Teaching Improvisation at School

Improvisation is among the most important elements of jazz music. It can take years to understand and perfect, but the results are worth the work. Improvisation makes students more creative and boosts musicianship.

Teaching improvisation in the big band setting can be challenging. Some schools offer extra time to teach improvisation separately but for most programs it happens during rehearsal. With impending performances and limited rehearsal time, the pressure mounts.

Keep it simple

Dr. Neil Wetzel of Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania says the key to teaching improvisation is keeping it simple. Stick with easier musical forms like the blues. Limit the number of tunes to focus on for instruction to set students up for success. A blues scale will help students sound good immediately, making them feel comfortable with improvisation from the start.

Listen up!

Incorporating listening exercises is critical. In a session at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association conference, Dr. Wetzel explained the importance of listening to jazz. “If you’ve never seen an elephant, it would be pretty hard to describe it in writing,” says Wetzel. “Jazz is a language and you can’t learn it through reading only.” He suggests learning one phrase or chorus at a time, aurally. Pick an easy solo by a master like Miles Davis’s solo onSo What or Freddie Freeloader for the student to learn by ear. Remember to start slowly. Students should resist the urge to play faster patterns in their solos. The brain needs time to anticipate the next chords.

Scale it down

Jazz uses theory in real time. With so much information to cover, students can feel overwhelmed. To cover as much material as possible, use scale patterns focusing on one concert key per week. Play arpeggios in major, minor and diminished triads on the tonic note and also basic scale patterns (such as the major scale in thirds) to help students gain facility in multiple keys. Once triads are mastered, introduce broken seventh chords in all forms.

About Neil Wetzel

Dr. Wetzel is Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Moravian College; his duties include teaching saxophone, directing the Moravian College BIG Band, and overseeing the jazz studies program. He holds both a Bachelor of Music (Jazz) and Master of Arts in Teaching degrees from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He received his EdD at Teacher’s College, Columbia University; his studies there focused on learning theories and jazz pedagogy.

—Victoria Chamberlin, April 29, 2011, © National Association for Music Education