Teaching Improvisation to Large Ensembles

Mike Lawson • • October 5, 2017

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Teach improvisation? There’s no time for that in my classroom. Isn’t that just for jazz bands, anyway?

While a large part of most jazz curriculums, improvisation is a musical skill that is often overlooked in concert bands and orchestras. The very first NAfME 2014 Standard is to create, and improvisation is a large part of that standard. But how can we teach improvisation in a large rehearsal setting?

Hal Leonard recently released two sets of books to aid in this process: Easy Improvisation (for band instruments), and Improvisation Made Easy (for violin, viola, or cello/bass). Either set can be used in an ensemble rehearsal setting, and includes online and downloadable audio tracks.

A variety of styles are included: jazz, mambo, R&B, country, EDM, cha-cha, rock ‘n’ roll, zydeco, blues, funk, celtic, bossa nova, disco, cinematic, calypso, reggae, and many more.

When learning to improvise, often a challenge is that the musician is given too much freedom. “Just play what you feel” does little good, and is the opposite of what most students have been taught from the beginning: to play exactly what’s on the page. The fear of playing a wrong note – in front of the whole class! – can stifle exploration and creativity. These books give the student sample notes or solos to play, so they are free to experiment with rhythms and motives.

As a teacher, another challenge is the number of players that will need to play alone. If there are 40 in my large ensemble, what will 39 players do while one is testing the waters of improvisation?

If so many are sitting and listening, that can be boring for them, and intimidating for the soloist. These books solve that problem by keeping everyone playing. Vamps, or repeated sections, are included on each exercise. These vamps help set the stage for the soloist and get all musicians involved in the style of the music, and can be played during solos. They also keep everyone involved and in the learning process. When it’s their turn to improvise, they already have an idea of some rhythms to use. Also, there is no law that states only one soloist needs to play at a time. It’s okay to have multiple soloists playing at once.

Band Sample Lesson – Using Easy Improvisation (for band instruments)

• Play the sample scale given as a group. Student books are transposed into their correct key and octave, so everyone just plays. Scales are major, minor, pentatonic, or modal.

• Split students into groups, and play through the vamps. If you have time, it works well to have everyone play through all three vamps. They are short, so this is often worthwhile.

• Decide who will solo, and when. Ask for volunteers, or assign soloists or groups. (Hint: it’s ok to have the teacher solo, too! When playing, maybe make a “mistake” so students understand it’s okay to do so.)

• Vamp A plays once alone, and continues repeating. Vamp B joins on the second time, and continues repeating. Vamp C joins on the third time, and continues repeating.

• After vamp A plays its fourth vamp, the soloist(s) join in. They can either play one of the sample solos, or make up their own from the notes provided. Four measures of soloing is a good number at first.

• After four bars of soloing, let the vamps play alone for four bars before introducing a new soloist.

• Repeat steps 5 and 6 for as many soloists as you’d like. Then give a hand signal to end on beat one together.

Repeat steps 3 and 4 for as many soloists as you’d like. Then give a hand signal to end on beat one together.

Using the Included Audio

Both sets of books come with Playback+, which is online audio that is flexible in every way imaginable. It can be streamed or downloaded, slowed down without changing pitch, loop sections of your choosing, or change keys. Each exercise has a demonstration track, which includes rhythm instruments, chord changes, and all the notes on the page (played on a vibraphone). It also includes a background track, which includes only the rhythm instruments and chord changes.

Using the audio is a good way to introduce the style of an exercise, and gives the students an opportunity to hear the vamps before they are played. The books work well with the audio or without. With smaller groups – or even individuals – the audio can help play some of the background music, freeing students to try new things while improvising.

Tips for soloists

Relax! It’s impossible to evaluate yourself while creating a solo. Leave all your judgements behind and let go. There are no mistakes; this is your creation.

Try keeping your solo within the “groove” of the background vamps. When first starting, use one note with simple changes to the rhythm. Then, as you feel more comfortable, use two notes, then three, and so on. Gradually bring in more rhythmic variations and more notes.

• Remember that silence (rests) can also be part of a solo.

• Improvisation does not need to be fast playing.

• The more you improvise, the more comfortable you will become with it.

• Have fun!

About the books: Easy Improvisation is written for flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, horn, trombone, tuba, and keyboard percussion. Improvisation for Violin Made Easy, Improvisation for Viola Made Easy, and Improvisation for Cello and Bass Made Easy are written by Laurie Gabriel.

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