Beginning improvisers need our support. We can give them a blues, mixolydian, or dorian scale, but a scale is not a strategy. Providing students with explicit, straightforward strategies not only helps them develop their skills, but also builds their confidence in their abilities to improvise. This belief that they have the tools to improvise jazz (also known as self-efficacy) is an important part of growing as an improviser.
I teach improvisation in a jazz combo context, which I highly recommend. It offers an authentic jazz improvisation environment (as opposed to a like-instrument lesson), encourages collaboration, and affords student musicians more improv time than they’d get in a big band rehearsal. That said, improvisation can be introduced in any musical context!
Below is a sequence of jazz improvisation strategies to introduce to beginning improvisers over time. It is by no means an exhaustive list! Encourage students to create their own strategies, too. For example, many student musicians will try variations on the head of the tune before you ever suggest it. If it interests them, support it!
Last winter I had an 8th-grade bass player who wanted to quote “Jingle Bells” in a 12-bar blues improvisation, and he learned a lot from figuring out how to use a motive from that melody as a focal point. Last spring I had a 6th grade piano player and a 5th-grade trombone player who were interested in using expressive devices as the “themes” for their improvisations (e.g., grace notes, glissandi), which helped them figure out how to use those techniques and how to balance them with other musical ideas. It also honored their desire to follow their own interests and express themselves.
Above all, with all strategies, emphasize musical and personal expression. It’s not just about the “right” notes and/or rhythms, it’s about having something to say and having the ways and means to say it.
1. Know the Head of the Tune
The first step to improvising is knowing the head of the tune, the source material. Students should know how to sing and play the original melody in the tune’s musical context, which includes the rhythmic feel and harmonic form. It’s important for them to know that the original melody relates to the rhythmic feel and harmonic form in the same way that any new melody they create will, too. Rhythm section players obviously have their own ensemble roles, which, unlike horn players, does not always include playing the melody, but they should know the head of the tune, too!
2a. Root Note Rhythms
An early strategy for horn players, guitar players, piano players, and bass players can be to create rhythmic motives/phrases/variations using swung and syncopated patterns and root notes. Student musicians can experiment with shorter and longer phrases as they like.
Later, they can add neighbor tones as a way to move away from root notes and come back. I like to stick with diatonic neighbor tones at first (e.g., if it’s a Bb7 chord, I suggest to students that they use the neighbor tones from a Bb mixolydian scale, which, for the root note “Bb” are the lower neighbor “Ab” and upper neighbor “C”). In my experience, guitar, piano, and bass players will often show interest in chromatic neighbors (more so than horn players). Let them explore!
2b. One Bar Phrases
Drummers need strategies, too! When I introduce “root note rhythms” to non-drummers, I introduce John Riley’s ideas about orchestrating rhythmic motives/phrases around the drum kit, which he outlines in his book, The Art of Bop Drumming. Two of the reasons that this is such a valuable tool for drummers are: 1) it helps them focus on small, potent ideas, upon which they can later elaborate, and 2) it encourages them to consider their melodic potential.
3. Chord Tone Rhythms
Like “root note rhythms,” this strategy encourages student musicians to create rhythmic motives/phrases/variations using swung and syncopated patterns and chord tones. This is a great strategy for a mixed-ability group, or just for differentiation in general. Some students will want to stick primarily to root notes, while others will be ready to move on to guide tones and voice leading (3rds to 7ths).
Later, students can add passing tones as a way to get from one chord tone to another. I usually start with diatonic passing tones (e.g., for a Bb7, from a Bb mixolydian scale, or for a Cm7, from a C dorian scale), but chromatic passing tones can create a neat effect that some students are attracted to – again, let them explore!
4. Question & Answer
This is exactly what it sounds like. Technically, the “question” is the same each time, and the “answer” varies. In my experience, though, students also like to experiment with “call & response,” in which the “call” changes and the “response” stays the same, or to create unique two or four bar phrases that complement each other.
Student musicians can do this on their own, or they can pair up to “trade 4s.” Employing this strategy encourages students to compose riffs both ahead of time and on the spot, which is a great jumping off point for all kinds of experimentation and reflection. It works equally well with all players, including drummers.
5a. Variations on the Head of the Tune
This strategy works well with any and every tune. It encourages student musicians to think about:
- What they’re drawn to in the original melody
- What elements of the head are characteristic of jazz, and
- How they can build off of the head to “make it their own.”
I usually introduce this strategy with a riff blues (e.g., “Sonnymoon for Two” by Sonny Rollins), and it’s a go-to when a novice improviser is playing a tune that might be slightly beyond their readiness for other strategies.
A variation is for students to compose their own melodies or riffs, either ahead of time or in the moment. They can teach them to classmates by ear, and then riff off of each other’s riffs.
5b. Drum Set Melody
For this strategy, drummers orchestrate the head of the tune around their drum kit, choosing various tones and colors. This encourages drum set players to think melodically and emphasizes to drummers that they are included when everyone is exploring melodic ideas in class. By the time you introduce this strategy, drum set players should already be able to sing the melody while keeping time. In my experience, though, it sometimes helps novice improvisers feel more confident if their classmates lightly sing the head of the tune along with them. This is the kind of scaffold you can use at your discretion and fade over time.
6. Employing Rhythmic Variations
As beginning improvisers become confident with a swung rhythmic feel and continue to build their rhythmic vocabulary, encourage them to experiment with strategic use of rests/space, rhythmic displacement, and rhythmic elasticity. You can introduce these ideas as a collection, but it’s usually best to practice one at a time. This strategy pairs well with variations on the head of the tune, or with its variant, riffing on each other’s riffs.
This strategy encourages student musicians to explore rhythmic and melodic development, phrasing, and expression. It focuses on the idea of telling a musical story through tension and release.
In my experience, students are familiar with the idea of a narrative arc from their reading and writing classes, so it helps to make this connection right away. Draw a line that represents an example of a narrative arc on the board, talk through events from a familiar story (a novel, a play, a movie), and trace where those events occur on the arc.
Experiment with ways to tell a musical story along the same arc, including different ways to express tension and release (dynamics, rhythmic density, range, etc.). Map the storyline over the harmonic form (e.g., when and where you might try to reach a climax). Encourage students to draw and improvise over their own narrative arcs.
Consider introducing strategies in a variety of ways. Some of the ideas below are about direct instruction, and others are about students discovering strategies through listening and identifying them. Use your judgment about students’ readiness, but don’t be afraid to move away from direct instruction. Let students be the listeners you know they can be, and afford them the joy and confidence that comes with discovery.
- Describe a strategy and then model it.
- Describe part of a strategy. Ask students to listen and identify the other part, and then model it. For example, to introduce the idea of employing neighbor tones with the “root note rhythms” strategy above, tell students that you will use root notes, and invite them to listen for what you’re doing with those root notes.
- Without any “clues,” ask students to listen for a strategy, and then model it. Ask them to identify the strategy or simply describe what they noticed.
- While taking a chorus in class, employ a strategy without telling students. Ask students afterward what they noticed about your improvised solo. Follow up with more direct instruction or modeling, as needed.
- Introduce a strategy to one student. Ask other students to listen for the strategy, and then have the first student model it. This works especially well with strategies that are specific to drum set players.
- Identify a student who employs a strategy before you introduced it. As mentioned earlier, this often happens with variations on the head of the tune, but in mixed-ability groups, in which some students have prior experience, it may happen with any strategy. Ask other students what they noticed about the first student’s improvised solo.
- Play professional recordings as examples of specific strategies, or as an exercise in listening to identify strategies. This is especially helpful for providing examples of ways in which improvisers employ rhythmic and melodic development, perform with expression, and use tension and release.
I hope that the ideas above help you in your quest to facilitate improvisation with your beginning jazz improvisers. Please visit my website for ideas about resources and cognitive scaffolds, or to reach out with questions and thoughts. Happy improvising!
- The Art of Bop Drumming John Riley
This resource is full of drum set and jazz-specific basics, techniques, concepts, exercises, and more. It has practical applications for the most beginning jazz drum set players as well as more advanced players.
- The Real Easy Book, Vol. 1
This is a collection of tunes from the jazz canon that are approachable for beginning improvisers and sound great, too. They are presented as lead sheets, like in a real book, but with supplemental materials that act as scaffolds for beginners (piano chord voicings, guitar chord diagrams, suggested bass lines, suggested background figures, harmony parts for horns, etc.).
- The Real Easy Book, Vol. 3
This is a similar collection to the one above, but with different tunes, and organized by jazz era. Brief introductions to each section put the tunes in historical context and highlight the musical characteristics of that era.