Challenges of Teaching Music Improvisation

Congratulations to Dr. Joseph Pignato, who has very recently completed his doctorate degree in music education at Boston University with a dissertation entitled An Analysis of Practical Challenges Posed by Teaching Improvisation: Case Studies in New York State Schools. This insightful study examines two cases of music teachers who have pioneered some innovative approaches to the use of improvisation in school music classrooms. Dr. Pignato is a highly-accomplished professional percussionist and composer who works as an Assistant Professor at State University of New York, Oneonta. It was a great pleasure to serve on his doctoral advisory committee along with Dr. Ron Kos and his supervisory professor Dr. Andrew Goodrich, both of Boston University. Congratulations, Dr. Pignato!

Here is the abstract of Dr. Pignato's dissertation study:


For much of the past century, music education researchers have espoused improvisation as an important tool for developing creativity, self-expression, and aesthetic understanding. Improvisation instruction in American school music programs, however, primarily occurs in two limited areas of activity: jazz performance ensembles and the teaching of select elementary music methods. Comprehensive integration of improvisation instruction in school music curricula beyond those domains or via other idioms rich in improvisation remains relatively uncommon. Researchers in music education have documented improvisation and its applications in elementary music methodologies. A large body of extant literature addresses jazz in school music programs, jazz pedagogical methods, and jazz ensemble student experience. Studies examining improvisation in American school music contexts in regard to other genres or teaching modalities, however, are sparse. The purpose of this study was to identify and describe selected New York State music educators, school music programs, and class settings that make improvisation a central part of their curricula in ways that transcend traditional jazz ensemble or elementary methodology offerings. The author employed a case study methodology to study the classrooms of two teachers over the course of one academic year. Data collection utilized ethnographic techniques including formal oral interviews, classroom observations, and informal conversations. Data analysis employed interpretive coding guided by a constant comparative approach.

Data analysis revealed challenges posed by teaching improvisation in the school music contexts studied including lack of curricular resources supporting improvisation instruction, conflicts with tradition and the expectations of colleagues, parents, students, and administrators, and standing apart from the prevailing practices of colleagues. Four themes emerged from participant narratives during the course of investigation: (a) significant epiphany experiences, (b) protracted personal transformations, (c) intentionality, and (d) concerted advocacy. Suggestions for music education include improving integration of exceptional teachers into prevailing practices in ways that foster a multiplicity of approaches to teaching music “of all periods, styles, forms, and cultures” (Choate, 1968, p. 139), minimizing extrinsic challenges to teaching improvisation in school music contexts, enhancing teacher intentionality, and encouraging advocacy efforts to foster acceptance, cooperation, and deeper understanding of the value of incorporating improvisation in school music programs.

Here is a link to Dr. Pignato's website: