As a middle school music educator, I found that the middle school/junior high school years provide an excellent opportunity to introduce kids to jazz improvisation. Most middle school and junior high level jazz ensemble music arrangements involve only a few chord changes making it a favorable time for students to learn the art of improvisation. In today's post, I'm sharing some of my favorite improvisational ideas that are not usually taught and sometimes forgotten.
Visit this page for all of the materials discussed in this blog post: 20 Jazz Riffs for Improvisation
1. Getting Started
Learning to improvise involves two essential activities -listening to jazz and acquiring a vocabulary of scales, chords, and melodies. A practical way to include improvisation in your music program is to connect it to the repertoire. Try to select one tune for your jazz program for the purpose of providing students with the opportunity to improvise. Generally, a diatonic or blues scale tune is appropriate for beginning level improvisers, because these types of tunes usually require the use of just one scale for improvisation. For example, my jazz ensemble is learning to perform Blue Train (by John Coltrane), Arranged by Paul Murtha, its changes in the Key of F Concert and moderate tempo makes this a great tune for beginning middle school improvisers.
2. Memorizing Scales
Scales and chords serve as the starting point for improvisers to create their own melodies. The pentatonic scale is probably the most adaptable group of pitches used in popular music, jazz and classical music. Once your students begin to work with the scale, you will notice how quickly they are able to memorize and work with these five notes. In fact, as part of my jazz ensemble rehearsal warm-up, I teach my students to play the appropriate pentatonic scale and require the students to memorize this scale for future rehearsals. Students later learn how to create their own melodies using the pentatonic scale over the changes in the solo section of Blue Train (by John Coltrane), Arranged by Paul Murtha.
What is a Pentatonic Scale?
3. Memorizing Melodies
Once the students have memorized the necessary pentatonic scale, I teach the students to perform ten 2-measure riffs using the pentatonic scale, which I also use as part of the bands daily warm-up. These riffs serve as a starting point and an example to help students to create their own melodies later.
4. Creating Melodies: Applying the Scale & Riffs
Once the students have memorized both the scale and riffs, I have the students participate in the improvisation training exercises below. Be sure to give your students ample time (e.g. a few rehearsals) to master each exercise before trying the next.
"Students we are going to go around the ensemble and everyone is going to create a jazz solo using the riffs we learned together. However, you will follow the following parameters...”
- Exercise No. 1 -Play either a 2 measure riff or a 2 measure rest, but you may not play the riffs in the same order they have been learned.
- Exercise No. 2 -Have the students add a pick-up note to one or more of the riffs.
- Exercise No 3 -The students will alter the riffs by extending pitches and/ or repeating a portion of a riff.
- Exercise No. 4 -Have the students create their own 2 bar Riffs using one of the previously learned riffs as a starting point.