Teaching Improvising in Performance Classes – Regardless of Your Experience in Jazz

by Mark Hiebert

Date Posted: May 04, 2016

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Recently, I encountered an article that offered this statement on teaching beginning jazz band:

“We explain how jazz is the first truly American music, then I ask ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a math test and be guaranteed an A on it no matter what you did?’ That is how improvisation works.”

At first I was angry that someone would share that with students. Then, I was disappointed for the students knowing that this was probably their terminal experience with improvising, and that this advice (given to them from someone I’m sure they trust and respect) is the most detailed advice they will likely receive about improvising music for the rest of their lives.

This caused me to think through some of the other misconceptions I have heard around the concept of improvising.

“That kid is our soloist, because he just gets it… he’s obviously a natural.”“You can’t teach improvising because you just have to ‘feel’ it and there aren’t any rules.”

I can appreciate that it can seem daunting to improvise with these misconceptions in mind. Most people would stop themselves from creating something new after they’ve been told that they aren’t the “chosen one” or that they obviously can’t “feel”.

We, as educators, need to provide talent-neutral statements that include open-ended ideas and guidelines for improvising without limiting our statement to a prescriptive method or style. In other words, we need to empower students to be creative by helping them develop and understand guidelines for different styles of music. Teaching the “Bb Blues Scale” really doesn’t go very far at all in making a student sound like a mature jazz improviser and goes even less far in any other style or genre of music.

"Even a perfectly constructed scale will sound immature if it’s played irrespective of the style of the rhythm section." - Mark Hiebert

Here are some valuable points about improvising that might enable a teacher (regardless of their level of familiarity with jazz) to include improvising as part of their classroom curriculum and to provide tips for young students approaching improvising that will help them develop as musically informed performers and improvisers.

What is improvising?

Improvising (music) is the act of spontaneously creating new music in respect to a specific style or system of musical guidelines.

I’m using this definition for two primary reasons. First, for most jazz improvising that would be encountered in the music classroom, mature soloists are far more likely to sound mature when they are rhythmically, dynamically, and tonally in sync with the style rather than focused on exclusively being harmonically accurate in the music. There are many wrong notes that can sound just fine if they are played confidently and rhythmically with a style-specific inflection, but even a perfectly constructed scale will sound immature if it’s played irrespective of the style of the rhythm section.

Secondly, students are still perfectly capable of (and should be encouraged to) improvise in ways that haven’t been defined by a style. Students can create their own frameworks and games to collectively improvise during class, even if the music doesn’t sound like jazz, rock, pop or classical music.

How do you improvise with a group?

You can be a master improviser by understanding the style of the music and interacting with the style of the music.

Students and teachers who want to learn to improvise need to spend significant time listening to music. Listening to music is not equal to playing half of “The Complete Atomic Basie” while the students unpack their instruments. Listening to music (for learning purposes) involves dissecting and understanding the roles of the different ensemble members and how the different parts come together to make the whole picture.

Students can learn a lot about improvising with a group of musicians when they engage in picking out each of those instruments from a big band or small group jazz recording. As a very general example, in swing styles, the drummer plays quarter notes on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, while the snare drum and bass drum provide accents and bumps to certain beats; the bass player plays mostly quarter notes that should line up with the ride cymbal of the drums; and the guitar and piano provide chord patterns that fit rhythmically inside the groove of the bass and drums (maybe even complimenting or pushing against the implied accents of the snare and bass drum).

"Improvising (music) is the act of spontaneously creating new music in respect to a specific style or system of musical guidelines." - Mark Hiebert

After a student can identify the jobs of the other musicians in the band, it is much easier to interact as an improviser. It can be liberating for a student to realize that the bass and drums can function as their metronome. They get the chance to relax and listen to their peers while they are being musically supported by a foundation of time and rhythm. Additionally, students who are listening to the other instruments and understand that they are playing “with the group” not “over the chord changes”, will also have an easier time matching the other musicians dynamically and melodically.

How do you practice improvising with your group?

Teachers have many options to create activities that promote listening skills and style analysis. Here are a few:

Create Games for your Ensemble to Play This is a very fun way to get students to engage in listening while they play. Allow them to create rules by which a song will be created. In other words, there is no lead sheet or preconceived arrangement, but rather some kind of musical algorithm for the students to interact with. There doesn’t need to be a soloist, just an impromptu composition by the entire group. The students might say, “We will play in Bb, and the rhythm section will play in a swing style. Maybe the trombones can play short rhythms and the saxophones can play a melody while the trumpets add something every fourth bar.” Whether the composition is a total success or a major failure, there is a platform for talking about the elements of composition and how those should inform you as an improviser and performer.

Teach songs by ear Learning songs by ear won’t take away from your students’ ability to read music. By contrast, seeing chord symbols can severely limit your students’ ability to listen as they play. The blues is a great way to start. Have your students solfege the bass notes and play them on their instruments. Then, play games with call and response and rhythm just on the roots of the chords.

Call and Response Games Let the rhythm section walk a bass line over a single chord. Choose a student to play simple rhythms in 4/4 time for the other students to copy. Stop the band when a student plays a rhythm that doesn’t fit within the metronome of the rhythm section or when you can hear that something doesn’t sound stylistically appropriate. If you aren’t sure what is wrong, experiment with different musical elements until the student is playing short, simple phrases that also sound mature (even on one note). Most of the time, fixing the rhythm (especially that students may rush to the downbeats) or the volume (students are playing too softly to produce a clear tone that projects) will make a student sound mature very quickly.

"Listening to music (for learning purposes) involves dissecting and understanding the roles of the different ensemble members and how the different parts come together to make the whole picture." - Mark Hiebert

What is our charge as educators?

Sometimes teaching other styles of music that we are less familiar with is a daunting task. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you have specialized in a certain area or facet of music, and still have other areas to grow in. Music is such an incredibly expansive subject that you could learn more about it every day for the rest of your life and still have more to learn. With that in mind, we have to be music students along side the students in our class. We still need to continue to train our ears to engage in analyzing music from an aural perspective and challenging our own perception of style and genre so that we can be better and more informed musicians and teachers.

It can be challenging for us to keep learning or it can be exciting to learn along with the people we are teaching.

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