Article by Mihai Preda

Published March 13, 2018


Pianist and Professor of Music John Mortensen has one question for his colleagues and students “Why Improvise?”.

He makes an impassioned plea to his colleagues and students to put in the time and effort to give this activity  a try, and lists some of the benefits:

  • to contribute our own original music, not only to recite the music others have created
  • it has profound implications for one’s musical development, somebody who improvises has to understand how music works “on a molecular level”
  • one has to internalize harmonic knowledge
  • start to recognize the decisions that composers have made and “demystifies music”
  • functional MRI scans show the different areas of the brain activated while performing learned pieces from memory versus improvised music: “performing from memory activates the parts of the brain responsible for personal monitoring and criticism, while improvisation activates the parts of the brain responsible for self-expression and freedom.”
  • improvising is a joyful experience
  • the audiences are more engaged in watching improvised performances

Thinking of improvising, and composing in the larger context of creative activities, from our perspective as music educators and piano teachers working outside the academia, we cannot help but notice something very interesting:

In our experience, we do not need to convince any student or any parent that improvising and composing is interesting, enjoyable or a worthwhile activity. They are already sold on this idea before they come to our studio.

All our students are interested in doing it. Yes, they want to learn to play Fur Elise. But they also like to experiment, and to create their own music.

Parents tell us about their children coming from school and running straight to the piano to try out a musical idea.

We as educators can use their excitement to pass on skills that are very difficult to convey without it.

Rather than assigning an exercise (example: play a scale legato in one hand and repeated chords in the other) we say: here is how you play a melody legato in one hand. Here is how you play repeated chords in the other.

Now go home and make up your own “song”. And they do. Here is Leonardo playing “Leonardo’s Song”.

Looking back at my own musical upbringing, I remember as an elementary student taking out a blank sheet of music paper, and writing my own compositions (the word Improvisation was not part of my vocabulary yet) .

This was outside the instructional goals of the music school I was attending (which was focused on teaching students to read notes, so they can go on to learning the classics). Nor did I know anybody who is composing or improvising.

Without any guidance, my interest in composition was eventually replaced by other interests. I discovered improvisation later in the context of jazz, and composition as a piano teacher in need for material that my students would find interesting and educational.

Here is one or our students playing ‘The Haunted House” (from the Brain-Based Piano Method Preparatory Level), a piece that the students are excited to play, while being introduced to bitonality and the Rondo Form, among other things. Nicolas contributes the costume and the theatrical effects.

To sum it up, here we have three accounts of improvisation, composition and creativity in general:

  • a professor making the case for it to his colleagues
  • young students excited about it
  • an adult teacher who recalls being interested in it in his youth and rediscovering it as an adult outside academia

Maybe Sir Robinson is up to something when he asks “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”


Whether schools have anything to do with it or not, we live in a time where the need for creative people has never been greater.

Author Richard Florida makes a persuasive argument for it in his national best-seller The Rise of the Creative Class.

We also live in a time where the knowledge about how to raise creative students is more available than ever before.

The path to creativity is open to individuals, including students and parents interested in pursuing it.