A life of its own: Teaching group improvisation through responsive choices

Graeme Wilson, Raymond MacDonald

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Improvisation is a creative process requiring generation as well as selection and execution of ideas in real time, and typically a social activity in music. Yet research and pedagogy around musical improvisation is mainly focused on individual prowess in selecting and executing ideas from recognisable material internalised through extensive practice. This neglects the potential for an accessible interaction capable of creative innovation to achieve music with ‘a life of its own’.

We discuss a recent model from psychological research of group improvisation as a universal process for beginners and experts, with subjective and flexible constraints on choice in response to the socio-musical context. Pedagogic implications were tested in workshops with different groups, where novel musical events emerged through diffusion of creative responsibility. We describe the subsequent development of an innovative undergraduate music course, teaching and assessing students with mixed improvisation experience through collaborative practice.

Prioritising the group encourages musical creativity dependent on trust rather than the shared understanding widely presumed to be prerequisite; indeed, misconceptions are essential to emergent creative processes. Ensemble interaction is therefore a key resource for meeting high cognitive demands, building confidence and fostering divergent improvisatory practice. Emphasising responses rather than the display of facility offers a powerful means to encourage and integrate students with differing improvisation experience.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExpanding the Space for Improvisation Pedagogy in Music
Subtitle of host publicationA Transdisciplinary Approach
EditorsGuro Gravem Johansen, Kari Holdhus, Christina Larsson, Una MacGlone
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781351199957
ISBN (Print)9780815392101, 9780367728403
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jun 2019


  • music
  • psychology
  • interaction
  • pedagogy
  • improvisation

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