Jazz Band, Teaching Improvisation (part II)

I had a lot of fun working with my high school jazz band this last year on understanding guide tones—with the small group that I had, it was a ton of fun to dig into some concepts that I wish I would have worked harder to grasp when I was in high school. However, most of the group did not have a significant amount of experience with jazz improvisation, and they started the year very hesitant to improvise. Working with the group helped me realize how much teaching improvisation is like teaching anything else. You figure out what the student knows, look at what you want the student to be able to do, and then break down the steps in between to manageable chunks. So for today, what are the first steps in teaching improvisation to beginning students?

These hot cross buns are a great way to start improvising. I'm sure they also taste great.

These hot cross buns are a great way to start improvising. I'm sure they also taste great.

One of the ways I like to encourage improvisation early on is through varying what students are already playing. For instance, I am a big fan of rhythm exercises in beginning band. Many books (I have used Essential Elements in the past) include pages of rhythms in an appendix in the back, and I start using these pages almost right away. While I mix it up with speaking and clapping, when it comes time for students to play a line of rhythms, I start to work in some choices.

"Pick your favorite note and play measure 3." (at this point, they probably know only five notes)

"Great job. Let's trade off every other measure, and you can play any of the notes you have learned so far." If the student is doing well with this, I'll start changing notes in the middle of a measure to see if they'll experiment more.

At this point, I'll also work in some repeat after me, both with myself and the student(s) leading. Perhaps I'll play Hot Cross Buns as we have learned it, and then I'll throw in an extra note or a slightly different rhythm. At the beginning stages of improvisation (and particularly when the student is a beginner on their instrument), my goal is to make them feel comfortable following the instructions I'm giving.

The Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble book uses a similar approach, and I have my beginning jazz players do the same kinds of exercises. We'll play Jingle Bells and then have students "solo" by varying the melody. Stronger players usually have no trouble with this, but I think it is important to reinforce the concept of variation in working with beginning improvisors. Until we are freed from technical limitations on our instrument, we can't play what we don't know how to play.

Over time, I'll work in additional listening exercises as well as chords, scales, and theory. That discussion, though, will have to wait for another time.

Jazz Band, Teaching Improvisation (part I)

How many of us experienced something like this early on in learning to improvise?

"These six notes make up what is called the blues scale. Doesn't it sound jazzy? Now, when we get to the solo section, you can play this scale for your solo. Mix up the notes however you want with some rhythms in your head and you'll sound great! "

While this is an oversimplification, I have seen this way of teaching improvisation play out far too often. Some students get it and sound fine (though they may get intro trouble later if they don't move past the blues scale), but many students simply freeze up. They don't know the scale, they're uncomfortable playing in front of their peers, or they're just not sure what to play even with the notes right in front of them. Another pattern I have seen is students ignoring the scale or other materials provided and playing random notes, reminding me of my kids at home who love to pick up "instruments" and make "music." 1

So how do we teach improvisation? Or perhaps we should ask, is it possible to teach everyone to improvise? For today, I'd like to define what improvisation is and lay the groundwork for answering how to teach improvisation.

Some say improvisation is spontaneous, but while there is an element of spontaneity, the best improvisors are those who are able to draw on vast reserves of musical ideas in order to fuel their creativity. 

Improvisation is the art of using what you already know to instantaneously create music.

the art – improvisation requires creativity

what you already know - creativity without skill rarely (if ever) makes anything great 2

instantaneously - it's happening right now

create - not recreate, you are making something that is not exactly what you or someone else has made before

music - the organization of sounds and silences in time

I believe every musician can and does learn to improvise. While some seem to pick it up naturally (I'm looking at the lead trumpet player who takes things up an octave, or figures out another alternate high note on a final chord), most students I have taught are not immediately comfortable with the idea of improvisation. Next time I'll look at some of the things I do to teach students to improvise.

  1. Though I should note that the oldest two are doing fine with piano lessons, and the oldest sings pretty well on pitch..

  2. Unless it's modern art.

Jazz Band, Day 1

This is the first of multiple posts about teaching students to play jazz music.

I had few resources the first year I taught jazz band. I bought a couple easy charts, we played them once a week, and then the group performed once. Students had a great time, but I realized that I needed a more structured approach to teaching jazz style, technique, how to listen, and how to improvise. Before the next year, I picked up a book (I'll do a review later), but more importantly, I thought about how I wanted to describe jazz to students from the very first day.

Learning Jazz, I tell students, is just like learning a new language. [I am certainly not the first to think or explain jazz this way, but I haven't seen enough people teach jazz from the beginning to know whether or not the analogy is used frequently in practice.] If you are trying to learn to speak Spanish, the most important thing is to use your ears. No matter how many much vocabulary you know, no matter how many verbs you can conjugate, it is listening and repeating what you hear that will make you speak correctly. So, day 1 of jazz band is all about repeating after me.

I continue the analogy of jazz to language through the whole first meeting and then sprinkle it into almost every rehearsal thereafter. I have the students repeat words and phrases after me, trying to match pronunciation and emphasis, and then I have them do the same thing with their instruments. Oftentimes when we do repeat after me in concert band, I'm more focused on correct pitch and rhythm, but my hope in jazz is to hear matching articulation, note lengths, and swing style. As students focus solely on listening and repeating, they internalize the things I play and want them to hear.

With this foundation in place, I'll move on next time to discussing how I approach jazz improvisation.