Improvisation Tools

Mike Lawson • Technology • August 16, 2012

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Who would have thought that a computer could be a music director’s best friend and right-hand man for teaching improvisation, the most personal and creative form of performance? In my four decades of teaching, I’ve incorporated several ways to teach improvisation, with and without technology. Like many people, I taught myself using excellent instructional materials by Jamey Aebersold, Jerry Coke, David Baker, and Dominic Spera, to name a few. And we’ve seen how the evolution and integration of technology has made improvisation instruction more exciting and accessible to all music students.

Still, there are challenges we face, particularly with teaching scales and chords, the building blocks of music, to students who have never listened to diverse forms of music, let alone studied music theory. When our tech-savvy students don’t know their scales and chords and do not hear or understand how they work together, we can now bring them up to speed with top-notch improvisation technology tools.

Play-along recordings by Music Minus One and Jamey Aebersold have been around since 1950 and 1996, respectively. Today’s play-along recordings are no longer static. Some customize tempos for practicing each track. Digital recorders also easily adjust tempos and can be quickly altered with complete accompaniments.

Few things are more challenging than teaching listening skills to students who read music better than they listen. Too often, ear training is restricted to just playing in-tune. But for improvising purposes, students can be encouraged and taught to hear jazz scales and chords, chord progressions, and transcribe solos, and there are a number of tools designed expressly for this purpose.

Four Sure-Fire Improv Tools 

Perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the entire industry is Debuting in 1998, this free site can make a huge difference. Developed by Larry Ross Norred, noted arranger for Jenson and Hal Leonard publications, is a chord/scale reference utility web site that can be used individually, in a private studio, or any classroom situation. You have an instant and exhaustive resource of musical examples in all chromatic keys for both treble and bass clef to view or hand out. Students can use these for self or group study and practice. I suggest that students print out some of the chords and scale pages and keep them in their music cases, since the material on this site can be printed and/or downloaded to any computer without charge. Or for a nominal fee, you can purchase a CD. It is organized in four sections:

  • Chords and Chord Scales in any key
  • Advanced Scales and Modes in any key
  • 54 Common Tone Chord Substitutions for any note
  • Frequently Asked Questions. The author answers questions by e-mail to encourage teachers and students to master their improvisational skills.

The array of chords goes far beyond basic major, Dorian, and Mixolydian scales, venturing into advanced levels of every chord type with altered tones through 13ths. Plus, it gives second and third alternative choices for more exotic harmonies. It is a comprehensive chord and scale thesaurus covering synthetic or altered scales, symmetrical, special modes, and more. Everything is notated in all keys for both treble and bass clefs. The chord substitution segment ingeniously provides chord choices for all melody notes with 54 common tone chord substitutions for any given note. An ear training and theory wonderland, is a musical feast for both improvisation and rhythm section comping.

The second area of instruction is perfectly timed to funnel students’ creative energy into improvisation. The newer generation of play-along recordings use the latest attractive computer capabilities to motivate solid, productive practice. SmartMusic by Makemusic is a software application that offers a lot of jazz technology tools with jazz patterns and popular play-along albums. Band-in-a-Box likewise offers the opportunity to create one’s own play-along accompaniments. For non-tech teachers, the fastest way to jump into the play-along market is with Alfred Publishing’s Jazz Play Along Series: The Music of Gordon Goodwin. These MP3 CD play-along albums include tempo-changing software along with additional pedagogy features that make them very effective. The C, B♭, E♭, and bass clef books have excellent small group arrangements, as well as available companion books for rhythm section, piano, bass, and drumset at easy, medium-easy, and medium-advanced levels. There are written melodies and sample jazz solos to listen to, study, and play along with while learning to improvise and comp with, as well as jazz choruses for soloing opportunities and helpful improvisation tips/suggestions for each tune. Students react very favorably to these charts.” Some of the Alfred Publishing’s play-alongs now have sample solos to listen to and to sing and play-along with.

In the December 2011 issue of SBO, I reviewed BAMtracks, a multimedia software that generates Jamey Aebersold’s 132-title recording library with complete digital altering capabilities and the best practices options in the industry, which is scheduled to hit the market this fall. Digital recorders can also have a positive impact when used with the vast play-along libraries because they can easily change the tempo to fit the needs of every student level. And you don’t need a computer. If you do a web search for “digital recorders with slow playback,” you will find a summary of digital recorders that can alter playback and modulation options. Superscope Technologies is the leader in this digital recorder market with speed/key playable tempo controls. Roland and Tascam are two other manufacturers who offer digital recorders with similar playback options. Prominent play-along publishers to choose from include Hal Leonard, Alfred Publishing, Jamey Aebersold, and Music Minus One.

Another play-along approach to consider is Audacity, a freeware digital sequencing program you and your students can download. Under the Effects pull-down menu, you can modify the recording track by speed, tempo and pitch. (This will require that you first convert the play-along file from a WAV recording to an MP3 and then reload the file.) It is an excellent sequencing application with lots of recording and playback capabilities for PC and Mac platforms. Garageband is a free Mac program that offers similar features. To see how easy it is accomplish this, check out this YouTube video:

The third tool deals with ear training, which is often the missing link that directors rarely have time to adequately cover. Jazz and ear training go hand-in-hand. The two leading ear-training applications are Auralia and Ear Master 5. Both offer a variety of jazz instructional tools. Ear Master 5 offers exercises with the on-screen notation, or you can enter the notes of your answers with the on-screen piano. Ear Master 5 includes a whole set of lessons dedicated to the characteristics of jazz music, including jazz chords and swing rhythms. Perhaps best of all, is the jazz tutorial with 211 lessons in their Pro and School versions that can add a lot to the instructional process and save both educators and students valuable time. Auralia also offers specific jazz ear-training drills for students. They can explore jazz instruction, covering scales, jazz scale and chord singing, chord imitation, jazz chords, jazz progressions, and jazz forms and rhythm styles.

The fourth and ultimate instructional area for improvisation focuses on helping students transcribe jazz solos. This is not a simple one-step process; it takes time and effort and a background in theory and aural skills. But once initiated, students are effectively on automatic pilot learning to improvise creatively and without intense teacher monitoring. They will be able to sing the solo licks, play them on their instruments, transcribe them, and then analyze the melodic and harmonic implications of the licks in relation to their chord progression. Without hesitation, Transcribe! is the most popular piece of transcription software in the field. This program slows down the recording while retaining the original key and can loop a solo repeatedly using a foot pedal controller to simplify the process. It will even allow users to transcribe videos. Transcribe! is available for both PC and Mac platforms and is easy to use, much like an analog recorder with enhanced audio playback options.

Closing Comments

This four-step process is jazz education in a nutshell, whether you choose to incorporate technology or not. Soloing skills take time to develop and mature, and the sooner students start learning the elements of improvisation, your job gets easier. Middle school is a perfect time to introduce students to improvisation. Their techno-savvy minds will gravitate to these training tools. And, above all, you don’t need to be a tech person to download the training materials at, use the easy tempo-changing play-along recordings, or try the ear-training software. When these four areas are taught, students’ solos will take on a new life. Don’t hesitate to experiment with these improvisation tools presented. They work as advertised.

By incorporating technology, your students will be better informed and more receptive to practicing with a purpose and excited to strut their newfound creative skills. To illustrate how the comprehensive musician thinks when creating an improvised solo, consider these closing summary suggestions from an innovative resource in the next generation of jazz play-alongs, The Alfred Jazz Play Along Series: The Music of Gordon Goodwin:

  1. Listening: Listening is essential to improvisation. Concentrated listening develops a mental muscle that you need to build up – the stronger the focus, the better the solo will be. Focus on listening to yourself and the entire rhythm section and then react accordingly.
  2. Hear it, Sing it, Play it: Listen to each tune, the sample solo and the chord progression. Repeat this again and, this time, sing the melody and the sample solo aloud. Repeat often. Listen for intervals and chord movement that appeals to you.
  3. Form: Always know where you are in the form of the song. This is easy when playing the melody but can be a challenge when soloing. Listen for pivot chords – chords that will move your ear to a new section or a new key center. Pivot chords help you keep your place in the form.
  4. Chords and Scales: At the minimum, learn the Mixolyidan and Dorian scales in all keys. The more you know about the notes in each chord and the related scale, the more knowledgeable and prepared you will be. Study and learn the notes in the chords, chord extensions and the scales that apply. However, one does not improvise by simply playing chord and scale notes. Chords and scales are tools to assist and guide you in creating your own improvisation.
  5. Patterns: Practice various patterns, especially ii-V patterns, and then apply them into your solos right away.
  6. Sound: Always strive for a good sound on your instrument. This is the first impression a listener will have on your playing and will determine your musical voice. This applies to all instruments.
  7. Right Notes: How do I play the correct notes when I improvise? Connecting all aspects of listening: “hear it-sing it-play it,” knowledge of chords and scales, using and trusting your ear, and trial and error will all contribute to playing the “right” notes. Also regarding note selection, learn to play it and then let go of it. Whether it was the best thing you ever played, or the worst thing you ever played, it’s in the past. Forget it and move on! Avoid being distracted by what you have already played. Play each solo as if it’s your last.
  8. Devices: Improvisational devices are good tools. Sequences, patterns, imitation, quotes, and snippets of melody are all devices. But the mere regurgitation of devices is not really improvising. Use them with deliberation and strive to maintain a balance in your solo. An interesting solo will have good emotional content but also good intellectual content as well.
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