Teaching Improvisation

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  • #6742

    The old forums had some good ideas on teaching improvisation. Let’s keep the conversation going. I’ll post some of the suggestions here. The original posts can be found at and

    Linda Brown
    NAfME Staff


    One of our jazz mentors, dcsax, opened one discussion:

    As I visit schools to work with jazz ensembles, I have noticed a disturbing trend. That trend is to not introduce students to the art of improvisation. One of the things I suggest to teachers who do not have expertise in jazz is to attempt to improvise themselves (not in front of the students at first). This way the teacher can express to his/her students the feelings that take place as one attempts to improvise. Overcoming the fear of improvisation is the first step.

    I’m curious to know how many members of this forum who are not jazz performers or who are not familiar with jazz encourage their students to improvise in class or jazz rehearsals. As a jazz performer and teacher, I think it is important that jazz students are at least exposed to the art of improvisation.

    dcsax, Ron Kearns, covers jazz improvisation in his NAfME book, Quick Reference for Band Directors (https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781610483476).


    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.


    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.


    Great ideas. I especially like post #6744: lighten the cognitive load, use one note and two note rhythmic improvisation, and call-and-response. Here is another idea – if the chart you are playing has a solo section that is too hard for your soloists, change the solo section! Maybe just use a ii-V vamp, or repeat the ‘A’ section but never go to the bridge (Killer Joe is easy to improvise on if you don’t have to play the bridge). You could even take a very fast chart and in the solo section, switch to a half-time groove. The important thing is to create a musical opportunity where your young improvisers will be successful and become confident rather than set them up for sure failure.

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