Contemporary Improvisation is a term that really liberates the idea of improvisation from any specific genre, and reflects what’s been going on for years among musicians all over the world.

Former NEC president Gunther Schuller was already aware of the changes in the music world in the 1950s when he coined the term Third Stream, implying that the music of today is almost inevitably a hybrid, and Third Stream was the name of our department for its first twenty years, under the leadership of our visionary founding chair, Ran Blake.

Over the years, our faculty has changed the conversation around
improvisation, and so have our alumni.

Our faculty provide the grounding that students need, in aural skills, vocal and instrumental technique, a wide range of improvisational traditions, including world musics and jazz, conceptual ideas, and interdisciplinary collaboration—everything a student might need to become a leading composer/performer/improviser of today.

Each year, our selective and diverse student body transforms itself into a vibrant and supportive musical community, sharing everything they bring to the table with one another and acting as a catalyst for musical adventures no one could have anticipated.

With its legacy of innovation, its wide range of performance opportunities, and its commitment to musical excellence, NEC is the perfect home for Contemporary Improvisation, and we’re also proud to be part of the world’s greatest music school!

Hankus Netsky,
Chair, Contemporary Improvisation

NEC’s Contribution to Contemporary Improvisation

Our graduates include such notable performers as internationally renowned jazz and Klezmer clarinetist Don Byron, keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Jacqueline Schwab, whose solo piano improvisations were featured in Ken Burns’s award-winning PBS series "The Civil War."

Department Specifics

Development of Basic Ear Skills

Your studies begin with a rigorous aural training program designed to build basic aural skills. You will be initially assigned a set of recorded melodies, from many different musical traditions, to be sung from memory. This memorization is done solely by ear, allowing you to assimilate the details of each different style and absorb not only the superficial characteristics but also the deeper emotional and spiritual aspects of each piece. You will also work on traditional ear training.

In private lessons, you will be trained in improvisation, composition, and instrumental skills.

Development of Personal Style

As you master basic ear skills, the Contemporary Improvisation program of studies becomes more flexible and becomes tailored to your individual needs. You will begin to define yourself by choosing the artists or styles most germane to your musical personality then, through deep aural absorption of your chosen musical roots, a synthesis becomes possible, and a musical self-portrait will begin to emerge in your improvisations.

Electives supplement the core curriculum outlined above, and may include such courses as "Indian Modal Improvisation," "Yiddish Music Performance Styles," "The Music of Billie Holiday," and "Issues and Trends in American Music."

Anthony Coleman, who teaches "Development of Personal Style," performs Christian Marclay's Shuffle (2007) while surrounded by Marclay's Chalkboard (2010), at New York's Whitney Museum of Art. Video from WNYC on YouTube.

Interested in joining us? Click here for information about our application process.