Jazz Education has been missing something since it first entered the public schools in the 1950s. Jazz educators have preached that improvisation is the lifeblood or the core of jazz music ever since that time. Meanwhile, jazz musicians and college professors have written hundreds of method books for teaching improvisation. However, actual classroom band teachers have been too busy trying to twist and manipulate and supplement with various methods in their jazz ensembles to take sufficient time to create a method book that is actually effective in the classroom. With rare exceptions, generations have now gone through our jazz programs with only the slightest and mostly ineffective attention to improvisation, and the only students who learn to do it are those who can take private lessons from a qualified musician.
As I review improvisation methods and curricula, it becomes very clear to me that there are two kinds of improvisation, and the way these two are approached go kind of like this:
1. Let's get everyone playing whatever they feel, and lower our inhibitions so we can express ourselves through musical sounds.
2. Let's get each of the students improvising good melodies that follow the harmonic tones of the chord progression, while allowing them to develop their own sense of personal expression.
In my experience, students have no chance of learning to improvise when their teacher does not model it for them. No chance at all. Can a student learn math when the teacher doesn't SHOW the class how to do it? Can a student learn to play volleyball when the teacher doesn't SHOW the class how to perform bumps, sets, and spikes? How about drawing, ballroom dance, and marching band? Anything that requires skill development cannot be learned unless modeling is a significant part of the learning process. (Click here for my lengthy research paper on modeling.)
Teaching ANYONE to improvise in a jazz swing style is a major undertaking. So, how easy is it to teach jazz improvisation to a whole class of squirrelly Middle School students? Practically impossible! The moment you start writing chord/scale theory on the board you've lost them for the rest of the class period, and "improvisation" becomes a dirty word.
So, what can we do? Here are some ideas:
1. Play first, and explain later (sound before sight)
How Do Jazz Musicians Improvise?
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.)
Can Everyone Improvise, or Not?
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.
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.