Teaching Students How to Play the Changes

by Shawn Royer

Date Posted: December 02, 2023

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When it comes to teaching jazz, there are many wonderful methods out there, but there seems to be a very obvious and significant divide between the approaches, with most falling into one of two categories. The first category contains methods that suggest that improvisers must know and be able to do an extraordinary amount, including knowing several types of scales in all keys, patterns in all twelve keys, bebop heads, transcriptions, music theory, and must have the ability to play by ear, before they can really improvise jazz. This category includes many of the popular self-help books and play-alongs. While they are not always compatible with full ensemble pedagogy, they are certainly a valuable contribution to the world of jazz education.

The second category is a bit more watered-down, the logic being that this is an easier approach to get beginners improvising quickly. This category includes most of what’s currently available in the way of method books for teaching full ensemble, and often encourages directors to give the students one scale, such as a blues scales, to use over a blues progression or over modal changes. While both categories provide meaningful and valuable tools that we can and should employ while teaching jazz, neither category has really provided much in the way of resources for educators to help us break down the complicated process of navigating chord changes while improvising jazz within the full ensemble setting.

Baby Steps

In my current positions at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and at Marian University in Indianapolis, I get to work with pre-service music educators before they enter the field, and I observe them in their student-teaching placements. One thing they often struggle with, whether in concert band or jazz band, is how to teach – basic pedagogical skills. Here’s some good advice I give them:

When it comes to teaching students how to improvise jazz over chord changes in a full ensemble setting, the following guidelines work. Here is what I do…

1. Start by giving the students RULES, GUIDELINES, and STRUCTURE.

This is what they are used to getting in concert band, and the idea of complete freedom to improvise is terrifying to many students! Therefore, start with a blues and just have them play the root of each chord on beat one of every measure, rest all other beats. They will learn the sound of the changes this way (form, time, and structure).

Then, have them do the same thing, but this time, allow them to fill in the blanks with improvised quarter-notes.


How can there possibly be a wrong note when what they are improvising has never been written before? Remember, there really are no wrong notes. There are notes of tension and notes of release. There are notes of motion and notes of resolution. There are notes that are more dissonant and notes that are more consonant. They will use their ears to figure out which ones they prefer and when. The only thing they need to worry about is LANDING ON THE ROOT WHEN THE CHORD CHANGES (eventually, the goal will be to land on a CHORD TONE when the chord changes, but just start by focusing on the ROOT).

3. Allow them to do these improvisation exercises TOGETHER as an ENSEMBLE.

Yes, it will sound chaotic, but there are several advantages. First, it allows students to experiment without being judged by their peers. Nobody can hear them because everyone’s playing at the same time! However, it still allows you to hear who is struggling and who is getting it because everyone should be in UNISON (eventually a harmony) on beat one of every measure (eventually, only on beat one whenever the chord changes). After they get comfortable, allow 2-3 people to stand up at a time and improvise in “trios” and “duos”. You’ll be shocked at how quickly your quiet, most reserved students will be ready to volunteer to trio, duo, or solo!

After they get good at this, move on to having students precede each chord change with the note that is a half-step above or below the note they are about to play on beat one. This will teach them to think about how to get to where they are going, rather than worrying about what to play over each chord. Processing chord changes is all about learning to think ahead and negotiate how to get to where you are going.

Eventually, have them improvise in eighth notes, incorporate rests, and trade measures, fours, and rhythms with the drummer. Have them improvise in partners, listening to each other, imitating each other, and building on each other’s melodies. Have them play guide tones (thirds and sevenths) and use those to create their own backgrounds.

Remember, everyone works at a different pace, so allow students to stay on the earlier steps if they are not ready to progress to eighth notes. Since everyone is landing on the root (or third or whatever you’re doing that day) together, you will still be able to assess their progress in the group setting.

Other Full Ensemble Activities

In addition to these types of activities, you will want to do group transcription, learning tunes from recordings, with your group. Also, play your horn with them! You can all learn together, and they will learn so much from you, even if you’re not a professional jazz musician. Do call-and-response with them, starting with just a couple of notes, and go around the room, allowing each student to call and everyone to respond together. Most importantly, start listening to jazz together, and inspire them to listen to jazz outside of class for fun!

If you like the activities and ideas I’ve presented here, I would encourage you to check out my website. I have uploaded various free resources that I have created for educators, including power-points and worksheets, that you can download to aid you in presenting these activities to your students (www.shawngoodmanjazz.com). I’m also working now on putting together a comprehensive and interactive online program for teaching jazz in your classroom. If you’re interested in receiving an email when it’s ready, shoot me an email, shawn@shawngoodmanjazz.com.

Thank you to all the jazz educators out there for all you do, and please keep in touch!

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