Grading Improv = Anti-Improv?

Grading improv… isn’t that anti-improv??

As an educator, it’s a strange thing… if improvisation is simply making stuff up, then it logically follows that you should be allowed to do anything you want and nothing is really “wrong” …right??

But what if you are a teacher, teaching improvisation, and need to give a grade for the sake of measuring progress?  Do you give everyone a 100% or A+ just for for trying?  We could do this of course, but in my opinion we would miss a great teaching opportunity, as I’ve found that a little constructive encouragement, at just the right time, can do great things!  I will put forth my ideas on this tricky subject below and would LOVE to hear your comments on this!

<<:::I feel that this is also an important enough topic for me to set this post up for unlimited public view and not limit it to just our All Access Pass Fiddle Jam Institute members.::>>>

There might be many points, details, and skills associated with various levels of improvisation.  Here at FJi I generally teach jamming in three levels of difficulty (Jammer, Gigger, and Artist), and there is much room for variation and interpretation within these levels, but let’s examine, for example’s sake, our Level 101/Jammer Level that only requires a student to improvise in a “one scale fits all” approach.  This approach is what is featured in my Fiddle Jam book and a majority of FJi lessons* and is my favorite thing to teach, as I see such life-changing results for fiddlers and the classically trained who are generally phobic of getting “off the page!”

*There is no shame in this level by the way, see my experience in the Jazz/Rock group Gamalon.  We took the one chord/one scale approach to a very high level!
  1. Firstly, any grading of improv would require a discussion about what actually makes good improv.  This could be quite subjective, but there are probably many elements that we may or may not all agree on, like: pitch and technique (in my opinion two of the least important in this subject!), or more “in-the-ear-of-the-beholder” subjects like: dynamics, phrasing, rhythm, emotional content, groove, authority, etc… in the educational setting, this becomes a great “teachable moment” as there would need to be a discussion about each of these elements, and each student would need to experiment with each one a bit before-hand to get a grasp of how to apply them in improv.
  2. I propose that the grading of improvisation, since it is so subjective, be done in three segments.  The first segment of the grade would be provided by the instructor (largely based on effort and attitude), the second segment would be judged by the student them selves in a self-honest assessment of what percentage of what they just played were they confidently “taking ‘heavenly dictation’ vs. just flailing their fingers about?”** and the third segment being judged by their peers, as in: “how well did your classmate hold up to our improvisational “measuring points?”

**We of course, are all well aware that in a grading and performance environment, there might be the temptation for the student to “cheat” and give themselves a 100% merely to boost their overall grade.  I think this is probably still OK, and yet another teachable moment, as the student will have continuing cause for some self reflection, and be even more in touch with themselves for the experience.  Possibly we can put forth this idea that a 100% is not allowed, as no one is really THAT tapped in ever?  How about we make it so this portion of the grade can only be 99%?  Add to the discussion below!

Let examine each of these in more detail together in the comments below!!

Some ideas for discussion:

  • positive environment of self honesty and supportive groups
  • rhythmic themes and variations
  • improvising with a partner
  • improvising 2nd fiddle in support of a lead
  • playing matching scales to their chords vs. blues riffs over the top
  • compositional approaches
  • predetermining an “arch” of the solo
  • dynamics
  • authority
  • space (rests)
  • syncopation
  • attitude
  • style
  • tone
  • confidence
  • humility
  • excitement
  • ????… please add more!

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2 Responses to Grading Improv = Anti-Improv?

  1. Marty August 1, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    Lots of good stuff here. Thanks for opening your thoughts up to non violin players

    • fiddlejamman August 17, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

      Yes! This subject is not one I hear spoken about at teaching conferences. Sadly that’s probably a sign that improvisation still is not considered a “real” subject in the education community. I’m will to speak almost anywhere about it though if you have any leads!

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