Improving Improvising

Mike Lawson • • August 3, 2018

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Teaching students to improvise can be one of the most challenging things we do as teachers. We spend so much time practicing written music. Even in jazz band, the focus is not always on developing improvisation skills. Here are some helpful tips to help your students improve their improvisation.

1. Once your students are familiar with all of the major and minor scales, they need to be proficient in pentatonic scales in every key. Pentatonic scales are what jazz music is derived from. If you flat the 5th and add a 7th, you get a blues scale. So, the basic foundation of jazz improvisation is pentatonic.

2. Have your students practice primary triad movements in different keys. They can practice I-V-I and I-IV-V-I. Have them do this in all twelve major keys.

3. Once they are familiar with basic triad movements, have them add passing tones leading from triad to triad, possibly coming up with simple melodies. The melodies don’t have to be Mozart-worthy. Simplicity is perfectly fine.

4. Have your students add rhythms to the passing tones within the simple triads. Let them know that there is no right or wrong. This is an exercise in creativity.

5. Have your students learn the “Circle of 4ths” and the “Circle of 5ths.” Have them start on C, and point out that the chord to the right is the V chord G, and the chord to the left is the IV chord F. The secondary triads (relative minors) are inside the circle (A minor, E minor, and D minor.) Great compositions can be made by using just these six chords.

6. Have your students improvise on any blues chord (pentatonic scale with lowered 5th and 7th) and go through all twelve keys. Blues chords sound good and they are an easy platform to create melodies. This will build confidence.

7. Have your students play a simple twelve-bar blues progression in the key of C. Having them play and improvise to audio backing tracks is also a great tool to train their ear. The twelve-bar blues chord in the key of C should be as follows: I I I I – IV – IV – I I – V – IV- I I.

8. Play along with your students. Have them improvise on the C blues chord while you play the progression. Then switch roles and have the student play the progression while the teacher improvises.

9. Utilize ‘question and answer’ improvisation. This is where the teacher plays two measures of improvisation in a blues key, and then the student plays two bars. This will help cultivate ideas for them as well as build confidence.

10. Have your student record themselves playing the twelve-bar blues progression on their cell phone. They can play back the recording and improvise over it. This is a great way to get your students to use their cell phones for something productive for a change!

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