Intimidating Improvisation Simplified

Focus on the Blues

By NAfME Member Sarin Williams


Like many music educators today, my background was strictly in classical music—until I sought out an independent study class my final year of college on jazz improvisation. As both a clarinetist and vocalist, I was intimidated by a frightening new way of relating with already comfortable musical concepts and did not know where to begin to learn improvisation. If that story sounds at all familiar, this article is for you!

improvisation | Morrison1977

Why Teach Jazz?

Jazz is one of the few genres unique to the cultural mix that is the United States, and while research shows that music teachers at all levels believe jazz should be a part of the curriculum and are interested in teaching this genre, many feel unprepared to do so (West, 2014; Tuck, 2011; Watson, 2010). I have found that jazz improvisation, however, can be easily applied to classroom teaching from elementary to collegiate levels, in both choral and instrumental programs, and does not need to be intimidating.


Focus on the Blues

Instrumental jazz programs often begin improvisation by focusing on the blues scale and harmonic progression, but this technique is not frequently used in choral or general music classrooms—and it can be! The Blues Scale presents a relatively easy method for friendly improvisation. Once the simple, seven-note blues scale is learned, it can be performed anywhere in the blues progression as “correct” pitches, giving both the teacher and students an anchor for more comfortable improvisational exploration. My own experiences as both a student and teacher demonstrate that the skills learned and practiced with improvisation have a multitude of benefits and can lead to increased musicianship and leadership skills in the instructor and the students themselves.

blues scale


The first thing I do when teaching students to improvise (and this technique can be applied from kindergarten to collegiate choirs and bands) is teach the blues scale. The scale can be taught either by rote or with printed music and can be transposed to any key using the scale numbers or solfege above.


harmonic progression


Next, students need an accompaniment. The blues harmonic progression presented above is one of the common versions, although there are many variations of the basic progression. Again, these chord changes can be transposed to any key to accommodate the desired vocal or instrumental range. Once the pitches of the blues scale are mastered, they can be used to improvise anywhere within the 12-Bar Blues progression and will be “correct” notes, providing a sense of security for musicians of any level new to improvisation.


Photo: Howard Rockwin


Teachers can, of course, play the progression live for students or Jamey Aebersold’s book How to Play Jazz and Improvise can provide a “backing track” with piano, bass, and drums playing a repeated blues progression over which improvisation can occur. Other Aebersold books, like Blues in All Keys and Nothin’ but Blues, also come with “backing track” CDs and provide an expanded repertoire of progressions in any key and a variety of styles. These books also include sample melodies and further guidance on performing the blues. I often teach students some of the given melodies to help them with initial ideas for improvisation.



Once your students have learned the Blues Scales and have an accompaniment, some of these other techniques will help get them improvising:

  • Explore just 1–2 notes of the Blues Scale
  • Play with rhythms, including held notes and silence
  • Work with repeated rhythmic patterns for increased comfort
  • Add more notes from the Blues Scale and allow comfortable students to include passing tones
  • “Trade” 2s, 4s, or 8s: This is a common jazz practice where soloists trade off a number of measures, gaining inspiration from one another’s improvisation
  • Allow students to imitate an instructor’s improvisation
  • Imitate a professional model recording on a traditional blues tune such as “St. Louis Blues” or “Route 66”

Once students are comfortable improvising with the blues, a blues piece can be added to your concert program, and you can allow them to improvise in front of an audience (feel free to contact me for repertoire ideas). Most importantly, everyone can enjoy the experience of being creative within a safe context from which all musicians can grow!



Tuck, J., & Tuck, K. (2011, January 31). Why jazz and blues should be taught in the music classroom. Retrieved from Fun music company:

Watson, K. (2010). The effects of aural versus notated instructional materials on achievement and self-efficacy in jazz improvisation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(3), 240 – 259. Doi: 10.1177/0022429410377115

West, C. (2014). Preparing middle school teachers to teach jazz. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 23(2), 64 – 78. Doi: 10.1177/1057083713487077

West, C. (2014). What research reveals about school jazz education. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 33920, 34 – 40. Doi: 10.1177/8755123314547825


About the author:

music professorNAfME member Sarin Williams, DMA, is the Director of Choral Activities and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Rio Grande in Rio Grande, Ohio. Dr. Williams directs the University’s choral ensembles and teaches Jazz and World Music History, Choral Conducting, Choral Methods, Choral Literature, and Aural Training. She is a Missouri native who earned her Bachelors of Music Education at Bradley University, Masters of Music in Choral Conducting at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Doctorate in Musical Arts at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In addition to her collegiate duties, she has directed at various churches throughout the Midwest. (Picture courtesy of KIconcerts)


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July 23, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (

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