Teaching with Miss Ann

Improvising Versus Experimenting

In a previous blog post, I wrote about experimenting in education. This was based on ideas I discovered in the book Two Beats Ahead. In this book, the authors describe experimenting as the act of “daring to suck.”

As a musician turned educator I am very comfortable trying new things and then seeing what works, iterating, and discarding the elements that aren’t benefitting student learning. I have discovered that this “relentless commitment” is a key skill in teaching. However, it can also go against the natural instincts of many teachers to backward plan in order to design perfectly constructed learning experiences.

An equally important skill, and one analogous to experimenting, is improvising, which has its own role in the future of education.

A quote by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis expresses this mindset:

It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.

Miles Davis

“Yes, And …”

The Second City Theatre in Chicago is a famous improvisational comedy group. Their catchphrase when improvising is “Yes, And …” It is a state of mind that says, “I am ready for anything.”

Similarly in the classroom, we need to be ready for anything. Unknowns frequently come up such as students don’t understand instructions, groupings don’t work, technology isn’t functioning, or a learner needing the lesson differentiated.

The improv mindset can help you in these situations by preparing you to go along with whatever gets thrown your way. We are setting ourselves up for failure when we adhere to a strict pre-planned progression of learning.

In the thousands of teaching moments that we encounter daily, weekly, and monthly, we will make mistakes. Our ability to make the next best right decision can determine how well we “stay on the tracks” or take an entirely new route!

Listen to an improvised solo by Miles Davis and you can hear how far off he may veer from the original melody, but he always chooses the next best right note at that moment.

String enough of those notes together and you will create a coherent melody.

Harmonic Superimpositions

We can look to harmonic superimposition to help grasp this idea of “playing the wrong notes.” Superimposition is the act of placing one thing on top of another, usually so that both items remain evident. Harmonic superimposition is placing harmonic melodies on top of chords or other harmonies. This is not an innate skill, but one that can be fostered through practice.

Example of superimposition. Image by Shushan Poghosyan

Your ability to superimpose the next learning step on top of any mistakes that are made determines whether or not your improvisational instincts were correct.

So how do you develop this skill?

Jazz musician Eric Dolphy provides an example. Dolphy used German composer Paul Hindemith’s book, “Elementary Training For Musicians.” to practice playing harmonies “outside” a given chord melody.

You can listen to the song “Miss Ann” from his album Far Cry to hear an example of a melody that exists outside the harmonic structure of the chords, yet is able to sound inside the progression. This is the result of Dolphy’s extensive experience with this approach to playing so as to not distance the lister from the musical expression.

A simpler example, without getting too musical, is to sing “do re mi fa so la ti do” starting with the middle C on the piano over a C chord and it sounds nice. It will sound “off” if you sing the same melody over a C sharp chord (or an A flat).

That’s because our ears have been trained through exposure to “standard” melodies and chords to hear things a certain way.

Similarly, as teachers, we have been trained through structured instructional models to deliver learning in “standard” teaching environments.

Building Your Improvisational Muscles

It is difficult to artificially create situations in the classroom for improvisation. You will experience plenty of these moments with enough teaching time. To fast-track this development we can build these skills outside of the classroom

Here are some suggestions:

Take a class on improv

The best way to build this muscle is to go right to the source. Seek out a local theatre group and see if they offer improv lessons. Check out a community college or university theatre and ask if you can participate in some exercises. I guarantee it will get you to think and act in new ways that will be beneficial.

cook something you’ve never tried before

Look up a recipe that you’ve never tried before and try to make it from scratch. Challenge yourself to make it meatless or dairy free. This will get you to think of new solutions and experiment with new ingredients that you may have never tried before. Take a dish that you like and make it without following a recipe. See what decisions you make when you don’t have prescribed instructions to follow.

take a drive or walk without a destination

Get in your car and just drive. Or put on your shoes and just start walking. Don’t pre-determine where you want to go or what you want to do. Grab your wallet, keys, and phone (and make sure you tell someone first before you leave!) and just start going. You may find a new cafe, restaurant, park, or road. These new experiences will open up your mind to new sights and sounds that you may otherwise not have seen or heard.

learn a new instrument

There is nothing like trying to learn a new instrument to flex your improvisational brain. If you are an experienced musician try something outside the family of instruments you are used to. Do you play guitar? Try the trumpet. For newbies or those that “can’t play an instrument” try something simple like the ʻukulele or congas. Find an instrument that will produce sounds by just playing around with it. Don’t judge or criticize, just play for the sake of trying something new.


This post is about your ability to incorporate the skill of improvising into your teaching. Using examples from jazz I am making connections to how you can develop this critical skill of not letting mistakes get in your way of making the next right decision.

If you are not ready to try any of my suggested activities to develop your improvisational skills, just try listening.

There are numerous jazz artists that utilize “harmonic superimposition.” Just exposing our ears to this phenomenon can help us become more willing to try improvised activities.

In addition to Eric Dolphy and Miles Davis, some suggested artists are Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollings, and Ornette Coleman. There are many more, but those are a good place to start. You can also check out this Spotify playlist I made of suggested recordings.

If you really want to push your ears to the edge, I suggest Keith Jarret’s works. He is someone who fully improvised his entire concerts live on the spot. While I wouldn’t suggest doing this in the classroom, it is a good example of someone who pushes improvisation to its farthest limits.