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Musical improvisation delivers valuable life lessons

Improvisation is an important part of any creative endeavor.

I recently spoke with Matt Turner, cellist, pianist, composer and teacher of improvisation at Lawrence University, about the benefits of improvisation in music. In addition to creative and technical benefits, his students notice that improvisation helps them think about who they want to be as human beings and what they can contribute to the world.

When musicians improvise, we get away from the written page. We have to listen — to ourselves and to others — as we respond, in real time, to the music being created. This process builds community, as we learn to lead, follow and integrate our ideas. We learn that it is perfectly acceptable to experiment and to fail. We learn that we have our own musical “voice” as we allow music to emerge.

Traditionally-trained musicians sometimes have difficulty learning to improvise, as they have spent years learning to read specific repertoire from a page in front of them. I remember the first time — in high school, after more than 10 years of classical piano instruction — I was asked to learn something aurally and then improvise an ending. I struggled with this, as there was no “right” answer printed in front of me. As I worked on the task, I learned that I had all the tools to be successful, I had just never been granted permission to “break the rules” in this way. It was scary, but invigorating. It was the first time I had been asked to create rather than interpret.

Untrained musicians can also be successful improvisers. Try adding a harmony to a song (using an instrument or your voice) or create something all your own. Start with three or four specific notes. Do you want the notes to be short or long? Do you want to move between notes quickly or slowly? In which order do you want the notes? Will you repeat any notes more than others? How loudly or softly will you sing or play each note? Do you want to add any words?

Have you noticed that most 3-year-olds are really good at this? I love the moment in the movie “Despicable Me” when Agnes sings a spontaneous song about unicorns — it is exactly what children do. Unfortunately, as we grow up, many of us curb those impulses as we simply “follow the rules” of music — even though what we do is “play” an instrument. Fortunately, many teachers now incorporate improvisation and composition into weekly lessons.

A Lawrence student who recently completed an improvisation class said, “I feel that I have been able to communicate and connect with people who were once strangers to me, becoming comfortable in a short amount of time. It has helped me conquer the fear barrier of being imperfect and making a mistake, and most profoundly has given a sense of purpose and personal creativity to my artistic life.”

What do you have to say? Take the time to explore your ideas by improvising, alone or with others, this summer.

—Karen Bruno is the director of the Lawrence Academy of Music and artistic director of the Lawrence Academy Girl Choir Program. Lawrence is a member group of the Fox Arts Network, a grassroots organization of nonprofit arts groups serving the Fox Cities and surrounding communities. FAN’s goal is to encourage trial in all art forms.

Karen Bruno, www.postcrescent.com, www.msidallas.com