Reply To: Teaching Improvisation

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Zach Poulter, another jazz mentor, commented:

This question, I think, gets at the heart of the biggest pedagogical challenge facing jazz educators. How do you promote an individual art like improvisation in an ensemble classroom?

Choosing appropriate music for your band gives you a huge advantage. You absolutely MUST coordinate your improv teaching with your concert songs if you want optimal results. For instance, if you are teaching mixolydian scales and blues form, here are some of the many arrangements (at various difficulty levels) that feature mixolydian scales (exclusively) over a basic 12-bar blues structure.

Grade 1
Night Train, arr. Blair

Grade 2
Cousin Mary, arr. Murtha
Allright, Okay, You Win, arr. Sweeney
C Jam Blues, arr. Cook
Kansas City, arr. Berry
Splanky, arr. Phillipe

Grade 3
Blue Flame, arr. Murtha
Sandu, arr. Taylor
Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, arr. Mills

With the right charts, you can reenforce improv instruction during ensemble practice and strengthen ensemble performance during improv instruction – a real synergy starts to happen in the band.

Now, please forgive me, but at the risk of shameless self-promotion, I’m going to suggest my own book: Teaching Improv In Your Jazz Ensemble: a complete guide for music educators, published by NAfME.

The entire publication is aimed at this problem, and it includes detailed indexes of over 180 jazz charts (all jazz standards) so that you can search for specific improvisational formats and materials while selecting concert songs.