Three Simple Steps to Inspiring More Students to Take Risks and Improvise

by Hayes Greenfield

Over the years scores of band directors and music teachers have asked me to work with them to help inspire more of their students to grasp the freedom to take risks and improvise on their instruments. 

All of these band directors and teachers are genuinely caring and soulful musicians who enjoy jazz, but for what ever reasons are not that comfortable teaching their students how to improvise outside of the traditional basic jazz pedagogy of delineating which notes are the “correct” notes to be played over which chords. Unfortunately this approach scares more students than it helps. 

In every class there are always two or three fearless kids that love risk, and end up overshadowing their fellow students and get all of the solos, much to the dismay of the band directors and music teachers. The most unfortunate aspect of this is that there are always several shy students who, once given the opportunity to grasp the basic concept of what improvising is, blossom and often prove to have better sounds, stronger rhythmic command, and more sophisticated musical and melodic ideas than the two or three fearless students who get all the solos and attention.

Step I - Embracing What’s Important

A trick question:

What is the first thing you listen to when you hear any kind
of music?

1. Choice of notes?
2. Rhythm?
3. What instruments are playing?
4. Idiom?
5. All of the above?

The Answer: None of the above.

The first thing one hears when they hear music, is the Quality of the Sound. Regardless of what is being played, the idiom, or the context, it’s simply the quality of the sound, not the choice of notes or harmony or rhythm. If someone has a poor sound nobody will want to listen regardless of any technical prowess. 

A good sound is the first element of freedom. One can play any note against any chord as long as they have a good sound. Couple that with a good rhythmic feel and clear ideas or shapes of lines and the choice of specific notes becomes irrelevant, and the player is golden and will command listeners.

Quality of Sound is first!
Quality of the Line, Feel, and Rhythm is second.
Specific Notes and Harmony is least important.

"A good sound is the first element of freedom." - Hayes Greenfield

Step II - Improvising Is like Speaking

Improvising with our instruments is like speaking. More than the words we choose it’s the inflection of our voices, the pitch, the rhythm of our words and how they fit together that convey and express the kind of emotion or experience one wants to share. Whether it’s about love, anger, excitement, or sadness, we use all kinds of phrases, dynamics, accents, short, long, fast, slow, one word, many words, all depending on the intention of what one wants to communicate at that moment. Playing and improvising musical lines, melodies and textures of sound is exactly the same. It’s the inflection of how we put abstract sounds together that makes the difference. As importantly, it is about listening to what is going on around you, and like most conversations, depending on one's listening abilities, the conversations can either be fruitful, inspiring, and enlightening—like good music. Or flat, unrewarding, one-sided ranting, and/or irritating—like bad music.

Scatting silly syllables is always a good place to begin with, and the funnier the sounds, the better. Count in four, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, …etc. and all the while, make sure to snap your fingers on two and four so it swings. Now start riffing. If you can sing it, you can play it. Say short phrases, long ones, loud and soft. Mix it up, use different pitches and accents. No one speaks in monotones, not even computer voices anymore. Change up the rhythms. Have fun with it with your students. Have everyone scat in unison so that no one is singled out or can feel embarrassed. Create friendly competition with having two people scatting a conversation.

Step III – Embrace the Gift of Counterpoint

Why is improvising so scary to learn?

Traditional jazz pedagogy begins with identifying which notes to play on any given chord that will sound “correct.” For so many students who are just getting a basic handle on their instruments or who may be struggling with the basic technical “language” of music, this can be totally daunting and frightening. No wonder so many sadly prefer to opt out rather then risk being embarrassed by playing a “clunker.” Nobody wants to sound badly and play a “wrong” or “sour” note especially in front of their peers.

So what to do about this?

The Holy Grail for getting your shyest instrumentalist to take the risk of improvising with their instruments is simply this - in the beginning just eliminate all chordal instruments from the mix. Without harmony being played – piano, guitar or vibes, no wrong note exists. Have the drums play very simply and gently at a moderate, comfortable tempo, just keeping time on the ride cymbal, playing two and four on the hi-hat, and a few quiet accents on the snare, while the bass just walks even quarter notes with good time, playing literally any combination of notes, then anything that the most frightened student soloist plays will sound good. There are absolutely no “wrong” or “sour” notes that can be played with two-part counterpoint between the bass and the soloist. As simplistic as this may sound, it is this critical and prescient moment of success that frees the most frightened student to embrace risk-taking and musical improvisation. And it is this success that drives, engages, and inspires students to want to learn more about the technical aspects of the language of music, all of which deepens their abilities to embrace and communicate with music on much greater levels of complexity. Once they cross this threshold chords and scales become their friends not their enemies.

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