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Seven-year-olds who can improvise? Is that even possible?

The joy of playing an instrument plus lots of surprises – Guro Gravem Johansen’s research has been published in book form.

Associate Professor and jazz singer Guro Gravem Johansen has been conducting children’s choirs since she was 17 years old, and teaches jazz students at the Norwegian Academy of Music. She thinks it is important to examine the activities that are offered to children and young people – and childhood has its own intrinsic value. What can children accomplish? What has meaning for them?

Instrumental training for children is a substantial part of the picture, and a hotly discussed topic among music teachers all over the world. What should instruction include, how should it take place, and who is included and excluded?

“Examining specific examples and practices gives us knowledge and insight that can help us to shed light on these issues,” Johansen says.

The only one of its kind?

“Improbasen” is a private jazz school for children, based in Oslo. The students are given instrumental training from beginner’s level onwards, and the main activity consists of improvising on jazz standards. The head of the school and course coordinator is Odd André Elveland, an established jazz musician who has been involved in organising children’s ensembles and jazz teaching to children for many years.

The students are taught not only performance, but also music theory, ear training and chord structures. On its home page, Improbasen explains that what they teach in their one-to-one lessons is quickly put into practice through the students’ interplay .

Johansen studied the students at Improbasen for two years, through conversations and by observing them in teaching situations and social situations between practice sessions, using ethnographic research methods. She points out that the research began in 2015, and thus some of the observations made then might no longer be applicable today.

“Even though you can hear that these are children and young people playing, it still sounds like jazz.”

Guro Gravem Johansen, jazz singer, associate professor and researcher

Early practice makes the master

The students at Improbasen begin at such a young age that they have no time to develop the barriers that adults or teenagers might confront when they improvise. They play the same tunes again and again, but never in the same way. This is how they gain experience, learn how to create variation, and dare to take chances without fear of making mistakes.

“Even though you can hear that these are children and young people playing, it still sounds like jazz,” Johansen says enthusiastically. She adds that the children are not only developing skills in improvisation, but also in what she calls “common codes for interplay ”: knowing when a solo is over and when the next musician takes over – just by feeling it.

From a concert given by students at Improbasen.

Gender perspective

A well-known but somewhat different issue also arises in the course of the research process: the uneven distribution of genders in the jazz field and within different instruments. Johansen explains that the students who come to Improbasen without already playing an instrument are assigned one by Elveland, the head of the school. He deliberately puts girls behind the drum set and boys at the piano. And he wants to ensure that the ratio of boys to girls among the students is never more than 50 percent.

“Research shows that by the age of 7, the idea has already been instilled in girls that drums, for example, are a ‘masculine instrument’. So if somebody else doesn’t place them at a drum set, they might choose a different instrument,” Johansen says.

But as soon as they get started, the students forget which instruments are perceived as being suitable for girls or boys.

Why has Improbasen decided to do things this way? Johansen points out a typical phenomenon that occurs when the subject of gender distribution is brought up in discussions about education. Everyone wants to have a more varied distribution of students, but they all have the same problem: there is not a good enough balance among those who apply for courses in jazz and rhythmical at secondary schools, colleges or schools of the arts. In this respect one could say that Improbasen is taking on its share of the responsibility for addressing this problem. Maybe we will see the results in the number of applicants in a few years.

New educational perspective

Many of the jazz students Johansen teaches at the Norwegian Academy of Music began with formal instruction in classical music, and discovered jazz on their own. Many of them started late.

For this reason, many of these students who have later become teachers themselves have few models for systematic jazz instruction for beginners. When Johansen uses this study as a concrete example in teaching didactics, the students have a point of departure for discussing how this kind of instruction might take place.

“It’s valuable for the fields of both music teaching and jazz research to find out more about how systematic training in jazz improvisation can be conducted for beginners – especially when they are children, with their specific requirements for learning and taking instruction on board,” Johansen explains.

The book, Children’s Guided Participation in Jazz Improvisation: A Case Study of the “Improbasen” Learning Centre, is described as providing “a look at the micro-interactions within the lessons, the organisation of Improbasen, children’s own experiences of jazz and improvisation, explicit and implicit instructional content, interpretation of interplay and Improbasen’s international activity”, and further, that “music teachers, students, and scholars within music education as well as jazz research will benefit from the perspectives presented in the book, which shows how children systematically acquire tools for improvisation and shared codes for interplay”.

The book was published with the support of the Norwegian Academy of Music and CERM (the Centre for Educational Research in Music).

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