The Beauty of Improv

With April here, I can’t help but reflect on the ideas of improvisation!  It’s Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month.  Jazz and poetry: two art forms that emulate improv!

“Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one’s immediate environment and inner feelings”, according to Wikipedia.  But it’s not just a get-up-and-do-anything type of creation.  The beauty is the freedom you have in a structure.  (Last year’s April series was on Freedom in Structure.)

With jazz you have a cadence of chords, a string of lyrics and a tempo to ground you, but the rest comes from your guts.  You have to be in the moment, react to the others around you and let yourself go all the while sticking with the skeletal plan.  Jazz is a great metaphor for many things, including good teaching.  When you can make what you do jazz, you are surely heading in the right direction.

Poetry is similar.  There are forms that are more free than others and in their creation you can go more with the flow than with the rigidity of rhythm and rhyme.  The reciting of poetry, though is where great improvisation can happen.  You can’t truly recite a poem the same way twice.  You adapt and react to the present each time you recite the poem, whether it be one that sounds like a song in spoken words (like a limerick) or one that is free of form.

I remember last April, I organized a Teacher Field trip to attend a “Beat Night” in Portsmouth, NH put on by Jazzmouth.  There, poets recited poetry, some original, while a jazz ensemble played with them.  It was the ultimate example of poetry, jazz and improv.  The poets and musicians all melded together as they listened and reacted to each other producing performances that cannot be replicated.

During the open mic section of time, I gravitated to the stage to try my hand at this exciting combination of art and improv and recited my poem “Ode to a Drum”.  You can see it here.  (Forgive the video, the audio is ok.)

Those intimate moments among performers are magical.  Everyone should have the opportunity to collaborate in such a creative and raw manner and then have the opportunity to reflect on how the beauty of improvisation can play a part in our daily lives; both personal and professional.  Imagine if we could all learn to improvise alone and in collaboration with others.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky. Improvisation 26 (Oars). 1912. Oil on canvas. From

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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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