No Fear: Working Without a Net

Improvising in jazz has often been likened to working without a net. There’s always an element of danger lurking close by. For many musicians, just the idea of creating music on the spot elicits feelings ranging from mere apprehension to almost paralyzing fear.

So, how can jazz educators help their students get past this fear? NAfME member Robert Larson has a three-part strategy he uses to calm his charges who demonstrate discomfort with improvisation. He says:

· When I encounter a student who is reluctant to improvise, I set up an interesting
parameter for him or her – I suggest that he play a solo using only one note, the
tonic, while I play a blues progression on the piano. As I am setting up this
exercise, my words are as important as the activity itself: “Don’t worry about
how it sounds, because no one can sound good using only one note.” I have seen
students visibly relax upon hearing these words. The fear often just melts away,
as the realization that if success is not achievable, then neither is failure.

· Before adding other pitches, which increases the complexity of the exercise, I
add a unifying element to help organize the blues piece we are playing…Since
the twelve-bar blues is the vehicle for this activity, it is a simple process to
divide the form into three four-measure phrases. In order to organize the solo, a
simple rhythmic pattern is inserted into the third and fourth measures of each
phrase. The student is encouraged to improvise, still with only the one note,
during the first two measures of each phrase and play the rhythm in the third
bar during each phrase. I have found that this immediately organizes the solo for
the student who needs help with structure.

· The final step is to gradually add notes of the blues scale, a few at a time in the
following order: C, E flat; C, E flat, F; C, E flat, F, B flat (below the tonic); and finally the
entire scale: C, E flat, F, F sharp, G, B flat. Most students enjoy the freedom that the new 
pitches provide but also notice that it gets more difficult to organize the solo. However, since the initial fear has dissipated, some real creativity can occur.

“The National Standards provide music educators with a useful framework that encourages a well-rounded instructional program,” Larson continues. “However, the inclusion of improvisation activities, as a part of standard number three, is often underutilized, particularly in the middle and high school years. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, but one is clearly the fear of improvisation that is common among many musicians.”

Excerpted from “Improvisation without the Fear Factor” by Robert Larson, originally published in Winter 2008 VMEA Notes

Robert Larson, D.M.A. is Associate Professor, Director of Jazz Studies at Shenandoah University.

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–Nick Webb, February 23, 2011, ©The National Association for Music Education