensuring that eve
harmonic progression multiple times, it will be
different perspective. Each improvisational experien
rich context," with multiple, variable aspects such
etc. Finally, improvisation by definition guarant
constructing his/her own understanding of multip
schemata which are continually being reconstructed
More specifically, improvisation has the potential
problems in aural training pedagogy. The first prob
and vertical elements. The topics of a typical au
dictation, melodic dictation, and sight-singing (the
fication and chord progressions (the vertical on
these integrated, and even though harmonic dictati
voices, students are encouraged to consider the
pitches, rather than developing a contrapuntal conc
to harmonic functions. Thus traditional aural pedag
vertical dimensions in the aurally-based understa
If a student should improvise a melody around a
harmonic accompaniment for a given melody, th
grated schemata representing linear and vertical
sured. A second problem with traditional aural p
aspects of pitch and rhythm, to the virtual exclusi
texture, timbre, dynamics, and articulation. Imp
volving complex aural environments, demands that
these other dimensions into existing and developing

The Teaching of Improvisation

Should improvisation be a separate course? Can it

how should it be taught? Dalcroze felt that learning

17Steve Larson, '"Integrated Music Learning' and Improvisati

'Menus, Maps, and Models,'" College Music Symposium 35 (1995

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language; "you speak it fluently when you reach the stage of not having to think ab
each and every word you enunciate; you can concentrate entirely on the conten
communications."18 According to Dalcroze, this skill cannot be learned sequentially
an objectivist manner. John Sloboda compares improvisation with the re-tellin
story.19 The teller has knowledge of a particular set of episodes which constit
'plot' of the story. The 'frame' of the story is compared to characteristic harm
melodic progressions that underlie many different types of music. Sloboda imp
efficacy of setting certain parameters, whether tonal, harmonic, metric, etc. a
continuing evolvement of this skill within each musician.
There is no general or widely held theory of improvisation instruction. Imp
tional strategies and pedagogical methods are found in jazz methods, keyboard harm
sources, organ books, and more general sources. Jazz improvisation is primarily me
and style specific, but offers ideas for melodic embellishment and the use of a
structural line, and demonstrates melodic concepts strongly influenced by harmony
gan improvisation methods are service oriented and are harmonically and tonally dr
An organ improviser needs to adapt to flexible lengths and learns to be sens
melodic motives and the influence of tonal goals. Keyboard harmony methods
marily influenced by harmonic function considerations. Other sources, such as
Roger Dean, offer insights into improvisation in a contemporary idiom and reflect
est in polyphonic textures and in music which is less tonally oriented.

Strategies for Using Improvisation in Aural Training

Strategies for using improvisation in aural pedagogy were initially develop

listing and categorizing activities drawn from my experiences with improvisation i
training, as well as an examination of a number of varied sources, including jaz
ods, keyboard harmony textbooks, organ methods, and more general sources. A
possible strategies is presented in Table 1 . These strategies and the methods to
scribed in the following discussion are not an attempt to duplicate keyboard h
textbooks and their respective courses. Nor are these proposals an attempt to su
for the important improvisational instruction in jazz curriculums. The strateg
methods are not really designed for the specific goal of teaching improvisation; rat
they are tools for enhancing aural training, and for facilitating the learning, integ
and synthesis that need to occur in the aural curriculum.
The strategies in the Table are categorized and ordered (numbered) somewha
trarily. The Non-Pitched strategies are excellent for beginning improvisatory exerc
because students seem more at ease with percussive improvisation than with using t
own pitched instruments, where the "threat of exposure" seems greater. These stra
are also useful for introducing new rhythmic and/or metric concepts, such as
meters, hemiola, multimeter, etc. The Melodic strategies are particularly useful

18Bachmann, Dalcroze Today, 1 09.

l9John Sloboda, The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985),

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companying aural topics such as phrase structure

phrases, variation techniques, etc. The strategi
pects of music, strategies numbered 23 through 3
ing the need to integrate these multiple dimensio
These strategies are particularly useful if student
vising. The Free Improvisation suggestions may b
to have more structure and less latitude in wh
Form strategies are for those who are comfort
For my own use, I have taken these strategies and, by comparing them to the aural
training curriculum in place at my institution, have written an accompanying improvisa-
tion curriculum that observes and facilitates my particular aural training objectives.20
These strategies could be mapped into a variety of aural training approaches in many
different ways. I will describe possible mappings in the context of two components of
our freshman aural training program: descriptive listening and harmonic function identifi-
cation. The descriptive listening mapping will also include a flow chart showing a se-
quence for how the improvisation could be taught, while the harmonic function mapping
will demonstrate how improvisation allows the user to approach harmonic listening from
a number of perspectives.

Using Improvisation to Teach Descriptive Listening of Melodies

Descriptive listening involves the diagramming or defining of different parameters of

a heard piece; these parameters include form, cadences and keys, prominent motives,
phrase contours, timbres and their uses, textures, etc. Initially, students listen to melodies
which are 2-6 phrases in length, and respond by providing as much information as they
can about what they hear. The goal of the improvisatory activities that accompany this
course component would be for a student to be able to improvise a consequent phrase
that borrows motives from an antecedent phrase which has been improvised by another
student immediately prior to this. Thus the goal is to have students validate an under-
standing of form, phrase relationships and lengths, cadences, use of motives, tonality,
and meter. These goals might be addressed in the following sequence of activities, spread
over a number of class meetings (strategy numbers are shown in parentheses).

1st day: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase in 2/4, 4 measures long (# 2).
2nd: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase in 3/4, 4 measures long (# 2).
3rd: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase using a given motive (# 1 ).
Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm,
8 beats long, using only tonic and dominant pitches (# 5).

20The aural training program at the University of Kentucky was developed by the author and Charles Lord. For more
information on this curriculum, see our article, "Epistemology and Procedure in Aural Training: In Search of a Unification
of Music Cognitive Theory with Its Applications," which was published in Music Theory Spectrum 1 6 (1994), 1 59-1 70.

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4th: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase, a consequent to the instructor's

antecedent phrase, which changes for each student (# 4).
Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm,
8 beats long, using a range of the first 5 notes of the major scale.
5th: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase, the first student an antecedent
phrase, the second a consequent to the previous antecedent, etc.
Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm, 8 beats long.
Students are asked to be aware of cadences being used by each student.
6th: Each student improvises a melody using a suggested rhythm, 8 beats long.
Students are asked to use conclusive (ending on tonic) cadences.
This exercise is repeated with inconclusive cadences.
(This would seem to be an unnecessary step, but I have discovered that the
eventual melodic improvisatory goal is more successful if this step is taken.)
7th: Each student improvises a rhythmic phrase, the first student an antecedent
phrase, the second a consequent to the previous antecedent, etc.
Consequent phrases are to include a motive borrowed from the
antecedent phrase.
Students alternately improvise antecedent and consequent phrases, with
primary attention given to the kinds of cadences used.
8th: Repeat activities from previous class.
9th: This is the goal: students improvise antecedent and consequent phrases
alternately, with each consequent phrase including a motive borrowed
from the immediately previous antecedent phrase.
Instructors may proceed through this sequence more quickly or more slowl
outlined here, depending on the readiness of the students. When I use these act
each student takes a turn, with no breaks between students. I do not judge or assess
efforts with words or facial expressions; students discover for themselves wha
well and what does not, and the continual refinement of their efforts over several
will confirm the learning that is occurring. One activity which could accompany th
is to improvise on a short, familiar melody such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat
students nótate it and play it by ear. We briefly mention ways in which it could be
I may let students practice some variations "en masse" to reduce the stress lev
then we listen as each student in turn improvises a variation on the tune. When I u
type of activity with a longer melody, an outline ofthat melody, shown in stro
pitches, is given. This is also a way to address from another perspective the
structural listening, a technique which I teach for melodic notation.

Using Improvisation to Teach Identification of Harmonic Function

Another component of the aural training curriculum involves the identifica

harmonic functions in a context. By mid-year, the listening goal would be to i

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tonic, dominant, sub-dominant, and supertonic func

understanding of harmonic functions by sound a
musical texture, and through linear and vertical dim
derstanding of harmony from multiple perspectives
role in this development, and the melodic/harmonic

The following strategies are pertinent:

# 1 0, 1 1 Improvise a variation of a melody using a

#24 Improvise a melody over a given harmonic
# 27 Improvise a melodic variation of a familia
#31,32 Improvise an Alto or Tenor part to a give
# 29 Improvise a Bass line for a given melody.

Other strategies which could be used include playing

nizing a melody at the keyboard. Two melodies w
are "London Bridge" (tonic and dominant function
In" (tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords).
be the following:

(1) Have students nótate the melody, in class or a

(2) Have students nótate a structural outline of the
previous step. Students should also learn to play
(3) Have the students identify harmonic function
version of the melody.
(4) Let students play the melody, the bass line, an
tenor parts. Different students may explore diffe
(5) The final step is the "jam session," with each s
melody, and others playing bass or other accompa

Students enjoy hearing the improvised variations

nity to explore harmonic structure from the bass, i
they enhance their aural imaging as they develop th
ing; and they attain an intuitive understanding
vertical elements on one another.

Suggestions for Using Improvisation in

There are many combinations and ways for incorp

training curriculum, and these same techniques w
Instructors who wish to use improvisation should th

21 An example of a piece for a class exercise or a test might be the

for Analysis by Thomas Benjamin, Michael Horvit, and Robert Nel

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ever is requested of the students, and in fact, they can serve the important functi
modelling. The following guidelines are offered for the inclusion of improvis
aural training or in other courses.

(1) Set certain parameters, such as key, rhythm, and length. You may wish to
include certain materials in written notation and have that information
transposed for those playing transposing instruments.
(2) It may be helpful to use unfamiliar instruments, tuned and untuned, so
that students do not lapse into stereotypical patterns. The use of less
familiar instruments will also reduce inhibitions.22
(3) People think that creativity is an innate ability for a limited few, and yet
everyone has the capacity to create and to create with feeling. The most
troubling obstacles stem from our inhibitions. The use of rhythmic
improvisation, the use of less familiar instruments, and the absence of
critical judgment from the instructor will lessen the stress associated with
(4) There is no wrong improvisation; an error may be only an unintentional
Tightness.23 Don't stop when improvising; keep playing and incorporate mistak
An organist once said, "Salvation is never more than a half step away."24
(5) Provide an environment that is non-threatening, one in which students
feel comfortable experimenting and playing something that does not sound
polished. The instructor should be non-judgmental and receptive to all
efforts, especially at the beginning.
(6) Students' improvisations may sound contrived and often mechanical, but
over time their skill and freedom in improvisation will improve. Be aware
that students will mature in their improvisational skills at different rates.

In the end, improvisation cannot really be taught, only suggested, guided, and
allowed. The musician will become his or her own teacher. And, in a sense, tha
goal of all instruction.

22Eric F. Clarke, "The Role of Improvisation in Aural Perception," in A Conference on Aural Training
ings, ed. Michael Henson (Huddersfield, England: Huddersfield Polytechnic, 22-24 April 1987), 87.
23T. Carl Whitmer, The Art of Improvisation: A Handbook of Principles and Methods for Organists,
Teachers and All Who Desire to Develop Extempore Playing, Based upon Melodic Approach (New York: M. W
& Sons, 1934).
24 Gerre Hancock, Improvising: How to Master the Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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