Beyond Fear–Improv for All, Part 1

It’s Jazz Appreciation Month. What are some of the pitfalls and joys of teaching students to improvise? MENC members express their thoughts:

Overcoming Fear

  • “It’s extremely important to be given ‘permission’ to be spontaneous, and get over the fear associated with right and wrong. That’s the whole point, to get experimental first, then more controlled later.” –-LaDonna Smith
  • The hardest part for beginners to overcome “is this stupid mystique we have that says that if you’re going to play a jazz solo—just a simple little solo—it’s gotta be perfect. Nowhere else do we try the first time and succeed completely. It’s like going bowling for the first time and expecting every ball to be a strike. We wouldn’t expect anybody to do that, and yet when it comes to taking two choruses on the blues, people freeze up. They know what to do—their fingers are ready, their minds are ready, they’d love to do it, but they’re scared to death because they’re afraid of making a mistake.” –-Jamey Aebersold
  • “Above all, set up a classroom environment where individual response, exploring, and making mistakes are not only okay but the norm!” –-Heather Shouldice
  • “Compare improvisation to talking. We don’t talk from literal scripts; we don’t have to have words in front of us to know what to say when having a conversation. So why shouldn’t people wanting to play music be told that they can make music that way too?” –-David Kay
  • Carol Jacobe marks an imaginary box on the floor and invites each student to enter and sing. “The box is a safe place; inside it a student is not judged on the music that he or she sings. One by one, students start cramming into this small imaginary box, and once they are in there, we open the box up more, and I just point to kids to sing a phrase, and continue with that. They have no time to think about being nervous. They just do it.”
  • “I start students off using improv settings that are ‘failsafe,’ ones that ask them to do things that they are capable of—playing rhythms on one pitch, giving them a few pitches up to a complete scale to jam on without changing to another scale, etc.” –-David Kay

These comments were taken from “Gaining Independence: An Interview with Jamey Aebersold” and “Improv for Everyone,” Teaching Music, April 2010, and “Jazz: A Beginner’s Guide,” Teaching Music, April 2011.

Part 2

Teaching Music magazine:
“Gaining Independence: An Interview with Jamey Aebersold,” April 2010
“Improv for Everyone,” April 2010
“Jazz: A Beginner’s Guide,” April 2011
“Jazz in the Classroom,” April 2008

MENC members quoted:

Jamey Aebersold heads up Jamey Aebersold Jazz.

Heather Shouldice is an early childhood music instructor at the Michigan State University Community Music School.

David Kay teaches instrumental and band students at University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio.

Carole Jacobe is professor of vocal studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

Lisa Werner is a band, orchestra, and general music director in a rural K–8 school district in North Lake, Wisconsin.

LaDonna Smith is director of Burmingham Suzuki Violinists in Birmingham, Alabama, and editor-in-chief and publisher of The Improviser, an online journal.

—Linda C. Brown, April 6, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (