Two years ago I opened my Music Educators Journal and read the national standards that had been approved for the arts by the congress for America’s Schools 2000. What a shock! Content Standard number three was improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments. What I had been teaching for years was recognized as important; it was legitimate!
I always had a problem in my piano lessons since I began at a young age. I loved to improvise! I always got yelled at about changing the music; a simple melody for me would become the basis for a composition using the entire keyboard. I was told that I was to stick to the notes. even though I told my teacher the notes as written didn’t sound complete. After studying classical piano for years as an undergraduate at a conservatory, I was encouraged to compose by a teacher. What a change of philosophy! I finally did what I always wanted to do—create my own music. I majored in composition at Yale, and received a Fulbright to study in Paris. An opportunity presented itself to me to create music for women’s gymnastics in 1968. At first I snubbed my nose at such a job because after all, I was a musician, and had nothing to do with sports! Common sense prevailed and I had the opportunity to perform and arrange music for both the Olympics in Mexico City and Munich. What I remembered, besides the many interesting and famous sports people I met was that the music played for women’s gymnastics from other countries derived from jazz and the American theater! American coaches preferred European music, not very suitable to support movement and to be audible in a large gymnasium.
In the 1970’s I developed a group keyboard curriculum to enable adult students to gain an understanding of the basic elements of music, and to play the keyboard creatively within a limited period time. I wanted to teach students to improvise from the very first lesson; I wanted to rewrite the piano books I had so disliked as a child! I continued to develop my curriculum for elementary students as a teacher in the New Haven schools. Eventually I learned how music technology (computer music) could be a vehicle for teaching improvisation as part of musicianship. I have been pursuing this vision of music teaching in the New Haven schools to meet this national standard number three, my favorite one! The teaching of the musical elements of the blues has been an important part of my course; however, the improvisation associated with the blues and jazz has always been challenging for me, since I studied European music all my life. My goal in pursuing this unit is to develop depth in the understanding of the blues improvisational practices, and take this knowledge and share it with my keyboard students in a meaningful way.
The word improvise is defined as “to invent, compose, or recite without preparation . . . to make or do something using whatever you have or without arranging it or planning it in advance . . . play music, speak, or act without set music or words, using. . . . imagination instead.”(1) This word could also be said to mean unforeseen, deriving from the Latin word
, to foresee. In simple words, one could say to improvise means to make-up as you go along. As an important factor in the blues philosophy of poetry and music, improvisation will be the focus in my unit about the blues.