Jazz and Improvisation

It’s vital that everyone has the freedom to explore their interest in and passion for jazz during their studies.

Led by Steve Berry, Head of Jazz and Improvisation, ensembles such as the RNCM Big Band and MIUAWGA provide opportunities to perform to public audiences throughout the year, with our Big Band regularly featuring distinguished guest artists. Visitors have included pianists Gwilym Simcock, Alex Wilson and Nikki Iles, guitarist Mike Walker, drummer Clark Tracey and Dave Hassell, trumpeters Laura Jurd and Percy Pursglove, saxophonists Julian Siegel, Josephine Davies and Andy Scott, trombonist Barnaby Dickinson, singers Emma Smith and Alice Zawadzki, and cellist Shirley Smart.


Improvisation is an integral part of undergraduate study at the RNCM, and something that is embraced across all Schools of Study.

For the first two years of our Bachelor of Music with Honours degree, it is a core compulsory component of the musicianship module, enabling students to develop key skills and explore their interests.

How You Will Learn

Students on the BMus programme can opt to undertake jazz electives within Academic Studies and Artist Development modules. These help you develop a knowledge of core jazz repertoire, understand how to approach improvisation, and explore the practical aspects of putting together a jazz performance. You’ll also receive specialist tuition from visiting artists and musicians prolific on the professional jazz scene which can include participation in masterclasses and performance projects. Recent visiting tutors include saxophonists Tim Garland, Bob Mintzer and Chris Potter, and vibraphonist Victor Mendoza.

Musicianship (Years 1 and 2)

The College’s Musicianship course is mandatory for all first and second year undergraduates, and routinely involves improvisation as a practical, core activity, inhabiting several distinct strands. In recent years, Jazz Musicianship and Jazz Theory have been added as options, with a growing number of students choosing to do this slightly more specialised version of the course.

In the latter part of the second year, students choose from a list of specialised options, culminating in a performed assessment. The options offered include: Jazz and Pop Improvisation, and Improvisation (non-jazz specific).

Electives (Years 3 and 4)

Students can choose from Electives in third and fourth year, including: Jazz Performance – over a two year programme, third and fourth year students continue on from the second year Musicianship option, practically exploring repertoire that follows the stylistic and technical evolution of jazz, working in cohorts that function as ensembles.

Jazz Arranging – over a one year programme (which runs every other year), third or fourth year students study and try out arranging in a jazz context.

One-to-One Instrumental Study

Some Schools of Study offer their students specialist jazz instrumental tuition. Please enquire to see if your prospective School of Study will be able to offer you this.

Jazz and Improvisation Performance

RNCM Big Band

Our longest established jazz ensemble, having two concerts per year (December and June). Guest directors and soloists of international renown are also brought in, adding an extra dimension of inspiration for the students. In 2021-22, guests were Josephine Davies, Emma Smith, Nikki Iles and Mike Walker. In 2022-23, Percy Pursglove, Andy Scott & Dave Hassell.

MIUAWGA Ensemble (Making It Up As We Go Along)

Instigated in 2020, this is an improvisation-led ensemble, open to any instrumentalist/vocalist from across the RNCM. It often involves jazz material and approaches but is not confined to or defined by that.

As with the Big Band, this ensemble also brings in internationally acclaimed guest improvisers and directors. In 2022 this was Laura Jurd, and in 2023, Alice Zawadzki and Shirley Smart.

Off-Beat Lab

Established in 2021, this offers the opportunity for players and composers alike to become familiar with how an improvising big band functions, where improvising both collectively and independently are explored, integrated alongside written elements.

As an avowedly ‘workshop’ environment, the students don’t have to deal with the added pressures of ‘going public’ and preparing a promoted concert event.

Jazz Essentials 

Jazz saxophonist Iain Dixon and jazz pianist Dan Whieldon run these non-assessed, one-hour classes each week.

Open to first- and second-year students (and newly arrived postgrads) from all Schools of Study, these classes are a practical introduction to all aspects of what is meant by ‘playing jazz’, necessarily having at its heart the principles and practicalities of improvisation. Particularly useful to complete beginners, but by no means confined to this standard.

Jazz Piano Group Classes

Offered by the School of Keyboard Studies on an every-other-year basis, a general familiarisation course led by Jazz Pianist Dan Whieldon.