Begin with the Blues
For some teachers and students jazz and improvisation isn’t something that appears in lessons or even on their radar. I do wonder whether part of it is that classical music is viewed as more serious so more educational, and good for you… like cabbage. But popular and jazz music can be as challenging (and rewarding) if not more so.
There’s been plenty of occasions where students have assured me that they ‘don’t like jazz’, but actually when they’ve tried swing pieces and started on the road to improvisation they really enjoy it.
But where to start.
If you’re a teacher who’s never taught improvisation before – have no fear – it’s easier than you think. Here’s my top tips on starting students on the improvisation pathway.
The first thing to remember: improvisation is fast composition. It’s just making up a piece on the spot. So like composition – it all breaks down to practice and trying different things.
Choosing the Notes:
Students will always respond better if they’re given something small and manageable first. The focus should always be more rhythm and less notes. Here’s my go to note selections.
1. Piano Pentatonic Fun
With my younger piano students I do like to start with a pentatonic scale. Pentatonics are great as you can play them in any order and it doesn’t affect the sound. But before you worry about which notes to skip in order to give you a true pentatonic sound, stop. The black keys – ta da! One easy to see and play pentatonic scale.
My go to for improvising in this key is to play lots of swooping F# and C# accompaniment figures underneath and just let them play. If you keep it smooth and syrupy often students will be happy just seeing how all of their notes work well and fit.
Encourage them to try more than one note at once too!!
2. The Blues (one for all!)
I must admit my next go to (especially for the last lesson of the school year and when the students just need a break and something different) is a blues scale.
Blues scales are amazing – but of a pain fingers wise for piano students – as again they’re just like pentatonics (in fact they are just an extension really) in that they sounds great no matter what order you play the notes. They’re also great as they just sound ‘jazzy’ and you can get some great sounds from them.
Again – just like the pentatonics for piano students encourage students to try more than one note at once.
The most common mistake with blues scales is students playing notes that they ‘shouldn’t’ - but if it enhances the improvisation I wouldn’t worry about it. But maybe recommend focusing on three or four notes first before moving onto more.
How to Improvise
1. Start small
Giving students a really small selection of notes to choose from can limit the panic mode of not being able to see the music wood for the music trees issues. Let them choose one or two notes and make sure they’ve decided what note to start on.
You can create a really good solo just using one or two notes. It’s all about the rhythm.
One of the hardest things about improvisation is just starting it. Students of all ages just stop and minds go blank and they don’t know what to do. But they just need to start. Once they start playing they can see what works, what doesn’t work, what they meant to say and what they didn’t.
This is quite a difficult hurdle to get over. But if you use the following tips they should soon start building their confidence in playing.
3. Question and Answer
Most music that most of us play is divided into phrases. Or in super simple terms the melody is divided into a question and an answer. Start students with the task of thinking about actual questions (weird and wonderful most definitely welcome) and giving actual answers. This helps with improvising as when you start the melodies will flow better if they sound like they’re developing like an organic conversation.
So ask for some questions – either written down as words, or actually notated rhythms. It could be things like:
What is your name – My name is martha
What are you having for your dinner today – I’m having sausages and chips
Did you see the football last night – No I didn’t I was fast asleep
By structuring it in this way students will start to feel how long the bar lengths are (rather than worrying about having eight beats worth of rhythms and rests) and it will help them make sure that their phrases are of a similar length.
They wouldn’t for example say:
What are you having for your dinner today – Sausages
Well… they might but as a conversation goes it’s not a good one.
For those students who are a bit panicky about improvisation it also makes it more manageable. If they’re doing a twelve bar blues solo and playing question and answers – it means that they actually only have to think of three questions – as the answering phrases should follow on.
Q&A are also a great thing to play together to develop a more interesting solo with you joining in. Play questions and get your students to answer (a great listening game as the answers need to be similar or again it’s a bit of a weird conversation) and vice versa. You can add all sorts of weird and wonderful rhythm and note sequences and if they’re following the students should start to be stretched by it.
4. More rhythm, less notes
Ah the first pitfall of improvisation. Doing so many notes you forget your q&a, where you are and what you meant to do in the first place.
Get the rhythm centred first. Notes are easy to add – but only when the rhythmic variety is interesting.
Why not get the students to try play the same phrase with different rhythms – so change the start from slow notes to fast notes etc etc.
A lot of students are surprised when I tell them they don’t need to play *all* the time! Rests can help break the phrases so the listen can enjoy what you just played. It can give you a moment to think about what you just did and what you’re going to do next. It can also give you a breathing place!
A good improvising challenge is to get students to vary where they place the rest – most of the time it’s at the end of the phrases. Give them the challenge to miss beat 1/2/3/4 or even meaner is getting them to do quaver rests … (not that I’d do that.. far too mean… honest!)
6. Less is more
You do need to remember what it is you’re trying to say. Don’t over load the solo with unnecessary wiggles or by trying too hard. Decide what you’re going to say and say it. Less is more. Whether that’s less note changes, more rests or just getting to the point faster.
If you want a great example of less is more – listen to Miles Davis!
5. Don’t be too predictable
When you’re first starting improvising then the tendency will be to start on the same note and play similar rhythms as you’re building up your confidence. But be aware that if you start being too ‘samey’ that it will start to become predictable. It doesn’t take much to make it varied.
Perhaps alternating the starting note, changing the rests round and swapping rhythms is a good place to start. If you always start with a long note, swap it for shorter ones. Or try playing the same notes, but backwards!
6. Move a bit more
Now I don’t mean faster (unless you really want to go for it!) but variety is the spice of life. It’s really easy to get stuck in the same range of notes – but again a slight change to a lower or higher range can make a big difference. Why not take the same notes but move up or down the octave. Or just move higher and stay there for a bit before moving back down again.
If you need some more tips on improvising – why not check out the freebies section and download some worksheets.