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 Amazon.com). 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.

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