Are you a bit scared of improvisation? Does it make you feel slightly uncomfortable? A bit out of your depth? Wishing you had a few resources to help you get going? You’ll be pleased to know that you are not alone.


In this week’s blog post our Curious Improvisation Symposium contributors consider just why so many of us are scared of improvisation.


If teachers are scared it is because the ‘tyranny’ of notation has them in their grip: for too long instrumental music teaching has been notation led, (while paradoxically classroom teaching has had the opposite problem) and although this is a great gift useful for every musician allowing us to access great music, it is just one aspect of what makes a complete musician.


Fear of the unknown. We are in a period of read-only teachers teaching read-only students in a closed circle. It happens like this. Today’s teachers learnt to play music in a curriculum that focused solely on the written page and thereby excluded ear skills and “choose your own notes” creativity.  If they had any interest in non-classical music, their teacher likely sent a subtle message that their creative impulses and contemporary musical tastes were just not relevant to their piano studies. Those who hung on developed their reading skills and a taste for fine art music to a very high level. Competitions and accolades may have followed and then music school.  Eventually they opened up a teaching studio to continue the cycle of read-only teachers teaching read-only students who become read-only teachers…

All very well but what happened to their ear skills and creativity? Like a blind person compensating for the lack of sight by heightening the other senses, a read-only music curriculum works in reverse.  When the eye is emphasized exclusively, the ears wither and musicians become entirely dependant on the written page.


Teachers can be scared of improvisation because they haven’t done it themselves. They also assume that it will be hard to assess!


They don’t know what to play as over the years they have developed a habit of following the written score.


They are scared of improvisation for a very good reason! From the very first lesson, they were taught that making music was a process of decoding symbols and following specific directions.   They learned that the impulse to make music is triggered by an outside visual symbol, not an internal feeling or a response to tone. And so, the moment these teachers are finally asked to “just play” in response to tones and their feelings, there’s a justifiable feeling of vertigo and panic! It’s harder for these people to improvise than for someone who has not has that sort of training.

This is why it is so important that a person begins improvising in the first lesson. Then students don’t grow up to become teachers or musicians who are afraid of playing without a score! Then these students won’t learn to be afraid.”


Being outside of one’s comfort zone is uncomfortable! We music teachers tend to teach similar to the way we ourselves were taught. If we didn’t experience improvisation activities growing up, chances are we likewise won’t provide those kinds of opportunities for our students…unless we consciously work at doing so!


I believe teachers are intimidated and scared of improvisation because of the spontaneous nature of the activity. Both the student response and outcome can be rather uncertain. It is often easier to plan something concrete and know what to expect rather than embark on a journey with a unspecified destination. With this said, improvisation can add a creative element to a lesson that inspires both the teacher and student. New life and energy may be added to a lesson with the use of improvisation.


Because they were never taught properly themselves, from the beginning.


It’s natural to be unwilling to try something new that you don’t understand.

When reading music, our brain typically processes the notation and then transmits signals to our finger muscles. This flow of information is a continual and predictable ‘closed’ process, mostly dictated by the notated music albeit with a limited amount of creativity possible through dynamics, expression and articulation.

However, as soon as we start to improvise, we face an almost limitless – and often paralysing! – choice of possible notes and rhythms. So our brains literally have to create new music on the spur of the moment! That’s a lot of pressure to deal with if you’re not equipped with the tools and techniques of improvisation.


Principally, I expect, because they do not have this aspect of musical expression in their own background, in some instances they will be more anxious than the students. For instance, very young children often improvise without self-consciousness and might have great capacity for spontaneous expression.

So there you have it from the experts – if you are scared of improvisation it’s probably because you are a product of the system! But now it’s your turn as the teacher and it’s time to break the cycle of read-only teachers teaching read-only pupils.

Here’s an idea from Julie Knerr, from Piano Safari, to get you started.

Julie says:

For teachers who have little experience but would like to add improvisation to a lesson, I suggest starting with a fixed teacher accompaniment and an improvised student section. This makes it simple for the teacher to provide a rhythmic and harmonic framework that the student is able to improvise alongside. This also lends confidence to students who are reluctant to try on their own. In Piano Safari Repertoire Book 1 and Book 2, there are several improvisations that fit this description such as “March Improvisation” (student plays on any black key) and the “Twelve Bar Blues” (student may use any note in the blues scale. Click here to watch a video

Another starting idea is to choose a distinct theme and ask the student to improvise music and create a story. For example, Piano Safari Repertore Book 1 includes an improvisation piece called “Thunderstorm Over the Prairie.” Students create sounds on the piano for rain, (hard and gentle) thunder, lightening, hail and wind. This theme is so evocative that students have no trouble coming up with sounds to match. Click here to watch a video of “Thunderstorm Over the Prairie”

Finally, playing the Animal Improvisation Game is a fun improvisation idea. The teacher improvises sounds and asks the student to guess which animal it is. (Of course, students love to switch places and improvise sounds while the teacher guesses as well!) Click here to watch a video

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: lots more practical ideas for how to get started with improvisation. Join us then!

This blog post was compiled by Dr. Sally Cathcart, co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers


  1. David Munro

    Improvising is bring your chosen instrument closer to your emotional reaction. Good performances of anything are characterized by honesty. When musicians can ‘say’ something honestly, it translates to the listener as being more profound. Singers are obviously much closer to their instruments than players are but improvised sessions can help build the bridge between the performance and the player’s own feelings.

  2. Sue Greenham

    Can you imagine a painter being told they would only be taught how to copy a painting that had already been done by somebody else? Or a writer being told they could only rewrite other people’s books? But so many musicians only play that music which has already been written by somebody else.
    Any musical instrument, including the voice, is a means of expression. If we don’t make our own music, hen we are only expressing our interpretation of somebody else. So in that case, who will ever express us?


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