Ready, Set, Improvise!

When your students are improvising for the first time, they’re learning a new language. MENC member, mentor, and jazz educator David Kay compares learning to improvise to learning to speak: “It’s somewhat equivalent to imitating words, putting them together in a meaningful context, and experimenting with saying things to see if they make sense–or ‘feel right.’ ”

Kay recommends the following for teachers working with beginners:

  • As needed, take improvisation lessons or attend jazz education workshops.
  • Limit theoretical instruction initially. Set up what you will improvise upon by primarily using aural instruction.
  • Make sure you play with the best tone possible. Instill in students a deep sense of a steady beat by instructing them to always subdivide the beat in their heads.
  • Play recordings of the most influential players for your students, pointing out things initially like tonal qualities, energy, steady time feel, etc.
  • Have students echo phrases, gradually moving to creating their own counter-response. For instance, they can alternate one or two measures with the teacher or another player.
  • Start with a major scale setting, which will be technically familiar, and likely aurally familiar. Use a playalong recording as needed. And, it could be reduced to a major pentatonic scale given the context. The blues scale should be introduced with a little more talk, since this scale includes some notes that aren’t in the chord it is often being used with (typically against dominant chords in a blues progression) but that still sound great in that context. The blues scale is a fail-safe scale (all notes will contextually make sense–if employed in the right harmonic setting), but it’s still helpful to first provide a little pedagogical set-up. And, the blues scale is a great vehicle to be taught be ear. All teachers should learn it.
  • Be specific in your guidance, as many beginners have no context for making music in this manner, rather than only saying, “Just feel it.”
  • Help students understand how sounds relate to a given harmonic background, but, at all costs, don’t say a note choice is “wrong.” You want students to know that all 12 notes can be used–because they can! For example, when a student plays the fourth step of a major scale, use this as a teaching moment for players to be alert to sounds that do not seem to reinforce the sound of the jamming setting. If you can, as an improviser/teacher, show the student how moving from the 4 to the 3 or to the 5 brings them to a primary tone in a major chord/scale, and how such a move can generate a very positive feeling when one understands its meaning.

Improvisation, like a foreign language, can be intimidating. Students just starting out need a fail-safe musical and interpersonal environment, which means simple parameters to guide them to success.

“It’s an artistically damaging announcement to tell students they’ve played a ‘wrong note’ in the chord,” says Kay. “I have heard this phrase used in workshops given at music education conferences and it makes me wince. There’s so much flexibility in how you can utilize the sound resources at your disposal, and although beginning students will not fully understand how it all works, at least you have set them up conceptually in the right way.”

David Kay is on the music faculty of University School in suburban Cleveland where at the high school level he directs two jazz ensembles and a jazz combo, a guitar ensemble, and teaches music theory. He also is on the jazz faculty at the Interlochen Arts Camp (since 1988) where he directs a middle school jazz ensemble and jazz improvisation classes at the middle and high school level.

–Anne Wagener, September 9, 2009, © National Association for Music Education