Best Practices for the Guitar Classroom
Using Moveable Major Scales for Improvisation
By Jayson Martinez, NAfME Council for Guitar Education Eastern Division Representative
Guitar teachers who wish to include improvisation in their lesson plans often find themselves at an impasse. It can be difficult to know exactly where and how to start introducing the concept. Since your schedules are full, finding the time to research techniques can also be a problem. Yet, since teaching improvisation helps students find connections between other musical elements such as harmony, chord progression, structure, rhythm, and intonation, building it into your lesson plans increases your effectiveness as a guitar pedagogue. Moreover, improvisation is an important musical concept for students to grasp as early as possible. Thus, in order to fully deliver a comprehensive music education, improvisation—along with sight-reading, theory, history, and composition—should be included when discussing best practices for the guitar classroom.
Fortunately for guitar students, improvisation techniques can be fun to learn, especially since the guitar is a unique instrument due to its moveable nature. Essentially, what this means is that once students learn one scale pattern in just one single key, they can move that pattern to any other area of the fretboard in order to improvise in other keys. Many guitar educators introduce improvisation concepts primarily by teaching the five moveable pentatonic scale patterns, and for good reason. The pentatonic scales can be used in almost every single song, are easy to learn, and sound great over every chord change in a key. Additionally, it is also beneficial to teach guitar students the moveable major scale patterns, thus expanding the palette of musical possibilities.
The Major Scale is the cornerstone of all western harmony, and when we describe all other scales, it is always in relation to this scale. Further, the naming conventions for chords and all forms of harmony come from this scale. Since all other scales are thought of in relation to the major scale, it is important for students to learn not only to play and use them, but to understand them theoretically as well.
Although there is a myriad of patterns for the emerging guitarist to learn, below are my personal favorite major scale patterns that my students use for learning improvisation. There are six major patterns that we initially use in my classroom. The first three start with the root on the sixth string, while the latter three begin on the fifth. For clarity, the root-six string scales are written in A major, while the root-five string scales are written in D major. Tablature and left-hand fingerings are also provided.
Above all, remember to reinforce to the students that learning any scale by itself is not enough. Understanding when to use the scale and over which chords is just as important as knowing the scale itself. Furthermore, knowing all the scales ever created in the history of music will do the students absolutely no good unless they know how to use them and under which musical circumstances to apply them.
Perhaps the most significant best practice in the classroom is for guitar teachers to motivate their students to practice every aspect of making music. In the interest of improvisation, below are three key activities that assist in attaining this goal.
Call and Response:
This technique involves one student playing one bar of music. Start out with something very basic, such as one pitch played with a rhythmic variation. The other students repeat the measure, matching the dynamics and style as closely as possible. You can alter this exercise by playing an incomplete phrase, and having another student complete it. However, make sure that each student who follows continues the call using the same number of beats in the measure. For background music, use a backing track from YouTube in any major key and assign a specified moveable major scale pattern.
In this exercise, assign your students a specific moveable scale pattern. Designate that each student should play a certain series of notes from the scale, using varied phrasing. Develop a method of cues so that every student will know when to play their specific series. Set a tempo and start by giving cues to students. The idea here is to let the students listen to how free form improvisation works and to allow their creativity to flow.
Explore Emotions :
This improvisation technique helps students understand the value of playing from their heart. Have students think about which sounds and melodic structure reflect emotions. Have everyone agree on an emotion to convey and then have each student, in turn, play a series of notes (or a single one) that reflect that emotion. Have them pay attention to the note length and rhythm that pertains to the specific emotion you all want to convey.
Although the moveable scales serve as a starting point to understanding improvisation, teaching it is not about forming a structured learning technique. Since so much of it involves feeling and spontaneity, showing your students fun ways to explore with music can help them develop and incorporate their own personality into the music they play. Improvising is seemingly a dark art that is hard to explain. In reality though, we are all successful improvisers already.
Each of us improvises using language every day. We spontaneously reassemble words and phrases to express ourselves and communicate with others. Improvising on the guitar really is much the same process. The technical aspects of guitar improvisation and music are different to those of grammar and syntax. But just as anyone can improvise using language, so too can anyone improvise on guitar.
About the author:
NAfME member Jayson Martinez is the Director of Guitar Studies at Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey, the nation’s first high school for the Visual and Performing Arts. He is also recognized as the first guitar student in the history of Arts High School. In two decades as an educator, Mr. Martinez has taught music education to all grades ranging from Pre-K to collegiate levels. While attending high school, he already began teaching private lessons at a local music studio in Newark. This early experience into teaching led him to attend New Jersey City University (NJCU), where he earned degrees in Music Education (B.A), Music Performance (M.Mus), and Educational Supervision and Administration (M.EdLd). As a New Jersey music teacher, Mr. Martinez has garnered countless awards, including Teacher of the Year 2018-19 and was nominated for the GRAMMY Music Educator Award. Mr. Martinez serves as the NJMEA Chairman for Guitar Education, Director of the NJMEA Honors Guitar Ensemble, and NAfME Eastern Division Representative for the Council for Guitar Education. As an established classical guitarist, Mr. Martinez currently serves as concertmaster for the renowned New York City Classical Guitar Orchestra. In staying true to his roots, Mr. Martinez is the proprietor of Tremolo Music Studio in New Jersey, teaching aspiring musicians of all ages the value of music education.
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October 27, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)