Performance Certificate in Improvisation

Noam Sivan, D.M.A., Director of Improvisation

“No artist deserves the title of ‘virtuoso’ unless his extemporizations could pass for written compositions.”

—Ludwig van Beethoven

Improvisation, the creation of music in real time, is perhaps the most widely practiced type of music-making around the world and has been influential in shaping the history of Western music from its inception. For many centuries it was considered the peak of musical creativity, combining performance and composition at the highest level. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, Chopin, and Liszt are well-known examples of composers who were known as master improvisers. Today, after a decades-long decline within the Western classical tradition, improvisation is on the rise.

Creating an educational platform that invites classical musicians to develop their skills and talent through improvisation holds wonderful potential for concert programming, music pedagogy, collaborations among musicians and practitioners in other art forms, and the role of music in our lives and in society. Learning to improvise inspires innovation and creativity, builds self-confidence, significantly improves stage presence, and strengthens the relationship to one’s instrument, technically and musically. Improvisation develops compositional thinking, enhances listening and ensemble skills, improves musical memory, combines being in the moment with thinking ahead, encourages risk-taking, and thrills audiences when performed live.

Improvisation provides a fertile ground for interdisciplinary collaborations among musicians and practitioners of other art forms. As Curtis students and graduates become more aware of how classical music fits within society, the ability to improvise opens new avenues for community and audience engagement, including workshops and concerts in varied settings.

In short, improvisation is invaluable for the 21st-century musician. Curtis’s certificate program in improvisation, new in 2018–19, is the first in North America designed specifically for college-level classical musicians.

Improvisation Program Overview 

Students in any major can apply, including all instrumentalists and singers, as well as composers and conductors who show proficiency on an instrument.  
  • Prerequisites: Candidates should have finished their first two years at Curtis in good standing, having completed Core Studies IV and the Improvisation class.

  • Application process: Interested students should scan and email the completed the application form to Dr. Sivan at and request an in-person interview.

  • Desired personal skills: Aptitude for creativity; curiosity to explore and to learn; willingness to work hard; enthusiasm to be pioneers in a new field.


Students will:

  • acquire practical skills in the grammar of various styles of improvisation;
  • achieve a solid compositional understanding of musical structure and proportions;
  • craft a personal musical voice;
  • enhance their listening and ensemble skills through chamber improvisation;
  • explore collaboration with practitioners of other art forms;
  • develop creative concert programming and shape an artistic message; and
  • gain experience in writing about and teaching improvisation.


The program lasts two years (i.e. four semesters). 

  • Lessons: Candidates take 30 hours of individual improvisation lessons over two years, averaging 7.5 hours per semester. 

  • Performances: Candidates must present a minimum of one hour of music in public concerts over two yearsaveraging 15 minutes per semester, and covering the following categories: 

    • Solo Improvisationexploring in-depth at least two existing musical styles, one pre-1900 and one post-1900, as well as developing one’s own musical voice

    • Chamber Improvisationcreating at least one group for a chamber performance with instrumentalists and/or singers (the other group members may or may not have prior experience in improvisation)

    • Interdisciplinary Improvisationorganizing at least one collaborative performance with practitioners of other art forms such as dancers, actors, poets, storytellers, writers, painters, video artists, film makers, and more (the career studies office can be a good resource as students search for collaborators)

It is essential to demonstrate leadership qualities, musical and otherwise, in creating the chamber and interdisciplinary groups, rehearsing, coaching group members when needed, and presenting the pieces in concert.  

Performances may take place on the Curtis Student Recital Series or in other venues, on- or off-campus. A repeat performance of the same project, although improvised differently each time, does not count separately towards the required quantity of performed music. It is, however, recommended and beneficial to perform an improvised project more than once, thus gaining practical experience and valuable perspective. 

  • Teaching Private Lessons: Candidates must teach two individual improvisation lessons, at least 30 minutes each, to music student of one’s own instrument, who may be of any age and playing abilityand need not have prior experience in improvisation. The two lessons can either be to one individual, or two different people 

  • Group Workshop and Advocacy: Candidates must lead a one-hour improvisation workshop for a group of five or more individuals with no Curtis affiliation, either musicians or non-musicians. Finding a group of participants and organizing the event are integral components of the assignment 

  • Research paper: Candidates must write one paper of at least 1,500 words (about 6 – 8 pages) on an improvisation-related topic. Topics may include (but are not limited to): current trends in improvisation, improvisation and concert programming, improvisation history, improvisation pedagogy, the social relevance of improvisation, or improvisation and entrepreneurship, and more.