New Improvisation-Related Subjects for Instrumental Majors

Since the winter semester of 2016/17 and the instatement of the new instrumental studies curriculum, all instrumental majors at the mdw (except for pianists) have had Improvisation and Creative Music-Making on their list of compulsory subjects. Additionally, these students have the opportunity to deal in greater depth with the topic of selfdirected music and sound generation in a simultaneously introduced group of courses entitled Schwerpunkt Improvisation, with the individual courses [titles translated] Improvisation Today, Introduction to Free Improvisation, Introduction to Improvising in Specific Styles, Introduction to Jazz Improvisation, Improvisation and New Musical Styles 1 & 2, Popular Music Ensemble, and Rhythm Training for popular Music.

For instrumental performance majors these courses open up a window on what improvisation is capable of accomplishing. In the FWF-sponsored research project Quo Vadis, Teufelsgeiger? [Quo Vadis, Devil’s Violinist?] at the mdw (3/2010–3/2012), Magdalena Bork1, Reinhard Gagel, and this article’s author worked out the following points that spoke in favour of teaching improvisation:

Schooling perception, playing around with all of music’s parameters, creating a sense of the present, establishing a connection to one’s own elemental motivation, shifting the focus from inability to ability – i.e., drawing on the resources that exist within oneself, conveying/ pointing out a constructive, fear-reducing way of dealing with mistakes, strengthening social competencies2, offering a field for experimentation with various roles, encouraging authentic music-making, training how to deal with surprises, and thus also opening up (new) systems of orientation for a system that changes rapidly and continually, as is now being encountered by more and more musicians.

Beyond the abovementioned intrinsic aspects, improvisation also functions as an effective tool that promotes more flexible playing, listening, and doing together for young orchestral and chamber musicians3. Furthermore, young musicians’ involvement in improvisational activities can act as a catalyst for activities as composer-performers. Activities that, up to about 250 years ago, were an everyday thing for most musicians: they were simultaneously interpreters, composers, and performers of their music. As I described in my dissertation Bassoon Performance – Improvisation, Intuition, Transformation4, the term improvisation was “evidently first related to music by J. J. Rousseau in his Dictionnaire (1768).”5 The word improvisation took on its present-day meaning in the mid-19th century. In terms of music-making without written music, a distinction had been made up to that point between the prelude (improvisation of typically short pieces) and the fantasy (a more complex form of improvisation). Derek Bailey writes that, “In all styles of baroque […], improvisation was always present, integrated into both the melodic and harmonic fabric of the music.”6 Instrumentalists at the dawn of public concert life amazed their audiences with virtuosic improvisations rich in ideas, and up to the mid-19th century, improvisation continued to be a nearly omnipresent element in concerts. However, the years since the late-18th century had seen a chasm begin to open up between composition and improvisation. “Many composers began formulating the musical text of their works so as to completely determine every aspect of would be played, thus compositionally occupying the traditional free spaces for improvisation.”7 Giuseppe Verdi, for example, obtained “contractual guarantees that his works would be performed true to the notation.”8

The dissolution of major-minor tonality and technology-related developments in musical practice caused a multitude of musical styles to expand and further develop up to the mid-20th century, with clear lines of demarcation being drawn between “serious” music and music for entertainment. And in improvisation, for its part, a distinction was made between two primary characters, idiomatic and non-idiomatic: “Idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom—such as jazz, flamenco, or baroque— and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom. Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called ‘free’ improvisation…”9. To this day, the development of improvisation has unfolded such that “former barriers and stylistic boundaries are no longer being so radically upheld (…) insistence on one single truth in improvisation seems to be diminishing.“10

For a long time now, improvisation has been “largely repurposed as a methodical tool for the learning of traditional music theory”11, even though “it is interesting from a creativity theory perspective that listeners who are not very familiar with a particular style can barely distinguish between an improvisation and a composition.”12 And since improvisational musical practice has—with few exceptions (organ improvisation, music therapy, rhythm, music pedagogy)—largely disappeared at universities of music, the introduction of these new subjects will serve to counter this development.

“Discovering and allowing meaning”: this is how first-year student Elisa Ramberger describes her experiences in the course Improvisation and Creative Music-Making and the feeling—which “makes music so indescribable”—that she was able to discover in this course.

“The current feedback by participating students is exemplary for how most students’ feedback regarding our project Quo vadis, Teufelsgeiger? was formulated a couple years back,” says Vice Rector Barbara Gisler-Haase. “It was just such feedback that originally convinced the studies commission for instrumental majors to introduce improvisation as a compulsory subject in the curriculum and establish an emphasis in improvisation. Which was a daring undertaking, considering how it meant that, every year, several groups would have to be formed that would have to be financed by the Rectorate alongside other new things,” continues the vice rector.

Improvisation is a form of self-directed and creative inventiveness on one’s instrument. Making music and creatively developing ideas out of the here and now are things of which each and every one of us in innately capable. Discovering this and playing around with it entails intensive work with one’s own self and on one’s instrument, as well as a great deal of fun for most of the students.



  1. The project “Quo Vadis, Teufelsgeiger?” developed out of the results and findings from the following research: Bork, Magdalena: Traumberuf Orchestermusiker? Herausforderungen an ein Leben für die Kunst, Verlag Schott, Mainz, 2010. See: Bork, Magdalena: “Getragen vom Übertragen: Das Projekt ‘Quo Vadis, Teufelsgeiger?’ im Lichte der Translation,” in: Hasitschka, Werner (ed.): Performing Translation, Löcker Verlag, Vienna, 2014.
  2. See also: Gagel, Reinhard: Improvisation als soziale Kunst – Überlegungen zum künstlerischen und didaktischen Umgang mit improvisatorischer Kreativität, Verlag Schott, Mainz, 2010.
  3. As an example of a collection of improvisation guides, see: Rüdiger, Wolfgang: Ensemble & Improvisation – 20 Musiziervorschläge für Laien und Profis von Jung bis Alt, ConBrio Verlagsgesellschaft, Regensburg, 2015.
  4. Gstättner-Heckel, Maria Brigitte: Fagott Performance – Improvisation Intuition Transformation, Dissertation, Vienna, 2016.
  5. Seedorf, Thomas, “Improvisation”, in: Finscher, Ludwig (ed.): Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Sachteil 3, Bärenreiter Verlag, Kassel Basel London New York Prague, Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart Weimar, 1995, Col. 569.
  6. Bailey, Derek: Improvisation, its nature and practice in music, revised edition (1992), The British Libary National Sound Archive (UK); Da Capo Press (USA), p. 21.
  7. Seedorf, Thomas, “Improvisation”, MGG, 1995, col. 572.
  8. Ibid., col. 579.
  9. Bailey, Derek: Improvisation, its nature and practice in music, revised edition (1992), The British Libary National Sound Archive (UK); Da Capo Press (USA), p. xi–xii.
  10. Polaschegg, Nina: “Hear and Now – (Einige) Entwicklungen seit 1998,” in: Wilson, Peter Niklas: Hear and Now – Gedanken zur improvisierten Musik, Wolke Verlag, Hofheim, 2014, p. 8.
  11. Frisius, Rudolf, “Improvisation”, in: Finscher, Ludwig (ed.): Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Sachteil 3, Bärenreiter Verlag, Kassel Basel London New York Prague, Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart Weimar, 1995, col. 588
  12. Lehmann, Andreas C., (2008), p. 340. (as of: 7 Aug. 2017).


Statement by the vice rector, experiences of teachers of the new subjects, and a compilation of student feedback

Statement by the Vice Rector for Teaching, Advancement of Art, and Young People
Barbara Gisler-Haase

“Discovering and allowing meaning”: this is how one student described phenomena including a certain feeling “that makes music so indescribable”. The current feedback by participating students is exemplary of how most students’ feedback regarding our project Quo vadis, Teufelsgeiger? a couple of years ago was formulated. It was just such feedback that originally convinced the studies commission for instrumental majors to introduce improvisation as a compulsory subject in the curriculum and establish an emphasis in improvisation.

Which was a daring undertaking, considering how it meant that, every year, several groups would need to be formed that would have to be financed by the Rectorate alongside other new things! In this light, the power of conviction and quite some persuasion really are necessary.

The current mdw Magazine article on this topic shows impressively just what multifaceted richness can be discovered through improvisation. And we’re looking forward to the next generation of mdw students who will partake of this richness and hence be able to point to a further competency developed as part of their studies.


Feedback of a student on the subject Improvising and Creative Music Making
Elisa Ramberger, recorder

Why improvise? Improvisation. Providere means to foresee. Improvisus refers to the unforeseen.

The past semester has helped me become acquainted with and begin to understand a new way of making music. I’ve developed a connection with it. A certain joy—in making mistakes, trying things out, discovering, communicating, and understanding. To me, music means emotion and honesty, spontaneity and unpredictability. All those things that can get lost so easily in composed music and its interpretation. Coming together each week with a group of people who are experienced musicians but inexperienced improvisers to spend one and a half hours trying out various types of the unexpected taught me one thing above all: that improvisation is honest.

And you notice when someone “lies”. Improvisation gives rise to dynamics. And you feel when somebody feels things differently. Improvisation tells stories. And you hear when somebody doesn’t understand. What I’m trying to say here is that, through this form of making music and listening, one strengthens a sense that one has to discover and allow for. A sense that lets you feel, that gives rise to an energy. Out of the moment. Which is beautiful and unexpected.

But not random. Even if this feeling can’t be defined, I’m convinced that it can be conveyed. And it’s this feeling that makes music so indescribable. Independent of place, time, and country. Independent of composition and improvisation. Thank you for this past semester!


Improvisation and Creative Music-Making
Maria Gstättner

For nearly all of the participating students, it was an entirely new experience to do interdisciplinary playing for an entire semester in a group of 32 students divided into 8 sub-groups (players of all instruments—excepting piano—in which majors are offered, with Monika Stadler responsible for the harpists) in order to briefly immerse themselves in the activity of improvised music generation in order to spark an interest in this “discipline”, introduce idioms, become acquainted with information and musicians/performers from this field of work, try out unaccustomed techniques on their instruments, and develop their own concepts for pieces.

All this with a focus on one of the fundamental rules of improvisation—“I want to”—plus the suspension of ideas of “right and wrong”. And by the semester’s conclusion, all of the groups had developed a feel for improvised music generation and truly good music.


Introduction to Jazz Improvisation
Michael Dörfler-Kneihs

Happily, interest in this course was quite high—in part due to general curiosity about improvisation and in part due to concrete enthusiasm for jazz. Many instruments were represented, though—interestingly—this year included players of neither the trumpet nor the saxophone, two quintessential jazz instruments. On the other hand, I’d already noticed in years past just how many violinists have a desire to play jazz. So that it would actually sound like jazz from the very beginning, we did a lot of training together: we played scales, chords, and phrases in all keys. In between, there was then space to experiment—either together or one after the other—with the material we’d practiced. We underlaid these exercises and improvisations with ever-new rhythms and tempi.

I found it fascinating how the personality of every single musician was palpable from the first note onward, even though most of the participants had no experience improvising and though we were all moving within a predetermined style.” This strong experience of one’s individual (musical) personality is what makes jazz improvisation—and thus our course—so exciting!


Introduction to Style-Based Improvisation
Michael Meixner

This course took place for the first time in the summer semester of 2017; the participants were two pianists, one hornist, a violinist, and a saxophonist.

We experimented with improvisation according to various—as the title suggests: style-based—criteria: baroque ostinati and movement-types, classical variations, invention of a theme and arrangements in one’s mind, improvisation using Messiaen’s modes and freely composed scales, chord pattern studies, atonal counterpoint with strictly defined opening motifs, and many more things, often spontaneously invented and tried out. Great importance was placed on listening and balancing, on role-switching among the ensemble’s individual players, and thus also on mutual responsibility for drawing a successful musical arc. Towards the end of the course, one participant expressed how numerous cross-connections to other courses (music history, composition, stylistics…) had manifested themselves to her in a surprisingly understandable way over a very brief period of time.”


Introduction to Free Improvisation
Burkhard Stangl

In order to infuse normalcy, the norm, the normal, the musical gold standard, the rules that go without saying, the canon, the usual—in other words, all that which is of relevance to reproductive art—with new meaning by discovering or catalysing one’s own musical essence, we took this course as an opportunity to do all those things that one doesn’t otherwise do.

Eight musicians gave themselves over passionately to the (then-)unknown in order to create music together that had not yet existed and would never again exist in this form. The participating instrumentalists—on their respective (two) violins, viola, cello, recorder, saxophone, horn, and piano—communicated with each other musically without written “external storage” and without career-related stress-factors, creating their own music via independent musical activity with every possible vigour, caution, delicacy, calm, and reflection.

Just like happiness isn’t always cheerful, free improvisation isn’t always entirely without limits. What it requires is a fine mixture of precision, discipline, consistency, and laissez faire. Freedom has to be fought for, again and again, and can be enjoyably attained via free improvisation. Again and again.


Creative Playing – The Free and the Structured
Monika Stadler

This course for harp players was devised so as to allow them to gather experience both in free improvisation and in the structure and language of jazz improvisation.

A further intent of mine was to encourage the students to try out the most varied ideas, to become freer and more daring, to abandon any fear of making mistakes, to approach questions in a spirit of fun discovery, and to repeatedly listen closely for the melodies and ideas that might develop. It was great to see how the students grew increasingly liberated.

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