Musicians and music educators who do not know how to improvise usually have the wrong idea about what it means to improvise. They think a jazz musician is making up new melodies on the spot. Do jazz musicians invent spontaneous, brand new musical ideas while improvising? Not really. Improvisation is not so much creating something new as it is creatively organizing melodic ideas that have been learned previously.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Blues Scale. It sounds great! It sounds cool! It's easy to get kids improvising with it! But...it becomes a crutch that prevents kids from hearing and playing the actual changes. For another jazz educator's take on this, see a brief introduction to jazz improvisation on Mark Sowlakis's website.
So, do I teach the Blues Scale? Only AFTER I have taught students to PLAY THE CHANGES.
If you've had any exposure to jazz improvisation education, you've undoubtably heard how "transcribing" is the great key to learning how to improvise. Let me talk about how right this answer is, but also how WRONG it is. Bear with me here, and I promise you won't be disappointed.
According to Dizzy Gillespie, all great jazz musicians started out by "trying to play exactly like somebody else". (See more on this in my research paper on modeling and patterns.)
A famous series of jazz improvisation books proclaims that "everyone can improvise", and music educators everywhere profess to believe that music should be taught to ALL children. However, when it comes to teaching improvisation in our music classes, consider the following questions:
1. Can all of our students develop competency with improvisation, or just a few?
2. Do we feel successful, as teachers, when only 2 or 3 students can play a good improvised solo?
As we work with our jazz ensembles day after day, it is easy to lose sight of our goal to teach JAZZ, and instead teach only SONGS. When our students learn to play songs, are they also learning jazz? Well, yes, sort of. However, there are critical things students need to know that are not learned through simply reading jazz charts...especially for those in the rhythm section.
Why do we neglect the rhythm section so often? Is it because we're not exactly sure what to teach them? Is it because ther are always much bigger "problems" in the horn sections? Is it because we can't afford to take so much time away from the rest of the band in order to focus on only 3 or 4 people? Yes, yes, and yes (if you are like me).
Been there, done that...failed at teaching improvisation. Yes, I have failed over and over. Improvisation is just so complicated! And no matter what words I have used, kids just don't get it...and they certainly can't do it.
Okay, so they can all have some fun playing unique rhythms and melodies with one basic scale, and I celebrate that success. But as soon as you try to get them playing over changes, FAIL.
Plus, there is never enough TIME to really work that hard on improvisation, with concerts and festivals constantly demanding your attention. So, I went on year after year accepting "failure to teach improvisation" as the norm. And my colleagues all agree that it is normal. One teacher recently gave a jazz clinic at a music educators conference and said, and I quote, "Teaching improvisation in the jazz band is too challenging and time consuming, so I just tell my students to learn to improvise in their private lessons".
However, prominent jazz educators like Roosevelt Griffin, who works at a low-income school at which none of his students can afford private lessons, agree with me that not only CAN we teach improvisation in our jazz band rehearsals, but that we MUST.
Here is a brief list if things a person must be able to do in order to improvise over a jazz standard:
1. Know how to interpret chord symbols
2. Be able to play all the scales that are called for
There are many, many important concepts that students must learn in order to improvise a good solo. However, there is one that I consider to be most critical. It represents a balancing point upon which all future effort to improvise depends. A student will thrive or fail as a jazz improviser based upon whether he tips the one way or the other. The concept is...
how to navigate chord interchanges.
Curtis Winters is a public school jazz educator at Orem Junior High, in Orem, UT. He has created the Improv Pathways method to make it easy to teach jazz improvisation during regular jazz band rehearsals.