How I Teach Improvisation

Version 3In my article, “We’re Back… Now What?” I relied heavily on using improvisation as a vehicle for getting students back into the habit of making music. I chose improvisation because it affords students the most freedom and stress free environment for quickly making music. But it is only free and relaxed if it is not constrained by unfamiliarity and self-consciousness. So today, I am writing a follow-up article, describing how I teach improvisation to students in small group instrumental classes and in general music classes. I am not a jazzer myself, and my methods are not designed for advanced jazz musicians, but as an entry into the environment of improvisation, designed to make a strong start while laying the foundations for more advanced improvisational applications later.

I am not a fan of the “no-fault” method of teaching improvisation, whereby the student is given the notes of the minor pentatonic scale and an accompaniment of the blues progression, and told that they can freely improvise because any note will sound good with any chord. With no possibility of playing a “wrong” note, stress is all but eliminated, right? I do like this method for improvising with an emphasis on rhythm, because the lack of possible errors melodically allows the student to divert all attention to generating interesting rhythms. And it does provide the student the opportunity to learn the sound of a blues progression more or less by osmosis, becoming familiar with it as they improvise their rhythms. But because it does not necessitate the student to discriminate one chord for the other, or make pitch selections based on the relative consonance or dissonance against different chords, this method is of limited value beyond the very earliest stages I just described.

The oft-used iimin7 – V7 – Imaj7 progression has some of the benefits of the pentatonic method while also requiring the student to use a more discriminating ear. By instruction or trial and error, the student learns that ^2 and ^4 are consonant against the iimin7 and V7 chords, and ^5 and ^7 are consonant against the Imaj7 chord. While improvising rhythm on one of these common tones, the student will hear it change from consonant to dissonant and then decide whether to move to a consonant note or continue with the dissonance. There are still no “wrong” choices, but now the choice of tone does make a difference in how the music sounds, because some notes are dissonant and some are consonant, whereas with the minor pentatonic against blues progression, everything was consonant. So I might begin by having the student improvise rhythm on ^4 only. I’ll show them by example that at first that tone will “sound like this,” playing the iimin7 and V7 while they play the ^4, “and then it will sound like this,” playing the Imaj7 while they continue to play ^4. If you don’t like how the sound of the ^4 changed, then switch to ^3, or if you like the new way ^4 sounds, go ahead and keep improvising on it.” The students has choices and is learning how specific tones sound against specific chords. What’s more, it is all driven by what the student hears, and is not hindered by learning music theory. There will be time to teach the theory of of what they already did later.

Before long, we will want what the student is playing melodically to have strong harmonic connotations, which playing just one tone cannot provide. Because I am playing chords on the keyboard while the student was improvising on one or two notes, the harmonic context is there, but not really in the improvised part, mostly in the piano. To begin to move in the direction of harmonic connotations in the improvised melody, I will next instruct the student to improvise with two notes for each chord–the third and the seventh. To prepare for this, I will make sure the student knows where the chord changes are. I might tell the student to improvise as before, but every time they hear a chord change, they must change to a different note. This will tell me if they are hearing where the changes occur. With that established I will tell them what notes to use with each chord. They will improvise with ^4 and ^1 against the iimin7, the ^7 and ^4 against the V7, and the ^3 and ^7 against the Imaj7. At this stage, the number of measures between chord changes can be as many as needed as the student gets the hand of doing this. It is a good idea to tell the student to go to the closer of the two notes from where they are at the time of the change. This makes changing easier and encourages good voice leading, even before they know what voice leading is. Remember, sound before theory.

When this much is going well, the next step is to begin adding in passing tones between the third and seventh of the chord. I tell students that they are to play the assigned tones (3rds and 7ths of each chord) longer than they play the notes around them, so that those notes will remain prominent in the harmonic connotations of the melodic line. They are to use the other notes to fill in the spaces between the assigned notes, and to make their improvisation more interesting. At no time do they have to use all the diatonic tones, but now they are free to do so. This gives More choices for the student to make, and allows the student to add additional tones into the mix as they are comfortable doing so, according to their proficiency at any moment in the learning process. As proficiency grows, so do the number of tones that can be brought into play. Also, as proficiency grows, the number of measures or beats between chord changes can decrease, preparing the student to improvise with actual songs from the Great American Songbook.

With enough experience improvising using this method and sequence, the neophyte improvisor will soon be improvising standards. At that point, it is appropriate to circle back and introduce the music theory that explains what they are already doing. This is the time to explain what thirds and sevenths of a chord are, what iimin7, V7, and Imaj7 mean, and any other aspects of the music theory behind what they are doing that you want to include.  If you are not an improvisor yourself, have fun learning the art and craft of it along with your students. As you become caught up in the fun of it, that fun will spill over to your students, and you will motivate each other to enjoy making music together.


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