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.

Valley Concert Winds

So far, my big musical project this summer has been starting a community band. It's called the Valley Concert Winds, and we are almost to our first performance. I am co-directing the group with fellow teacher Kyle Manley. It is pretty nice to have the chance both to play and conduct!

We weren't sure what sort of response we would get to the group. There are quite a few community bands in Minnesota, but the far east metro seemed like it could use a group. We had over 50 people register for the band with a great balance of instruments! I was also really pleased to have a wide range of ages represented in the group. It is neat to have intergenerational interaction. After four rehearsals, we have read a lot of music and are planning our first program, "A Taste of America," with the following works:

  • America the Beautiful – arr. Carmen Dragon
  • American Riversongs – Pierre La Plante
  • Fantasy on Yankee Doodle – Mark Williams
  • Black Granite III – James L. Hosay
  • On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss – David Holsinger
  • Sweet Like That – Christopher Theofanidis
  • The Gladiator – John Philip Sousa
  • The Incredibles – arr. Jay Bocook

If you can make it, we'd love to see you at our first performance on July 13. Assuming the weather is good, we'll play at 6:30 pm on the terrace of the Stillwater Library. There's still time to sign up and join us for the second half of the summer, too! :)