The Beginner's Guide to Improvising!

There are two misconceptions about jazz that prevent many teachers from incorporating improvisation into their curriculum. One widely held belief is that students need to have all of your scales and chords memorized before they can try to improvise. A second misconception involves -thinking of improvisation with the end in mind, rather than as a skill developed over time. As a result of these long held beliefs, music educators are often reluctant to explore the art of improvisation with their students.

"We teach best what we most need to learn."  -Richard Bach

In today's post, I'm sharing a three step guide for teaching improvisation. This method can be used by all music teachers regardless of their level of experience with jazz. In fact, these concepts are used by professional jazz musicians to practice improvisation and can also be used with students who are at the very beginning of learning to play their instrument.

1. Set Limitations

We don't want our beginning improvisers to be overwhelmed with trying to do to much all at once. This approach could lead to a great deal of frustration and cause someone to give up. By limiting our students to three notes (1-b3-4 of Concert Bb) we can help them to focus on the fundamental skills they need to begin to create their own solos, which is learning to play in time. Consequently, Bb-Db-Eb is the first three notes of a blues scale. Since, the students will be confined to using these three notes. They will be able to focus their energy on learning to play "in-time" with the rhythm section rather than worrying about lots of fingerings and a bunch of note choices. 

Photo by  Dolo Iglesias  on  Unsplash

2. Choose the Accompaniment

The next step is to choose the type of accompaniment. The accompaniment can be your jazz ensemble drummer playing a simple swing feel, a play along recording, a metronome, a drum loop or no accompaniment at all. If you use a play along, be sure to select the 1-b3-4 of the scale in the correct key of the backing track for each transposing instrument.

Photo by  Dolo Iglesias  on  Unsplash

3. Improvise

Help your students improvise using the three note limitations. Encourage your students to begin their solos by playing a few notes and a variety of rhythms with lots of space in-between. Remind the students to avoid playing to much. Space is important part of any good solo. Reassure your students by emphasizing that they take time to enjoy making their own music rather than worrying about impressing their friends. Instead, the focus of this improvisation exercise is to concentrate on the rhythm and to learn to play "in-time" along with the accompaniment. 

Figure 1.1 Sample Student Improvisation