There is no shortage of good books for piano teachers to assimilate and integrate into their teaching routine. Yet, at least in my opinion, only a few (thankfully) are truly worth their weight (and that goes for weightless digital books too!). Jeffrey Agrell’s book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, is a superb resource for all music teachers (not just piano teachers) who want to cultivate creativity in their students while also having a lot of fun.
At over 350 pages, this (thankfully) spiral-bound book can safely lay claim to comprehensively covering numerous ways to creatively explore and increase proficiency within a multitude of skill areas.
Part I introduces the fundamentals of improvisation and offers suggestions and sample lists of games for different kinds of teachers and music-related professionals including band teachers, choir teachers, instrumental teachers and music therapists.
Other useful topics for would-be creative musicians include brief chapters on working with a partner, aspects of rhythm and technique, and the importance of practicing scales and patterns. The author also considers the art of accompanying in improvisatory situations.
Part II is the body of the book, and consists of over 25(!) chapters of game ideas and instructions. Perhaps the most useful chapter in Part II is “Quick-Start Improvisation Game Favorites,” which categorizes games by number of players (one to five players as well as larger groups).
The remainder of Part II divides games into multiple categories including warm-up games, rhythm games, dynamics games, harmony games, conducting games, timbre games, composition games, technique games and style games.
The names of the games are themselves creative, evocative and interesting. What music student of any age wouldn’t want to play “squiggle quartet,” “x-tech ostinati” or “universe symphony”?
Part III is focused on resources including theory-related topics. Its chapters include a further discussion of improvisation principles, a chord symbols reference list, a list of scales from which one can create patterns (including the traditional modes and also more unusual scales such as Spanish Phrygian and Superlocrian), and cycles of keys (lists of keys in different orders, which is a fantastic resource for teachers weary of leading students through exercises in the circle of fifths or chromatically). There is also a list of familiar tunes to use for games, a comprehensive list of musical styles and forms, and a list of words to inspire improvisation games (the “A” words include acrimonious, adorable, alcoholic and astonished).
If there is any downside to Agrell’s book, you might guess from the above summary of its contents that it can feel overwhelming. There are so many ideas that one may wonder where to begin. Mercifully, the numerous lists and categorizations of games help to orient the reader/user.
Another quibble is that there is some redundancy, in that many games are listed and explained twice (typically once in the “quick-start” section and again in a specific topic section). While this may save you time looking for the game you want, it feels a bit disorganized if not superfluous.
My last, more personal quibble is that the majority of games appear to require three or more players, and are not necessarily compatible for the traditional two-person music lesson. I also wish there were more games for beginner-level musicians. Many of the games require a fair degree of musical skill and/or good knowledge of musical theory.
But there’s an easy (and creative) way around that. One of the best ways to use the book, especially if a specific game doesn’t quite fit your situation (and that completely fits the spirit of the book), is to use it as a creative jumping-off point for making your own game.
Minor quibbles aside, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is an outstanding resource for the classical musician and music teacher who wants to let their hair down and stop pretending that all the great music has already been improvised or composed. Some of that great, not-yet-created music may come to life in your studio today, courtesy of the many creative springboards in this book.
See my review of another book by Jeffrey Agrell, Creative Pedagogy for Piano Teachers.