Growing up in Edinburgh with musically enthusiastic parents, I was fortunate to have a rich and enjoyable music education. For years, Saturdays started with Waddell Orchestra, followed by a piano lesson in Ainslie Place. There was time for coffee and scones with Dad in Charlotte Square before an hour of Waverley Singers, my Mum’s choir. I loved all this, but life really began to take off when I was old enough to join Caritas, the orchestra founded by schoolboy Donald Runnicles, which rehearsed early on Saturday evenings. Edinburgh and National Youth Orchestras followed. My music degree at Manchester focussed on performance and composition.
Looking back, I have fabulous memories of a range of wonderful, even life-changing experiences and encounters through music. However, one aspect that I have come to regard as completely integral in music education is conspicuous by its absence. I was in my mid-40s before anyone asked me to improvise. The result? Utter terror! In 2005, as a precursor to my two years of study for a PGCE in Manchester, I signed up for Dalcroze UK’s Summer School. I was assigned to Karin Greenhead’s group for the afternoon improv lesson and still vividly recall the feeling in my gut as we waited outside the room for the lessons to start. Unfortunately that’s all I remember, though, as the nerves have obliterated the learning. It wasn’t until 4 years later that I finally realised that it was better, even enjoyable, just to get on and play. What a blooming relief.
Once I started encouraging pupils to improvise, it became apparent that experimenting with creating their own music made them understand their instrument and music in a new way. In fact, I’ve come to regard improv as an essential part of the learning process. I tend to start with question and answer games in lessons so that they realise it is possible to make up stuff on the spot (yes, some really haven’t worked that out.). Once they’ve done it, I give them tasks to do at home such as creating music for a postcard, favourite book character, or story. Sometimes I give them rules such as not playing in C major (pianists......) or only using 3 agreed notes. As ever, the trick is to find the right challenge. For many, the concept that what they play can't be wrong is so liberating that they discover a mastery they (and I) didn't know they had.
Being the type of child whose progress was limited by fear of doing something wrong, I recognise that improvisation might have linked things up for me and given me confidence. I am determined to give my pupils the opportunity to develop these skills. Yes, there's always far too much to do in lessons, but this is an important step in helping pupils to establish ownership of their learning. And it's great fun too.