Building Better Improvisers

Building Better Improvisers

Dedicating Class Time to Improvisation?

By NAfME Member Dr. Russell Ballenger


I know, I know—“But our concert is in a couple weeks, and we need every bit of rehearsal time to clean up the ensemble sections.”

Improvisational skills and techniques help all students because they require open ears and active brains for listening and responding to each other.

As educators, we have all felt the pressure of an upcoming concert or festival, and although we know that improvisation is important, it is set aside in favor of correct notes and rhythms. However, if we fail to introduce improvisation as an integral part of jazz ensemble, then the jazz ensemble becomes a concert band with “swung” 8th notes. In dedicating only five minutes of your rehearsal time each day to improvisation, you will notice that not only are improvisations improving, but ensemble parts get better as well. Improvisational skills and techniques help all students because they require open ears and active brains for listening and responding to each other. This is what music (especially jazz) is all about!


2016 All-National Honor Jazz Ensemble. Photo: Howard Rockwin, Musical Memories Photography.

5 Easy Ways to Work on Improvisation in the Classroom

These are in no particular order. Pick and choose the approach that works for you and your students.

  1. Call and Response

Play a recorded drone pitch on speakers. Begin in a familiar key area such as B-flat. On top of this pitch, play or sing notes in the B-flat major scale and have your students sing it back to you. Once successful, have the students try to echo using their instruments. I like to start with the B-flat major scale, followed by patterns beginning on B-flat before branching out. You might also try playing a short jazz lick but teach it by adding one pitch at a time, similar to the game Simon.

  1. Creating Rhythmic Interest

Learn a short pattern or lick and then displace the rhythms. Instead of starting the lick on beat 1, play it on beats 2, 3, and 4 or any of their upbeats. Try keeping the same notes, but change the rhythms completely. Think about adding/taking away syncopation.

  1. Playing by Ear

Play a familiar melody such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Have the students analyze: What key are we in and what scale degree does the melody start on? Take the tune around the circle of fourths, playing it in all twelve keys. This is helpful for learning their major scales as well!


improvisation Illureh


  1. Melodic Embellishment

Take a tune that the students have already learned and played by ear. Now let the students explore adding their own embellishments to the melody. It is not required that they stay within a key, and in fact, it is often best if there are no restrictions on “right and wrong notes” so that they can figure out on their own what sounds good and what does not. This can be done collectively as a class, or ask individuals to share.

  1. Simplifying Chord Changes

If you want to work on a specific set of chord changes as a class, I recommend starting with something simple like the blues. Have the class spell out the notes in each chord and find the 3rd and 7th of each chord. These two notes define the chord, and we call them “guide tones.” If we can find smooth voice leading from one chord to the next throughout a tune using mostly 3rds and 7ths, we have created a “guide tone line.” The guide tone line helps us as improvisers highlight the chord changes. Once you come up with one or two guide tone lines, try to melodically embellish around them, still highlighting the chord changes as they go by.


Need to Hear Some Examples?

Register for NAfME’s National In-Service Conference and attend “Building Better Improvisers” with Dr. Ballenger on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, at 8:00AM.


About the author:

Russell Ballenger

NAfME member Dr. Russell Ballenger is an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, where he teaches low brass and directs the Jazz Ensemble. As an orchestral trombonist, Ballenger has performed with the Amarillo Symphony, Mississippi Symphony, Tuscaloosa Symphony, New Mexico Philharmonic, and currently holds the position of Principal Trombone with the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra. He has performed with the Four Tops, played for the National Broadway tour of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical!,” and traveled with Carnival Cruise Lines. Ballenger has had multiple articles published by the International Trombone Association. As a clinician, he has presented at prestigious institutions including Boise State, West Texas A&M, and Indiana Universities. He holds degrees from Indiana University, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Alabama. Learn more at

Dr. Russell Ballenger presented on his topic, “Building Better Improvisers,” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!


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