If you’ve ever written a thesis, book or even a blog post, you probably know that just the right words don’t always just come flowing out of your brain onto the screen or page. Case in point, I have already deleted one word and replaced it with another in just these two opening sentences. The fact is there is very little we get perfect the first time, let alone at all. Good writers don’t worry about getting it down perfectly in the first draft, they just write and then go back later to revise, edit and polish.
When it comes to music, composing works much the same way. Though legends of Mozart composing whole symphonies at a time at one sitting, and without need of revision, this would be an astounding exception to the way most composers have and continue to work. Creating art takes time, requires many attempts and reworking before it finally settles into what the composer will accept as the finished work.
There is another aspect of creating music that lies somewhere in between the alleged perfection of Mozart and the seemingly endless struggles of Beethoven when composing. This aspect is improvisation. Like writing and composing, improvisations probably don’t come out just right most of the time, but unlike writing and composing, there is no opportunity to go back and edit. Once the tone is played or sung, it cannot be taken back. It can only be decontextualized into consequent tones that make the regretted tone sound less out of place or wrong. This is acceptable in improvisation, and the mix of “wrong” notes and “fixes” for them is what gives improvisation its often edgy and thrilling demeanor. In fact, many improvisors don’t consider there is such a thing as wrong notes when improvising.
It does, though, take a great deal of courage to improvise, especially in front of friends and peers. For less experienced students, the fear of sounding bad is real, and prevents some from even trying. To be fair, most of us wouldn’t feel too good about giving a speech infant of our peers without any notice to prepare what we were going to say. Only a few people, the late Robin Williams among them, can just improvise a coherent, or at least entertaining five or ten or thirty minutes of comedy or poetry or prose. This is the obstacle young student improvisors face. How to play improvised music that sounds good to everyone listening.
Swing is an excellent choice of styles for inexperienced improvisors. The tempo can be held at a comfortable medium tempo, and a major scale has few if any bad sounding notes in it when played over a ii-V-I-vi progression. I like to teach my students the swing feel first by having them sing a couple of swing songs, and listen to a couple of swing charts. The song “To Swing or Not to Swing” from the Music K-8 series is a good tool to teach students what swing is. I then like to use Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Ticket A Tasket” as a song for the students to sing, and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” for them to listen to. I have them describe what they hear the performers do that makes the music swing. Key is that they acquire an ear for the swing eighth notes, and be able to sing and tap them.
When these materials have been learned successfully, I then use a medium swing backing track for the students to improvise over. I pass a small Orff style xylophone around the class, and give each students 16 beats to improvise with swing rhythm, especially swing eighth notes. The students are quickly amazed at how quickly they sound good with the backing track, and are encouraged by quick success to continue improvising. Many will just play on the beat at first, and then will begin to venture into adding a few swing eighth notes. For the more reluctant students, I encourage them to continue playing on the beat, and every so often just play twice on a bar using a rhythm of two swing eighth notes. I try not to play or model too much at this point, because I want the best music to be made by the students. Once everyone has succeeded, then I take my turn before giving the xylophone back to a student. The important thing is that once the students start playing, they slowly realize that there are no wrong notes, and that a good rhythm anywhere on the diatonic scale will make them sound like a pro. Try this out with your students using this backing track.