Creative Ability Development


Every masterpiece we love was composed by an improvising musician.  The composers we have loved used improvisation as a way to discover their original music.  We study music in order to learn these beautiful masterpieces and to experience the sublime beauty they offer to us.  We also study music in order to express what is uniquely inside ourselves.   Musicians have improvised since before recorded history on every continent.  All of us is born with songs inside of us, so we improvise!  

Improvisation provides us with a musical “playground” where we can create music, play musical games, and experience what it’s like to play when there is no such thing as a mistake.  Improvisation allows us to claim our musical fluency. Improvisation cultivates virtuosity, ease at the instrument, and knowledge of different key centers. Improvisation is a great way to become rhythmically fluent.  Improvisation allows us to uncover the way each of us is born creative because it naturally cultivates the creative part of the brain.   Improvisation allows us to become a citizen of the world, joining other musicians who play in many styles.  

Creative Ability Development was developed by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki in Japan in collaboration with Alice Kanack.  Dr. Suzuki worked on Creative Ability Development over a period of 10 years when Kanack came to study with him.   He nicknamed her “Mozart’s Mother”.  He loaned her his violin at a concert attended by many many people, and asked her to lead the entire group.  He announced that he wanted the teachers to study with Alice Kanack.  Now Creative Ability Development is used around the world, and young players are creating beautiful music, finding their own unique musical voices, and becoming original artists in their own right. 

I have been working very closely with Alice Kanack since 1986, co-authoring with her “Improvising String Quartets”. I teach Creative Ability Development to both students and teachers around the world.  

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Creative Ability Development: 

The Five Stages of Creative Ability 

Science and Art / Truth and Beauty 

-Dr. Sera Smolen 2021 

Working closely with Alice Kanack, author and composer of the Creative Ability Development series, I have included “CAD” on a daily basis with the families in my Suzuki cello studio since 1994.   I have been moved to share this beautiful process as guest clinician at summer institutes and with many groups of teachers and parents around the world.  I have studied and I perform many different forms of improvisation from around the world.  I find that starting with CAD allows young musicians to develop in any and all directions. 

Alice Kanack examined the memoirs of great artists and scientists of history. Do scientists create new things differently from the artists? She discovered how both artists and scientists do “conscious work” during the day in laboratories, offices, libraries, theaters, and music studios.  By night, their brains naturally route conscious work to the realm where “unconscious work” is done.  By day, we work.   Around-the-clock, however, problems are absorbed into the inner, secret workings of the mind.  The parameters of the problem are enhanced, beautified and tempered in the vast unconscious. Having an artistic or scientific problem to solve will, without fail, open amazing avenues of communication inside the mind. This mysterious, universal dance between the conscious and the unconscious mind has preceded most great discoveries throughout history, both artistic and scientific. Like great artists and scientists who write about this in their memoirs, we do the usual modest amount of work by day. By night, problems and their possible solutions are turned sideways and inside out. We work the next day so it can be re-ordered the next night, refined and re-proportioned until the most elegant solution comes to the surface.  Each of us can have this exhilarating access to the whole mind.  

Five Stages of Creative Ability Development 

Stage 1: Breaking the Ice 

 We have our first aesthetic needs at age 2. “Breaking the Ice” begins at the pre-twinkle stage, or it begins any time one begin improvising.  Alice Kanack’s books for beginners are “Playing from the Heart” and “Musical Improvisation for Children”.  These collections of very short improvisations invite the youngest players to use their very first skills on the instrument with spontaneity.  They play while pretending with a story, imagining animals, and listening. We simply take the “one point” from our most recent lesson and invite children to play with it.  They might pluck two open strings with planted feet, or use a few selected notes on one string. They imagine the ladybug on the flower, a giraffe, frogs, rainbows, thunderstorms or Pegasus the flying horse while improvising freely with very simple instructions. 

To break the ice, everyone on earth begins with one note.  Master improviser David Darling calls this “One Quality Sound”.    We simply continue to make music from that one sound.  It may be peaceful, tentative, mysterious or wild….it may be an organized exploration of a musical idea, or it may turn into splashing gestures.  Some students are timid, while others are fearless or silly.  Some repeat things many times, while others begin by surveying all their choices. All of this is absolutely normal.  As teachers or parents, our job is to create an atmosphere in the room where “There is no such thing as a mistake”.  We witness all of it with relaxed confidence and delight.  We embrace this atmosphere lesson after lesson, practice after practice. This affirms for students that everything has been just right. 

Beginning string students add notes to their improvisations based on skills they now have.  “Fun Improvisation for Violin ( or Viola, Piano or Cello)” is a rich resource which often takes a student around two years to complete.  They improvise with “What’s the answer to my question?” which has become well known around the world. Each player generates many musical answers to this familiar musical question.  This musical question is, like “how are you?”  It is never finally or exhaustively answered.  Freedom and discipline are integrated by this daily practice of making additional spontaneous choices.  By day, they play, while the unconscious mind continues to solve creative problems every night.  They play “What’s the answer to my question?” the following day, supplied with fresh ideas from the dreaming, unconscious mind.  This simple process continues.  It “breaks the ice” so the conscious mind which operates in a linear way can dance with the unconscious mind which has an endless supply of hidden soulful dimensions.  To become familiar with this seemingly sloppy process is to break the ice, whoever you are, however old you might be. 

I started improvising as a young adult, having trained for many years at university in classical music.  The rule that “There is no such thing as a mistake” sent me into a very unfamiliar world! I was terrified at the thought of making a mistake, and thought I might die.   I have improvised on the beach, in the dark, in temples, at parties and with silent movies.  I have improvised in jazz groups, with dying people, in concert halls and cafes around the world, with avant garde musicians and in recording studios.  I have performed improvised projects with dancers, poets, painters, drummers, and with people who do not speak my language. Using the universal language of music, we make bridges to connect with people of different cultures.  We are all born creative, and it is never too late to start.  Eventually, we can all find our overlooked and buried authentic voices.  There are many classical musicians who have found fresh air, exploring music beyond the academy. 

Stage 2:  Finding your Voice 

 We are born with our own songs inside us.  We learn the masterpieces to be part of the great musical history which preceeds us.  We gain the necessary skills and essential musical vocabulary we use to improvise.  Each person can play until they uncover their own unique musical voice.   In my experience, it takes two or three years for people to pass through this stage. We teachers learn to facilitate this recognizable, non-linear, organic process.  We emphasize games, self-expression and musicality.  As always, “There is no such thing as a mistake”, and we improvise for at least a couple of minutes on most days.  Each instrument begins in the most accessible, idiomatic key where we stay for a long time, making music.  Many students who have a robust tone in the practice room may begin improvising softly. They are playing into themselves, unlocking a labyrinth of musical beauty down deep inside where there is a hidden world of shapes, colors and memories.  They are listening to whispers from their own musical voice as it begins to rise to the surface.  It’s all perfect. No worries. The tone comes back. 

Experiments letting fingers fly may contrast with other artistic journeys: repeating three notes for a week, quoting a musical idea found in repertoire, orchestral music or scales.  Each person will acquire his own unique musical expression, touching the instrument their way, the way only they would venture from one note to the next.  A musical voice will gradually emerge which begins to sing its own song.  We begin to hear cohesive phrases, and later, entire pieces of music.  Perhaps the most beautiful, strongest songs have yet to be created.  

“Fun Improvisation for Violin (viola, piano or cello)” goes on to introduce Greek modes.  The Greeks claimed the seven modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian Myxolydian, etc.) to be eternal, archetypal “moods” of the human soul.  I cannot say if this is true, but each mode does seem to correspond to something ancient and innate to each of us.   I like to assign one mode as a tonalization, after which we improvise in that mode for several weeks. There is indeed one minute to spare for improvisation in a typical lesson. Later, of course, we find Greek modes in Jazz, world musics, solo repertoire and orchestral music.   

In Creative Ability Development we begin to use the Greek modes to improvise in simultaneous parts.  “Improvising String Quartets” is dedicated to improvisation games, exercises and variations created spontaneously in layers using different musical roles.   Players learn to create drones, melodies, rhythm machines, musical soccer games, telephone games and imitation challenges.  Players learn about music theory, leadership, listening and communication.  To perform an improvised string quartet builds skills with musical structures, dynamics, texture and contrast.  We start with simpler improvisation strategies early in the process of learning to improvise, continuing to use this book until we modulate to relative majors and minors, improvise in different styles and until we can create a quartet performance without rehearsal!   We experiment with self-expression, melodic vocabulary, basslines and imitation games by day, while the unconscious mind builds additional scaffolding night after night.  Although this faithfully occurs for anyone and everyone, it still moves me deeply.  To hear a unique artistic voice miraculously emerging from this process still takes my breath away. 

Stage 3: Sharing and Using your Voice 

At this stage, we find students naturally reaching for virtuosity beyond what we thought they could do. We now have young musicians with a legacy of musical experiences and reasons to use them.  Teachers and parents continue to listen without judgement, delighted and confident that this is all as it should be. The music of children has as much life in it as the art of children. 

“Basslines and Fantasies” by Alice Kanack, allows players to improvise in every key, navigating across the instrument while shifting up and down the strings.  To improvise in every key is a point of arrival demonstrating knowledge, expressive skills, and music theory.  This beautiful collection gives students a bassline in each key with a fantasy piece in that key.  Alice Kanack’s music opens hearts, inspiring people of every age with a wide range of musical journeys we revisit again with more powers of expression and artistry.  

 “Improvising String Quartets” continues to offer more sophisticated improvisation games allowing us to use what we know about music theory, musical roles and leadership.  Learning music theory by creating music makes the theory clear and unforgettable. It is so different from taking a music theory test sitting at a desk.   Students interlock layers of rhythms together and add rhythmic modulation.  They give and receive musical cues while creating themes with variations. They create bass lines which imply chord progressions. They learn to create melodies over drones, rhythmic patterns, and ostinato.  We learn to generate harmonized melodies and variations on a theme.  They are invited to spontaneously create dramatic expressive contrasts like fire and ice.  We have heard improvised string quartets created by professionals as well as graduate school music students. 

Stage 4:  Breaking away: the Search for Truth and Beauty   

In practice, a totally improvised string quartet is often rehearsed by young musicians in a casual playful way.  Even though they laugh together in rehearsal, we hear a shared dream rising into the atmosphere of the room from their music making.  After days and nights over a period of years, conscious work becomes bonded into the unconscious process.  There will be an “ah ha!” moment. It may take hundreds of hours of improvising, but a lightbulb will turn on.  There is a way to use beauty to tell the truth.  Conscious work can bloom in the hidden world of the unconscious.  The greatest of the great scientists, the most legendary artists and even the spiritual seers agree: Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth.  A musician who has studied classical music literature with the double training in creativity has a “voice” of their own, with musical vocabulary and syntax on the instrument.  They have internalized musical conventions.  Whether or not it is always “pretty” does not matter.   The sincerity of expression it requires to tell the truth does bring us into the inner realm of beauty.    

Stage 5: Inspiration and Meta-Cognition 

In 1865 August Kekule discovered the structure of the benzene ring. Along with other scientists, he had been working on this problem for many years.  The solution came from his unconscious mind. One day as he was climbing apple trees with his children, he looked into the sky and saw an image of a snake with its tail in its mouth.  This was the final glimpse he needed to unveil the most elegant, final solution to the mystery behind the structure of the benzene ring.   

There are many examples of this fifth stage of creative ability which have occurred throughout history.  Just recently, the documentary film “My Octopus Teacher” has been released.  We can see all five stages of creativity as Craig Foster worked for many months to refine the powerful message in this project. 

Truth and Beauty are meant to be integrated within each of us. 

Creativity unfolds, giving us more insights throughout our lives, so each of us can contribute to the poetry of the past and the future.  We synthesize and integrate skills to express our experiences, continuing our search until our music takes on a symbolic power.  The cathartic breakthrough in the practice room we call inspiration, or that “ah ha!” moment in the laboratory is also called “meta-cognition”.   

Great creative ability is born of the search for truth and beauty. 

 In our search to understand our world, and in our need to create a better one, lie the roots of all genius and all of the growth and development of mankind.  

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Throughout history, those men and women with the greatest need to understand and communicate truth and beauty were those who were responsible for the most important and lasting achievements.” 

—Alice Kanack 





Fun Improvisation for: Cello:

Track 1 is a tuning track..  
Exercise 1 is on track 2, and so on.  Exercise 1-10 are in D major.
Exercise 11-14 are in G pentatonic
Exercises 15-29 are in C major and the Greek modes of C

Track_1.wav tuning track 

Track_2.wav. Whats the Answer to my Question D major
Track_3.wav What's the answer to my question D major
Track_4.wav Exercise 3 in D
Track_5.wav Exercise 4 in D
Track_6.wav Exercise 5 in D
Track_7.wav Exercise 6 the toy machine in D
Track_8.wav Exercise 7, musical questions in D
Track_9.wav Exercise 8 in D
Track_10.wav Exercise 9, classical improvisation in D
Track_11.wav Exercise 10, classical improvisation in D

Track_12.wav G pentatonic exercise 11
Track_13.wav G pentatonic exercise 12
Track_14.wavG pentatonic exercise 13
Track_15.wavG pentatonic/Blues Exercise 14

Track_16.wav Whats the answer to my question in C major
Track_17.wav Whats the answer to my question in C major

whoops  exercise 17 G myxolydian is missing!
Track_19.wav Exercise 18 E phrygian/ Greek mode of C
Track_20.wav Exercise 19, F Lydian, Greek mode of C
Track_21.wav. Exercise 20 in C major
Track_22.wav Exercise 21 A minor, greek mode of C
Track_23.wav. Exercise 22  F lydian
Track_24.wav Exercise 23 G myxolydian
Track_25.wav Exercise 24 C major
Track_26.wav Exercise 25 D dorian
Track_27.wav Exercise 26 D dorian
Track_28.wav Exercise 27 E phrygian
Track_29.wav Exercise 28 C major

Fun Improvisation for:: Violin

Track 1 is a tuning track..   
Exercise 1 is on track 2, and so on.  Exercise 1-10 are in A major. 
Exercise 11-14 are in D pentatonic 
Exercises 15-29 are in G major and the Greek modes of G




 Playing from the Heart:

This beautiful collection of songs are designed for very young players so they can improvise from the very beginning.

Bass Lines and Fantasies:

This book can be used by any instrumentalist as they acquire abilities and  artistry to improvise in every key. First each key is introduced as a bassline, then a fantasy piece can be played in each key cultivating beautiful creative and artistic skills at the instrument.

This is a digital download from Creative Ability Development Press.

 Off the Page:

 This collection can be ordered at

See the "Off the Page" section of the website for great reviews, information and credits for the amazing audio files.

 Cello, Violin, Viola, Bass, Piano, and Flute

Fun Improvisation for: Piano

Track 1 is a tuning track..   
Exercise 1 is on track 2, and so on.  Exercise 1-10 are in C major. 
Exercise 11-14 are in Black Keys pentatonic 
Exercises 15-29 are in G major and the Greek modes of G