Comedy improvisation for teachers

Improv for Teaching

Having a foot in both the improvisation and the teacher camps, I have often mused and been asked about how people could use the techniques of comedy improvisation for teachers.  Here is my brief journey…

I started teaching piano in 2002.  I had one pupil who I would teach in the piano shop I worked in at the time.  He was 15, pretty talented and disciplined, intelligent and loved Elton John (nobody’s perfect).  We would spend lessons learning pieces from the music, and then improvise together, exploring different styles, chords and tunes.  I would plan very little and often spend large parts of lessons listening to music, talking about music or about anything else that came to mind.

Over the next few years, I began to teach on a more regular basis, in primary schools, to groups of 4 children at a time in the corner of the school library, in hallways or wherever else was available in the school.  I taught on electric keyboards and had a fairly rigorous syllabus that I adhered to.  I would still try to liven things us by making up our own songs or playing games or doing quizzes, but I was becoming institutionalised by a system that demanded results.  Exams, tests, performances and parents all conspired to shut down the peripheral and concentrate on the narrow path to measurable achievement.  This method worked for around 30% of children in my experience.  The others would start out very enthusiastic and then after a couple of terms I would never see them again as the lure of sport, computers, or in fact anything apart from learning music drew them away.

About 10 years ago I moved into teaching one-to-one in secondary schools as a peripatetic piano teacher.  It was also at this time that I joined The Maydays as an improviser musician.  I quickly returned to a freer approach with my students, improvising and learning songs from films, adverts, youtube or any other medium we could find.  While the teachers in adjacent rooms drilled Grade 4 scales, we were lifting music from the John Lewes advert and playing it in a Blues style.  Some students progressed rapidly, others made almost no progress in 4 years.  Mabel would turn up every week, fail to get any better at her piece, and then every 6 months we would abandon it and start something else.  I would dread that half and hour where she felt like a failure, and so did I.

It is here that I have felt a shift in my attitude recently.  Results.  Music is about performance, about self-expression, communication with an audience – even if that audience is just yourself.  Lessons are to get better at music, so a student who does not improve is essentially wasting time and money showing up to lessons every week right?  Well I’m beginning to think maybe not.  When I teach musical improv in a comedy setting, the results are often secondary to the experience for many people.  People often want to come along because they simply enjoy the classes, not because they particularly want to get better at it.  They may not ever do comedy improvisation outside of classes anyway.

Recently I have realised that my piano students who show no sign of improvement, never practise and never finish off a piece are perhaps not wasting their time and mine after all.  I can tell that they will not become professional musicians, but hopefully will be able to walk up to a piano and play something.  They will not host chamber music recitals at their grand pianos, but might feel able to bash out a tune on a piano in a train station one day.  So now, thanks to the years of acceptance, saying yes and listening in improv classes, I don’t dread my weekly lesson with Mabel, who can’t really play much at all, has failed any exam she has ever taken and refuses to enter for any school concerts.  Now we can both enjoy the experience of that half an hour a week simply for what it is, without the pressure of some future perfect performance.  When Mabel leaves school, she might be very slightly better at the piano than when she started, but I hope partly down to our half an hour a week, she will be very slightly better at being in the moment, listening, accepting, being happy with who you are; basically being human.

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