Showcasing

Dr. Wendy McCallum

Preparing a Framework for Improvisation

Mar 2020

Teaching and learning are complex human endeavors, and the study of music in ensemble settings requires qualified specialists who are passionate about the value of music-making.  As such, music educators require expertise in the performance of music and in general education.  Rich pre-service experiences develop qualified educators who are ready to address student learning and to dive into productive rehearsals and performances.  In order to address the individual needs of students, music teachers study psychology, sociology, and pedagogy, achieve applied skills in instrumental techniques, ensemble tone production, and conducting, and understand music theory, musicology, and performance practice in diverse musical styles.  We strive for mastery of subject knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge in order to establish a foundation for our professional lives.

Classroom teachers in the twenty-first century have access to information – SO MUCH information that it is sometimes difficult to sort between the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all.  Educators need to remain focused on curricular outcomes and prioritize the core knowledge and skills that students must master in order to be successful in an ensemble.  And in order to optimize learning, educators must be able to recall and access from memory right now AND know how to apply it in the moment!

Yet, in all of the preparation, there is one glaring fact.  It is impossible to be prepared for every situation!  Teaching requires improvisation.  Diverse learners require a plethora of approaches, and teachers in mixed instrument classrooms are challenged by an additional layer of complexity.  How is it possible to structure meaningful rehearsals and develop knowledge, skills, and understanding when so much learning needs to take place? Every successful rehearsal needs a framework, and teachers need both knowledge of instrumental techniques as well as pedagogical content knowledge to guide learning.  Just when I am confident that I have efficiently planned to lead musicians to a better understanding, I realize that I need to adjust!  I can extend a metaphor, provide an aural model, create a situational analogy, give more examples, pose a problem, provide a demonstration, or create a warm-up or etude to provide more experience.  These improvisations in rehearsals are referred to as teachable moments that require “emergent teaching.”1  In Research Matters to the Science Teacher Kathryn F. Cochran states:

What is unique about the teaching process is that it requires teachers to “transform” their subject matter knowledge for the purpose of teaching. This transformation occurs as the teacher critically reflects on and interprets the subject matter; finds multiple ways to represent the information as analogies, metaphors, examples, problems, demonstrations, and/or classroom activities; adapts the material to students’ developmental levels and abilities, gender, prior knowledge, and misconceptions; and finally tailors the material to those specific individual or groups of students to whom the information will be taught.2

Detailed preparation allows us to draw on our resources in the moment that they are needed.  In addition to planning, teachers need to improvise!  What knowledge must be accessed from our brain banks?  Which strategies can be employed?  What musical example will provide access to the concept this ensemble needs to move forward technically and musically?  How can this individual student be motivated right now?  We must take our skills, knowledge, and understanding and irresistibly draw students to learning.  The history and etymology of improvise comes from Italian improvvisare and improvviso (sudden), the Latin improvisus, (literally, unforeseen), and from in- + provisus, the past participle of provid─ôre (to see ahead).  We are teachers - professionals who react in the moment because we have spent time preparing for the unforeseen.  We are improvisers who participate in collaborative creation and learning through rehearsal and performance.

In a recent meeting, my colleague in Jazz and Contemporary Music, Michael Cain, remarked on obstacles that are created when students expect immediate success.  In his Introduction to Improvisation class, artistry does not emerge in one semester of study! Michael focused his thoughts to me in a follow-up email: 

Many of the concepts involved in learning how to improvise can be learned and understood in a very short period of time, days or minutes in most cases.  Being able to make use of those concepts on one’s instrument or repertoire, let along gaining mastery and ownership of those skills, almost always takes many years.  Consequently, it is this discrepancy in timelines for the acquisition of these different sides of improvisatory development that the teacher of improvisation must account for and reconcile in their methodology and curriculum.3

Since my teaching includes courses with pre-service teachers, Michael’s comments resonated with me.  There is so much reading that can be done, listening that can happen, and practicing that can take place over the course of a week, a semester, or an academic year.  In addition, teachers tackle subject knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge with an understanding that its’ application will require flexibility and improvisation.  But of all of those activities – of all of that learning – what is the basic vocabulary or core learning for all instrumental educators?  And what are ways to develop professional mastery so that we can engage in “improvisation” later on? 

While music education programs tackle core curriculum issues, music specialists systematically improve teaching through reflective practice.  As such, the following is a list of suggestions to encourage effective emergent or improvisational teaching:

1. Prepare musical materials thoroughly.  Score study methodically for pitch, rhythm, harmony, dynamics, scoring, form, phrasing, and interpretation.  Know about the score’s construction so that the focus can be placed on student learning.

2. Refine your aural skills and be prepared to provide an instrumental and/or vocal model in every rehearsal.  Those models can create and refine a learner’s inner hearing and ensure that the ensemble has a consistent aural image.

3. Establish a structure and rehearsal plan for every instructional period.

4. Make plans clear to students (provide advanced organizers) so that they can gauge their own learning.

5. Communicate expectations (short and long term) clearly to musicians.

6. Encourage student-initiated solutions to enrich learning and accomplish outcomes.

7. Have additional classroom resources available for immediate use in order to supplement instruction.

8. Identify possible pitfalls for learners; imagine what might happen and prepare strategies to proceed in rehearsal.

9. Learn as much as you can about techniques on every instrument.   But, learn as much as you can about every individual learner in your ensemble.  Be prepared to individualize instruction.

10. Observe treasured colleagues and create a catalog of analogies, rehearsal techniques, and problem-solving strategies.

Improvisation is not only a practice for rhetoric, music, and theatre – it is an essential skill for all professionals.  A professional – whether a chef, athlete, surgeon, or teacher – improvises.  After investing time and developing knowledge, skill, and understanding, professionals continue to practice the application of expertise in order to improve the outcomes.  Whether results appear as unique culinary flavors, points on the scoreboard, reduced patient recovery time, or increased student skill and understanding, professionals reflect on and track the success of improvisational efforts.  Music educators reflect daily on the success of individual learners and modify subsequent instruction.  However, they are also prepared to make mistakes and to celebrate the learning that results from them. Thorough preparation of musical materials reinforced by well-sequenced instruction empowers student learning and provides the framework for instructional improvisation.


1. Maheux, Jean-Francois and Lajoie, Caroline.  “On Improvisation in Teaching and Teacher Education” Complicity:  An International Journal of Complexity and Education, Volume 8 (2010), 89.

2. Cochran, Kathryn F. “Pedagogical Content Knowledge: Teachers' Integration of Subject Matter, Pedagogy, Students, and Learning Environments,” Research Matters to the Science Teacher. No. 9702, January 14, 1997.  https://www.narst.org/publications/research/pck.cfm

3. Cain, Michael.  E-mail to author on January 25, 2019.

Portrait of

Dr. Wendy McCallum

Instrumental Music Education Specialist

View Profile

Additional Articles