NEC's Contemporary Improvisation (CI) program brings together an extremely diverse group of the world's finest young musicians. Students come from the jazz and classical traditions plus a wide swath of folk music traditions across many cultures. Then, these eclectic voices are put together in ensembles and turned loose, pushing the boundaries of genre and style to innovate and create. These individual voices coalesce into a vibrant and supportive musical community, leading to musical adventures no one could have anticipated.

The term "Contemporary Improvisation" is one that liberates the idea of improvisation from any specific genre. It reflects what’s already been going on for years among musicians who refuse to allow style or genre definitions to limit their creativity. Our faculty, students, and alumni continue to evolve the conversation around improvisation.

Former NEC president Gunther Schuller was already aware of the changes in the music world when he coined the term "Third Stream" in the 1950s to describe the new music arising from a hybrid of the jazz and classical traditions. Third Stream was the name of our department for its first twenty years, under the leadership of our visionary founding chair, Ran Blake.

NEC CI faculty provide the grounding that students need in ear training, technique, conceptual ideas, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a wide range of improvisational traditions, including world and folk music and jazz — everything required to become a leading composer/performer/improviser/creator.

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 proud to be part of the world’s greatest music school!

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, singer-songwriters Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan, violinist/singer/composer (and NEC CI faculty member) Eden MacAdam-Somer, 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 ear 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 curriculum becomes more flexible and 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 and may include such courses as "Indian Modal Improvisation," "Film Noir," "Eastern European Jewish Music Performance Traditions," "Music, Spirit, and Transformation," "West African Music," "Eco-Music," "Open Forms, Graphic Scores, and Structured Improvisation," 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.