Reply To: Teaching Improvisation

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Another jazz mentor, edmund13, responded:

You make an excellent point about overcoming the fear factor. Learning to improvise is a daunting task and teaching it is no easier.

That said, there is currently an increasing emphasis on the stimulation of musical creativity/composition/improvisation. There are also more and more resources available to teachers. For those interested in finding instructional resources for improvisation, see my thread from the December Jazz Mentor.

When instructing beginning improvisers, my philosophy is pretty simple: 1) Begin with the melody 2) Find ways to lighten the cognitive load.

We start with melody because that is something our young musicians are able to read and interpret. Embellishment on the melody is a great place to start.

Ways to lighten the cognitive load can include: Begin with 1-note rhythmic improvisations. Expand to 2-note improvisations. Gradually introduce more complex melodic language. Pentatonic scales are enabling, important, and fun.

I teach my students pentatonic scales, then expand them beyond the octave, both below and above. At first, we have short musical conversations (call-and-response). Later, I ask them to play their own special song on the pentatonic scale while I accompany on piano. Your students will experience success here and enjoy it because you can find some nice colors using simple chord progressions. For example:
1) Teach your student(s) a major pentatonic scale. Let’s use F major as an example.
2) Have a musical conversation using call and response. Each performer plays a short (2 or 4 bars) phrase. They can copy, but eventually should be performing their own ideas.
3) Invite your student(s) to create their own short pentatonic song while you play the following chords:
|Dmin7|Bb |Dmin7| Bb |Dmin7|Bb| C |Dmin7|

This is just an example and you might find some other interesting progressions. Using the relative minor and the chords 1 and 2 whole steps below leads to some nice sounds.