Refresh Your Music Program with Improvisation, Part 2

“Improvisation is a great way to refresh your music program and add a little excitement to your rehearsals,” says Lisa Werner, the Wisconsin MEA state chair for jazz education. She starts her students off with exercises focusing on rhythmic, pentatonic, and key center improvisation (see Part 1). Next, they move on to:

Chordal Improvisation

Help students understand progressions and create chordal solos.

  • If you’re working with a jazz tune, the chords are given to you in the solo or rhythm sections. With a larger ensemble piece, you’ll have to do the analysis.
  • Once you have all the chords, distribute them to students. Get them used to hearing the movement of the chords. Have the rhythm section play them or you can play them on the piano.
  • Help students feel the movement by having them play “digital patterns”—patterns based on the scale degrees of the chord.
  • Example: Have students play the 1st, 3rd, and 5th of each scale in quarter notes for every measure of the progression. Rest on beat 4 if you’re in 4/4 time.
  • Have students play that pattern over the entire progression so they understand the chord qualities and motion of the progression.
  • Once the students understand, they can mix up the patterns to create a chordal solo.


Get your students transcribing melodies.

  • You don’t have to choose great artists’ solos right away. Practice letting the students figure out everyday melodies by ear (like the Jeopardy theme).
  • Once students figure out a melody, encourage them to include it in their next improvised solo.
  • Eventually, you can direct students toward transcribing stylistic solos.

Where to Add Solos

If there’s not a solo section in your jazz chart, fill in the rests and/or find the spot that makes the most musical sense.

  • Use the form of the piece as a guide. In an ABA piece, the solo section could go after the last A section. Repeat the A section to close out the piece.
  • Choose a song your students won’t mind extending.
  • If you’re working with elementary band or orchestra students, you can appoint one student to solo by filling in the rests of a song. Repeat the song, giving each student a chance to improvise. Or, with a larger class, each student could have one set of rests to fill in.

Read Part 1

Adapted from, “Improvisation: The Key to Refreshing Your Music Program,” by Lisa Werner, originally published in the April 2009 issue of the Wisconsin School Musician. Used with permission.

Lisa Werner is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher who teaches band and orchestra at North Lake School in northwestern Waukesha County, Wisconsin.