Oberlin Conservatory Establishes Minor in Improvisation

Debuting in fall 2022, new course of study available to all conservatory students.

January 25, 2022

Erich Burnett

Student musicians performing in a club.
A conservatory improv ensemble performs in Oberlin's Birenbaum Space.

For jazz musicians and orchestral musicians and every musician in between, the ability to improvise on their instruments can be as vital as reading notes on a page.

Beginning in fall 2022, improvisation at Oberlin Conservatory will be formalized into a minor course of study that will be available to them all.

The new minor offers students the opportunity to bolster their artistry through the performance of improvised music and through study of practices related to improvisation.

“Improvisation can be a thread that connects lots of different areas of music-making,” says Dana Jessen, associate professor of contemporary music and improvisation and chair of the improv minor. “Improv has always been deeply rooted within the conservatory in myriad forms, be it free jazz and creative music, fusion, historical performance, non-Western idioms, or electronic music.

“The minor in improv allows us to recognize and celebrate the musical and creative pathways that our students are already pursuing, while also providing opportunities for students to explore new modes of playing through a range of improvisatory practices and music-making.”

In particular, Jessen notes, improvisation provides encouragement and support for the exploration of a wide variety of genres and styles, such as those often studied by the conservatory’s Performance and Improvisation (PI) ensembles, through which jazz and classical students frequently share the stage.

The improv minor does not exist in any one academic department on campus, but instead draws upon the resources of numerous departments across the conservatory as well as the college.

Students pursuing the minor must complete 20 credit hours, including a minimum of eight credits in the category of “performance practices” and eight credits in “critical and creative practices.” Among the many available courses in performance practices are Internalizing Rhythms I and II (course catalog title APST 140 and APST 141), Sacred Music Skills (APST 221 and APST 222), Oberlin Improvisation and New Music Collective (APST 807), and Silent Film Ensemble (APST 809), and Approaches and Philosophies of Free Music (APST 143), which is taught by Jessen.

Courses in critical and creative practices may include Musical Thought: Analysis of World Music (ETHN 302), Intro to Electroacoustic Music (TECH 101), Introduction to Sound Art (TECH 102), Special Topics in Composition (COMP 350), and many other offerings in both the college and conservatory. In addition, students pursuing the minor may complete various other approved courses in the college that focus on improvisation, among them a variety of dance courses.

Course selections must include at least two courses taken outside the student’s major area of study. Pursuit of the minor in improvisation culminates in the presentation of a performance, lecture, demonstration, portfolio, or other approved project.

“We think a lot about improvisation as an outcome—someone on stage performing—but we don’t want to overlook the process of improvisation,” says Jessen, noting that fluency in improvisation can bolster the work of composers, electroacoustic musicians, and countless others.

“The process of improvisation is important for building skills in any kind of music.”

In addition to the improv minor, conservatory students are free to pursue minors in any course of study offered in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as any of a number of interdisciplinary minors and concentrations that draw upon the resources of both the college and conservatory and are available to all students at Oberlin.

The minor in improvisation aligns with Oberlin’s commitment to optimally prepare students for any number of potential 21st-century career paths—a mission described in One Oberlin, a vision for the institution published in 2019 that focuses on enhanced learning outcomes for all students.

"We consistently hear from our alumni about the importance of being comfortable improvising in a variety of contexts: on stage, in the studio, in the classroom, and elsewhere," says Peter Swendsen, the conservatory's senior associate dean for academic affairs and a professor in the conservatory's TIMARA Department.

"In fact, it’s one of the skills most often mentioned as being a key component of their lives as professional musicians. We're excited that the new minor will better prepare our current and future students for this reality of the music world by encouraging them to develop a personal voice and practice that includes improvisation."

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