I once attended an ASTA (American String Teachers Association) convention and went to a workshop on improvisation. You could cut the tension with a knife. The attendees, mostly classical string teachers, appeared to generally believe falsely that improvisation means having the guts to screw up in front of others!
Let’s look first at the surprising benefits of improvisation, and then look at what improvisation actually is. I think you’ll agree that by my definitions, teachers as well as students — at all levels — can easily learn and enjoy by doing what I call improvisation.
Perhaps the nicest benefit of improvisation is that it turns off your inner critic. Musicians who are constantly monitoring their playing for errors, and stopping when a mistake is made, are basically training themselves to be obsessively fearful of mistakes, rather than actually playing music. By playing straight through a passage of music, even a short and manageable part such as a phrase, a learner can focus on the continuity of music, and still train themselves to keep mental notes about what’s going well, and what needs improvement. Being saddled by too much inner critique is like breaking up your music with static on the radio.
Brain studies show that when the part of the brain that handles improvisation is turned on, the part of the brain involved in self-critique is turned off (see the article This is your brain on improvisation—and why your creativity depends on it). This indicates that the mere effort to improvise makes you less inhibited and negative. It also suggests that anyone deeply wrapped up in a live performance can go all in and benefit from turning off their inner critic while they perform.
And what exactly is improvisation? What is performance? Many imagine improvisation to involve making up notes, and performance to require an audience… [···]