Classical & Jazz Supporting Tests: Improvisation

Classical & Jazz Supporting Tests: Improvisation

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BY: Natalie Christopher
18 October 2023

Although it’s been available for many years now, the Improvisation Supporting Test option in our face-to-face Classical & Jazz exams still sometimes feels like the new kid on the block, particularly for those of us who, as students, focused on Sight Reading and Aural. In this blog, we take a look at the Improvisation test, what the requirements are, and how they are assessed.

Trinity’s Supporting Tests - a feature of our face-to-face Classical & Jazz exams - comprise of four options from which candidates must select and perform two:

  • Sight reading (mandatory at Grades 6-8)
  • Aural (or Unpitched Aural for Drum Kit)
  • Improvisation
  • Musical Knowledge (Initial – Grade 5 only)

The Improvisation test, which we are focusing on in this blog, is a great option for developing a wide range of musicianship skills and playing to the strengths of those students who have an interest in composition.

The test starts with the candidate being shown a stimulus. There are three types of stimuli available, the candidate having the choice of either:

  • Stylistic
  • Motivic, or
  • Harmonic

The type of stimulus chosen dictates how the exam is conducted.


Stylistic stimulus

For this option, candidates are improvising a part for them to play over the examiner’s notated piano part. They are aiming to improvise in a way that complements the musical style of the accompaniment part.

The test starts with the candidate being given a copy of the notated stimulus (i.e. the examiner’s accompaniment part) with chord symbols. The stimulus starts with a two-bar introduction that the examiner will play alone, followed by a further section which the candidate must improvise over. The examiner then plays the stimulus through twice, without repeats, for the candidate’s reference.

The candidate then has 30 seconds in which to prepare their improvisation. They can do this how they like, playing or singing sections aloud if they so wish.

After 30 seconds has passed, the examiner will inform the candidate that it is time to take the test. The examiner will start by playing the two-bar introduction, after which the candidate is expected to join straight in, playing for a specified number of repeats.

Motivic stimulus

As the name suggests, the motivic stimulus is where the candidate is provided with a short melodic fragment with which to form the basis of their improvisation. They can choose whether or not to quote the stimulus directly, or if they prefer, they can develop their improvisation by taking ideas such as the rhythm or a particular interval. Unlike the Stylistic stimulus, this stimulus is performed solo. Please note that the time signature stated on the stimulus must be adhered to.

At the start of this test, the candidate is given a copy of the notated melodic fragment, which the examiner then plays through twice. As before, the candidate has 30 seconds in which to prepare the improvisation, after which time the examiner will then notify them that it is time to start the test.


Harmonic stimulus

Similarly to the Motivic stimulus, this test is performed solo. However, instead of being presented with a melody line, they are instead given a chord sequence upon which to form their improvisation, which should include melodic and/or rhythmic interest.

As with the previous two tests, the candidate is provided with a copy of the stimulus which will have the chords, both as a notated sequence and with the chord symbols. The examiner will play this through twice. The candidate will have 30 seconds in which to prepare their improvisation before the test commences.


What is required at each grade?

The parameters for each grade and stimulus type are outlined in each of the instrumental/vocal syllabuses. For each of the stimuluses, the parameters outline requirements such as:

  • length of stimulus
  • length of improvisation/response
  • keys
  • time signatures
  • number of chords per bar
  • degree of chords
  • rhythmic features (motivic only)
  • articulation (motivic only)
  • intervals (motivic only)
  • styles and speeds (stylistic only)


How are the candidates assessed?

All improvisation tests, regardless of stimuli, are assessed using the same criteria. There is a total of 10 marks available for the Improvisation test and, in each one, the examiners are assessing:

  • the sense of musical structure
  • clarity of relationship to the stimulus
  • fluency, and
  • creativity of response

You can find the full assessment criteria for Musical Knowledge tests in the relevant instrumental/vocal syllabus. Further explanation of the assessment criteria for Supporting Tests and how it is applied can be found on the recording of the following webinar: Teaching & Assessment: Supporting Tests.


For more support on our Improvisation tests, check out the Music Resources page of our website.


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