So, do I teach the Blues Scale? Only AFTER I have taught students to PLAY THE CHANGES.
I like to start beginners improvising with the Concert B-flat Mixolydian scale. Why? Because it is the most prominant chord in the most prominant key (within school jazz ensemble literature) of the Blues Progression. And, the combination of the Major 3rd and Minor/Flat 7th sounds pretty awesome! I have found it best to spend about two months working with this first scale. There is so much to learn about improvising without the added complexity of new fingerings and new chord tones. Students need to use a comfortable scale, with chord tones and jazz patterns that are committed to muscle memory in order to:
1. Play their instruments freely, as if simply speaking
2. Focus on rhythmic playing rather than which notes are the "right" notes
3. Play expressively with articulations, bends, growls, and other effects which help their instruments sound "human"
4. Have a positive experience under the pressure of improvising a solo, rather than a negative experience that feels like they have "failed"
5. Experiment with various ways of building a solo through pitch choices, dynamic level, and/or rhythmic intensity
Next I introduce the "IV Chord", which uses the Concert E-flat Mixolydian scale. We only spend a month with this scale/chord because:
1. They already learned many skills in Concert B-flat which transfer immediately to this key
2. Familiar jazz patterns can be learned faster in this second key than they were learned in the first
3. The school year is progressing rapidly, and festival season is approaching, and we've got to get along to the 3rd chord or else this will be yet another year in which the students really only learned one chord/scale. Sound familiar to any other jazz teachers out there?
Next is the "V Chord", which uses the Concert F Mixolydian scale. Again, only about one month is focused on learning this scale/chord because of the above reasons. But, now the REAL FUN of jazz improvisation begins!
TEACHING THE "CHANGES"
Helping kids to (1) understand and (2) be able to actually execute live improvised playing over the "changes" of a chord progression is both the most difficult and most satisfying endeavor in teaching jazz improvisation! Only a handful of jazz educators actually succeed in this with all of their jazz ensemble students in one year's time. Why? Because it is so dang complicated! Aside from the complications of dealing with the different instrument transpositions in a classroom, kids have to learn:
1) The chord tones of three different chords
2) The fingerings of each chord tone of three different chords
3) To consistently play the "right" and the "best" notes of each scale over each chord
4) The relationship between chord tones of each chord to every other set of chord tones
5) How to keep track of where they are in the chord progression WHILE they are busy playing improvised ideas
6) To be aware of which chord is up next and which chord tone they should end with in the current chord in order to smoothly transition to a chord tone of the upcoming chord...at exactly the right time
7) To play an expressive solo that builds in excitement as they are keeping track of the chord changes and playing the "right" notes
THEN THE BLUES SCALE
Finally, at this point kids can be introduced to the Blues Scale, as a set of notes that can be used sparingly in a solo. This is how the great jazz soloists use the Blues Scale...sparingly...when they want a biting, wailing sound. At these moments, using the Blues Scale represents a conscious choice to expressively use altered, non-harmonic tones by an intelligent, capable improviser. This is when I really LOVE the Blues Scale!!!