21M.355 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate
Musical Improvisation


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Labs: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session

Six on-campus concerts, outside of regular class time

Course Overview

This course is designed to expose students from a wide background of experience and training to the many facets of the art and craft of improvisation. It is not a jazz improvisation course, although there will be substantial use of jazz approaches. Having an open mind and open ears are paramount, as well as having intermediate musical-technical skills.

The course provides an overview of and an immersion in a variety of approaches to musical improvisation. We will study concepts and techniques of improvisation in solo and ensemble contexts, as well as the aesthetics of improvisation. Further, the relationships among improvisation, composition, and performance based in traditional and experimental approaches will be examined. Topics, with occasional guest lectures, will include jazz, non-western music, and western concert music, as well as the use of musical improvisation with film, All of these facets will be explored through lecture-discussions, lecture-demonstrations, and hands-on music making.

Students should plan to bring instruments to most class sessions and all lab sessions.


Students are expected to have at least an intermediate level of performance skill on an instrument, including voice. Prior experience as an improviser is not necessary, although it will be useful. Enrollment is contingent on brief auditions held during the first class (see below).

Guest Artist-Teachers and Concert Series

This term, we are privileged to have four distinguished artist-teachers and their ensembles participating in our course. Each artist-teacher will serve as guest lecture for a pair of class meetings, while their full ensembles will perform in our Art of the Improvisors concert series.

Structure of guest lecture sessions:

  • First class: artist introduces concepts, demonstrates, & gives assignment to students, such as a short piece based on these concepts.
  • Second class: artist serves in “master class” mode, as students present their work, followed by further discussion, demonstration, and interaction.

Attendance at all of the concerts is mandatory. Students write reflective reports on the concerts, reinforcing what the artist-teachers present in the classroom setting.

In addition to the four concerts in the guest artist series, students are also required to attend and write reports on two other concerts by the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.


The weekly lab session will be taught by Tom Hall, a master improviser and teacher. Attendance is mandatory.

Labs are intended to increase improvisational proficiency and general musicianship. However, their main goal is exposure and experience, not necessarily the focused development of individual improvisational skills. These individual skills are better pursued with a private teacher or in the context of the Jazz Combo program at MIT. And yet, students’ individual skills will certainly improve by the end of the semester.


Auditions will take place during the first class session. That class will begin with a very brief general overview. Then, individual auditions will proceed. The audition will include these elements: [1] a piece you prepare, something you regularly play and enjoy—no more than one minute in length; [2] a couple of major and minor scales, your choice; [3] a short improvisational exercise I will devise. Each audition should take no longer than 5-6 minutes. If necessary, the auditions may extend past the normal class ending time.


Hall, Tom. Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide. Bee Boy Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780615328621.

Summary of Coursework Requirements

  • Attendance (on time) and participation in all class and lab sessions.
  • Attendance at, and written reports on, the concert events.
  • Weekly assignments, including creative exercises and analytical reflections.
  • Guest artist-teachers will assign exercises based in their particular approaches.
  • A Final Project will demonstrate development of skills and aesthetic awareness based in course content.


Grading will be fairly evenly weighted across the many small design assignments, with a bit more weight on the larger final project.

Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
theaters Lecture Videos
theaters Other Video
group_work Projects with Examples
assignment Design Assignments
assignment Written Assignments
co_present Instructor Insights