Friday Review: Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, by Jeffrey Agrell

This week we’ll look at Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, a book by Jeffrey Agrell, Associate Professor of Horn at the University of Iowa (cover image linked from I’ve known Professor Agrell for several years, and I’m always amazed by his creativity and sheer productivity.  In addition to his teaching and performing duties at the University of Iowa, he has created two blogs, (Horn Insights and Improv Insights), regularly updates the massive UI Horn Studio site, and publishes books and articles prodigiously. (When do you sleep, Jeff?)  Though it may not be the first of its kind, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is certainly among the most comprehensive (over 35o pages) and well written. Professor Agrell’s writing is clear and entertaining to read, and his “think outside the box” approach to teaching is very evident in these pages. Since I don’t have the room or the time here to consider every detail of this wonderful publication, let me just say that Agrell leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the art of improvisation. He provides copious evidence of the importance of improvisation in music education, and gives the following as one of his main goals with this book.

My fondest wish is that this book introduces a wide variety of musicians to the joys of creating music. I hope that professional and amateur musicians alike discover new musical worlds through this book, as well as music educators of every age, conductors, composers, music therapists-and even jazz players, who, although this book does not use the jazz style, just might benefit from this book as much as or more than classical musicians, since they have always had the attitude and ability to learn from all sources. [p. xvii]

In keeping with the comprehensive scope of this book, Chapter 1 is titled “Introduction: Why Improvise?”, and by the time you’re finished reading it you’ll wonder why you or your students haven’t been improvising. Subsequent chapters fill in more details to help you get started, even if you’ve never improvised. As a graduate student I took an introductory jazz improvisation class, and one of the main concepts I took away from that experience is that when you start learning to improvise you have to forget about all the value judgements you put on yourself and your playing. I remember leaving several classes feeling like a 6th grade band student – it was really like learning a new language. Over time I got more proficient, though nowhere near what you would call competent as a jazz improviser. More importantly, I developed an appreciation for the art and skill of improvisation, and a much wider view of what musicianship is. Jeff’s book will help you to do the same, and you’ll have a great time doing it! These games are well-designed, fun to play, and will stretch your ears and mind. If you want proof, just head on over to Improv Insights and check out a few of the games listed there. Convince a few friends to join you in this endeavor, and then go for it. You’ll be glad you did. One of our horn studio class assignments this semester was to choose one improvisation game from the website and teach it to the class. It’s a great way to get started, but if you want the whole story buy the book.

I’ve just scratched the surface here, but I hope you get the idea. Jeff has also written a companion book, Improv Games for One Player, which is also well worth checking out.

About the Author

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Thanks for the kind words. I have also been a great admirer of yours, James, as well for all that you do and how well you do it. I just wanted to add that I have several more books awaiting publication at GIA (publisher of the Big Book). You didn’t hear it from me (although of course you did), but you might write a note some time to nudge the publisher to move Improv Duets and Improvised Chamber Music (for ca. 4 players) up to the top of the stack and finally publish them (I also have a book with a co-author on creative pedagogy for pianists, but you don’t have to mention that one. Yet.).

I would love to hear some feedback from your students on how their improv games went. Jeff Snedeker at Central Washington U did something similar with his student, but made it whole semester project.

My dream is that some day all hornists are comfortable with creating music in this way so that (for example) a small group of horn players randomly meet (at a horn workshop or in a train station in Zurich, etc.) and pick up their horns and just start creating music on the spot. It’s so much fun to do and it’s great for both technique and musicianship, not to mention helping with feeling comfortable on stage. Last night at our horn studio recital, the last number was a trio – me and two students. The piece listed on the program was “Eine Kleine Trio Musik” by A. W. Trazom. The movements were 1. Immoderato 2. Down and Doloroso 3. Whoa We just stepped up with minimal ado and made up the tunes as we went. It went well, very fun. Like having a lively conversation.

If anyone ever would like to talk about anything to do with creative music, I’m not hard to find (


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