Modernizing European Higher Music Education Through Improvisation

Information: Analysis_


Analysis of the current situation regarding teaching and learning improvisation in the member institutions

1. General situation in Europe

Introduction – The purpose of this document is to explore the current status of taught improvisation courses and modules in the classical and contemporary music departments in conservatories throughout Europe

Many conservatories have, to a certain extent, implemented courses of improvisation in the curriculum, ranging from specialized Masters courses to elective modules. This document will try to give an overview of current situation in Europe, as well as describe the trends and aspirations identified by the METRIC group for the coming years in higher education music courses.

As can be seen in the menu, there is a wide range of European institutions for higher music education active within the METRIC project. All of these institutions offer improvisation for classical music students in one way or another within their curriculum, although there is great diversity in how improvisation is integrated into the courses. ESMuC Barcelona is the only institution with 2 years of obligatory improvisation classes for all classical, undergraduate instrumentalists. In all Swiss schools, improvisation is taught to both classical and jazz students. This document will give an overview of the current activities. Strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum will be discussed, as well as the future outlook.

2. About improvisation

Improvisation is not a musical style but rather a process to create music. As such it is directly related to composition, but the path toward a result is very different. Within METRIC we distinguish the following categories:

1)   Improvisation as an art form

Improvisation is performed while it is being created on stage. The result of creating music in this way is experienced by the audience as music and is basically not distinguishable from composed music. It may be interesting to draw some comparisons between the two processes of composition and improvisation.

Composition and Improvisation:

The process of composition is a planned activity, outside a performance timeline. It is possible to develop and refine any notated form of music. It is a personal process that results in a document for the use of musicians in performance. Improvisation is a spontaneous performance form, on the timeline, no refining possible, what happened just happened, not written down, sound-oriented, and often a collaborative process:

Planned < > Spontaneous
Outside timeline < > On the timeline
Refining possible < > No refining possible
Notated (action-oriented) < > Not written down (sound-oriented)
Personal creation < > Often collaborative
Instructions < > Self determination
Being true to a score  < > Being your own master (taking initiative)  
Playing someone else’s music  < > Playing your own music

2)  Improvisation as a means to an end

The spontaneous creation of music in real-time is used as a catalyst and aid for learning and teaching musical and music-theoretical concepts from the inside of the musical texture, structure and experience:

Theory instruction old ways < > Learning through improvisation
Musical dictation (notated) < > Copying phrases in real-time
Learning intervals as ‘sizes’  < > Learning to ‘experience’ an interval
Learning chords as constructions < > Learning chords as sounds connecting in the action of a musical phrase

The initial goal of METRIC is to develop curriculum and new working methods for students following a classical trajectory. They may never improvise on stage (although we hope they will), but they need to approach their music in another way than an actor who is just learning their text without an active and fluent command of the language.


  • Create a thorough understanding of the language we are speaking
  • Learn to speak this language actively on your own instrument!
  • Develop the links:  ear -> instrumental action -> sound (circular process)
  • Develop speed, accuracy, creativity and spontaneity
  • Any improvised note should sound as beautiful as if it has been practiced extensively
  • Create confidence in playing spontaneously with any rule-set
  • Practice making rule-sets on the fly

3. Summary of the situation in the partner institutions

Below follows a general overview per institution improvisational activities in the curriculum of the institutions in the METRIC project.

Antwerpen: Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, Belgium

Practical Harmony and Improvisation are mandatory for all BA 1 students. Additionally, some instrument groups have to follow a more elaborated program. For keyboard (including harpsichord, piano, organ, accordeon) there is a five-year curriculum (BA 1 to MA 2), consisting of harmonic skills, free improvisation, score reading and the making of arrangements. Guitarists too follow a five-year curriculum (BA 1 to MA 2), focusing on (jazz) harmonic skills and free improvisation. Any student can follow, as an option, specialized classes e.g. on partimento tradition.

Barcelona: Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain

The Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya has been founded in 2001 and is a unique school by incorporating improvisation as an obligatory subject in the BA course from the very start of its existence. All students, regardless of instrument or department have to take 4 semesters of improvisation classes. As a result, improvisation has become accepted as a valid and valuable way of making music. Collaborative practice, aural development and creativity are being trained in an integrated way, thus forming a bridge between various subjects such as performance, interpretation, music theory and aural training.

Den Haag: Royal Conservatoire of The Hague, the Netherlands

The Royal Conservatoire of Den Haag has an active approach towards improvisation. It has converted its traditional theory curriculum to include improvisation as an important catalyst in aural development and the understanding of music theoretical concepts. The course "Aural Skills and Improvisation" has 6 semesters and is obligatory for all BMus classical students. The most recent development in this course are monthly online real-time improvisation sessions with the Yong-Siew-Toh Conservatory in Singapore. In the BMus there is furthermore a two semester elective 'improvisation for classical musicians', mainly based on tonal improvisation. There is also a specialized 6 semester class for all classical pianists of which the last two semesters are completely dedicated to improvisation in a wide variety of styles. In the Composition Department, a specialized course entitled 'Improv Lab' is offered to all first-year Bachelor students. In the Sonology Department, an improvisation ensemble is bringing together electro-acoustic musicians and instrumentalists from other departments. In the Early Music Department improvisation is an important point of focus in various courses, including Basso Continuo and an elective on historically informed improvisation. An obligatory course on improvisation is also offered to all students in the Master of Music Education.

Glasgow: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, UK

The undergraduate music degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland embeds both classical and free improvisation into musicianship classes for all classical performance and composition students. In addition to this, RCS offers optional modules for both undergraduates and masters in 'Classical Improvisation' and 'Free Improvisation (Music)', as well as the newly developed Joint European Module 'International Collaboration in Contemporary Improvisation'. Improvisation is also taught within such modules as Advanced Piano Skills, Rhythm Theory, Interactive Composition and Performance Studies. In the final year of the undergraduate degree, students may then choose to develop and perform substantial new devised/improvised work leading to an Endorsement in 'Arts and Innovation’.

Helsinki: Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland

At the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, improvisation is taught virtually everywhere. Jazz, early music, church, classical, folk, global, music technology, and composition departments include improvisation-related courses in their curricula. The offer encompasses a wide range of practices, from the pedagogical use of improvisation to artistic performance. Moreover, while some of those courses are specific to a certain department, others are targeted to all students in the academy. However, as interest in improvisation is constantly growing within academic and non-academic circles alike, (Helsinki has a vibrant and constantly blooming experimental and cross-genre scene) the Sibelius Academy is currently in the process of creating a minor study program in improvisation, targeted to master's level students. The minor study program will offer courses from all the departments, allowing the student to develop a holistic understanding of various improvisation practices.

Leipzig: Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig, Germany

The Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig has a special department for improvisation. It offers a 2 years MA program with the opportunity to specialize in either contemporary/free improvisation, stylistic improvisation, or improvisation for dance and movement. The curriculum consists of mandatory lectures in methodology and seminars in teaching practice. Furthermore, the department offers elective courses to all BA and MA students in group improvisation, solo improvisation, improvisation for dance and also silent movies. Courses in group improvisation are mandatory for all students of piano, composition, singing and orchestra performance. Students enrolled in the music education programs may acquire a teaching qualification for improvisation.

London: Guildhall School of Music and Drama London, England

In order to avoid a sectarian, (disconnected from repertoire learning) approach to improvisation among classical musicians, Guildhall programmes integrate improvisation into students’ performance training. The Guildhall offers intensive elective courses to performance students at the BA and MA levels, named "Interpretation through Improvisation". The foundation level is one year with an optional 2nd year of advanced level. Undergraduate students who continue to Masters level can choose to take a further advanced improvisation course of one or two years, focusing on specific elements of interest. A doctoral option is now available and running, dedicated to various aspects of improvisation and its applications. Improvisation taster-modules are compulsory for all first-year undergraduate students. All 2nd year piano students take compulsory improvisation sessions as a part of their Principle Study package throughout the year. Selected chamber music groups get improvisation sessions applied to chamber-music performance. The course includes various approaches to solo and ensemble tonal and post-tonal improvisation work. This works both independently of repertoire (aiming towards enhancing stylistic, harmonic and structural awareness as well as developing active listening, leading and following skills and expression) and in applying the concept of improvisational state of mind to solo and chamber music repertoire performance. The postgraduate course includes an intensive joint module together with actors from the Guildhall's drama department (taught by Ken Rea and David Dolan) for one term that includes a public showing. Students achieving distinction grade in the 1st year Master's course can include elements of improvisation in their final public concert-assessments and be formally recognised for it. A group of senior professors take part in an ongoing project of artistic development centered around classical improvisation.

Lucerne: University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Lucerne, Switzerland

The Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts offers a Bachelor’s degree with specialisation in Non-Idiomatic Improvisation and a Master’s Degree in Music and Art Performance. The Bachelors degree incorporates various forms of improvisation, such as conceptual, free and tonal improvisation. Furthermore, students explore improvisational concepts and playing techniques and also study the culture and playing styles of non-European improvisational music. In addition to their main instrumental disciplines in either the Classical or Jazz profile, students are trained in improvisation and attend the Improvisation Ensemble course. In both courses, students work on content from the expertise of a variety of teachers. The Improvisation Ensemble course is led by teachers from different musical backgrounds, the focus being to play in a collective, both in free improvisation and through an exploration of post- and mid 20th century concepts and models of experimental jazz and new music. Students are generally encouraged to attend other courses with similar content offered within the regular programmes. All these courses include a live performance at least once per semester. Apart from these two courses, the students follow subjects according to their chosen profile.

The MA Degree in Music and Art Performance provides specialised training for students seeking to develop and perform their own artistic ideas beyond conventional musical profiles, offering a large degree of freedom in realising their study aims. The focus is on developing a personal musical idiom by means of improvisation, composition and performance, and on genre-crossing and interdisciplinary activity.

Oslo: Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway

The course titled "improvisation" is a compulsive subject taught in the first semester of the BA.

A wide range of electives are offered: "Jazz Improvisation", 15 ects, (2 semesters) for all non-jazz students in the BA, "Improvisation-based contemporary music", 15 ects, (2 semesters For BA and MA students, which aims at expanding the student's knowledge of all that is possible on their instruments.) For classical singers in the BA and MA there is "Vocal improvisation for classical singers", 5ects, for organists (BA and MA) there is an improvisation course based on the classical tradition, 10 ects, and there is also a subject called “improvisation in the studio”, 5 ects, (BA and MA) that focuses on the use of improvisation as a tool for creating raw material for new music in the studio.

Paris: Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse, Paris

"Improvisation Generative" is the term describing a form of free improvisation, based on principles of listening and instantaneous musical invention. It does not follow a style or a musical idiom, however the questions of individual and collective memory are present and the links with the contemporary electroacoustic music are numerous. The Generative Improvisation class is for instrumentalists and singers who wish to diversify their practice by developing their musical invention skills. Through the accumulation of experiences and a reflection on the notions specific to improvisation, the student must be able to face many situations while affirming the specificity of his own musical experience. Subjects: a one year optional course for BA or MA students 2h a week, a two or three year course in the main generative improvisation class‎ (3-6 h a week with different topics declined over the year with different productions inside and outside the school and classes with guest artists and a class for harmonic practice for monodic instruments‎ addressed to classical musicians).

Tallinn: Estonian Academy for Music and Theatre, Tallinn, Estonia

The Estonian Academy for Music and Theatre offers a Masters study of Contemporary Improvisation. This is a complete program that aims to train improvising artists as well as free improvisation teachers. Both instrumentalists and singers are accepted. International master classes and interdisciplinary workshops form an important component of the curriculum. It is a specialization within the 2-year MA programme Music Performance. For all BA students elective courses are offered in free improvisation and voice improvisation. Tallinn Subjects: Free improvisation: The course aims at opening up and developing the active creativity. Students learn to think in sounds and notes as well as to express themselves, ensemble play (reaction to partner) as well as release the "lethargic" tension caused by extensive practising of the instrument. An elective course for all BA and MA students, mostly one-to-one tuition (45 min per week). Voice Improvisation: to develop creative thinking, expressing thought through voice. 'Free' improvisation for elementary school classroom music teachers. A compulsory course for music pedagogy students and actors; group and one-to-one tuition. In EAMT it is also possible to purse an artistic PhD research in improvisation.

Vilnius: Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, Vilnius, Lithuania

The academy in Vilnius offers a two-year MA "Contemporary Music" programme, which includes two interrelated specializations to choose from: Contemporary Chamber Ensemble studies or Improvised Music. Performance studies focus on contemporary music ensemble and collective and solo improvisation. The improvised Music course aims at the development of improvisational skills in solo and ensemble performance, providing knowledge in contemporary classical music (theoretically and practically) in order to develop the student‘s own creativity. Study forms include regular one-to- one classes, group work and integrated project-based activities, i.e. masterclasses led by world known improvisers, and interdisciplinary workshops.                    

4. Analysis and Outlook

The METRIC project has generated important exchange of knowledge and practices between the institutions, teachers and students involved. Comparing the current curricula of the institutions, we see that most of them include improvisation in one form or another. However, relatively few schools treat improvisation as an equal subject to any other supporting subject in the curriculum. As more details can be found in the institutional descriptions above, a few exceptions are worth mentioning separately: The Escola Superior de Müsica de Catalunya (ESMUC) in Barcelona offers 4 semesters of obligatory improvisation subjects in the BA, regardless of department and principal instrument. The Hochschule für Musik in Leipzig offers a fully developed MA in improvisation as an optional path in the instrumental Masters studies. The Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre offers a highly specialized and well developed Masters of Contemporary Improvisation as part of the instrumental Masters.

Now what are the next steps? Developments in the near future are first of all based on cooperation in the newly developed joint-modules. Furthermore we intend to increase student and teacher exchanges, as well as the exchange of teachers for external assessments. As a result of the METRIC project we expect the internal discussions on curriculum renewal to increase. It is good to see that various institutions have high ambitions regarding this matter, as there is a clear need to develop improvisation as a fully recognized part of any curriculum, both on BA and MA levels.