SAO Conference 2023: Good Vibrations Reflections

Laura Nerenberg

This past November 11 and 12, 2023, I had the distinct honour to lead improvisation workshops for students and teachers at the annual SAO conference in Waterloo, ON.

For the student workshop day I worked with string students of various levels with differing amounts of improvisation experience. On the second day I led a group of teachers in a jam session for Suzuki teachers. We had the chance to play the games the students play in a fun and moving session. A beautiful baby, the daughter of one of the teachers, joined us, and seemed to delight in listening to our creations.

It is always a challenge to balance the needs of students who are brand new to improvising with those of more experienced improvisers. As the teacher, how we set up our room and implement rules for everyone to work in a safe and respectful environment go a long way toward ensuring everyone leaves the session feeling good about their creative endeavours.

Whether you’re new to improvisation yourself, or are a seasoned jammer, here are some tips for making the most of your improvisation classes, regardless of everyone’s experience level:

  1. Seat everyone in a circle. When we’re improvising, we’re all equals. We all get the chance to solo and create pieces together where everyone’s voice is important. Make sure all the players can easily see each other. With pianos or keyboards, it can be a little more complicated, but you can set up pianos at an angle, or place the other chairs so as to include the piano in the circle. And yes, even instrumentalists who usually play standing get to sit in an improvisation class. This allows them to retreat into themselves if need be. Not everyone is ready to play fortissimo right away! The chair gives students a physical refuge.
  2. Tell students the three rules for improvising and live by those rules yourself. I often write these on the whiteboard in the room where I’m teaching. If I’m teaching at a camp or institute, or working weekly with my own students, I ask the them to remind me of these rules at every class. The rules apply to all present in the room: students, teachers, parents, grandparents, siblings, and guests. These are so crucial that breaking these can shatter a student’s trust in the process, leading them to hate improvising or find it scary. These rules free the students to be bold and discover (usually over weeks, months, and years) their inner voice.
  3. There’s no such thing as a mistake. (Even if a student plays a “wrong note”, not in the key of the game, it is OK, because the notes are their choice.)
  4. Applause and silence. (We stay quiet and listen intently while others improvise, and we show appreciation and thanks afterward for the sharing of musical ideas.)
  5. Never criticize a friend. No post-mortems or critiques on instrument technique or note choice during or following an improvisation. This includes asking students to play louder so you can hear them. Especially for beginning improvisers, it’s important to let them blend into the background and play as quietly as they want. Asking them to play louder is a criticism of the dynamics they chose. Just don’t do it. It’s OK not to hear them. They’ll emerge from the texture when they’re ready, whether in a week or six months or three years.
  6. Play with your students, while showing compassion for yourself. We’re all human. If you play an F-natural in G Major, accept yourself. How you respond to a “wrong note” teaches students to take musical risks. Model self-compassion and not taking yourself too seriously. This sharing of your humanity helps open up their creativity more profoundly.
  7. Take some training and learn about the creative process. It took me about a decade to become very comfortable teaching improvisation. During that time (and still today) I sought out training with mentors and worked on refining my own creative voice, all while introducing improvisation to my students. Even a little bit of training will give you a wealth of ideas and the confidence to start integrating improvisation into your curriculum.
  8. Start implementing before you feel completely ready. Get a little training, then perhaps start with one game per group class. And remember that kids LOVE playing the same game over and over. Soccer, Telephone, Rhythm Machine, Minnows! These games never get old because with improvisation, no two iterations of a game will ever be the same.
  9. You don’t have to be Stéphane Grappelli to be a successful improvisation teacher. You just need a little knowledge and the willingness to get started and keep going. In time, you’ll be more comfortable and your students will reap the enormous benefits of regular creativity training: confidence, instrument ownership, depth of interpretation, increased teamwork, support, and respect for others. And you will have the pleasure of being a catalyst for their creativity. Who knows where it may lead?
Laura leading students in the Non-Pitched Rhythm Machine at the SAO Conference in Waterloo, ON, on November 11, 2023.