April 27, 2014

Improv — The First Lesson

One of my most enjoyable teaching moments usually starts with a phone call from a parent who has a junior high-aged child. The student plays in the school jazz band and has been asked by the band director to do some improvising. I have a certain reputation in the area as someone who can teach improvisation, and nothing is more enjoyable than meeting with the student for the first time and setting them on the path. After many years I’ve established an unscripted first lesson setting, with one basic goal: to put the young musician at ease by creating a scenario that guarantees some level of success.
A student usually comes with some music from band and puts it on the stand expecting that we will open it up and start working on it. I prefer to start with a bit of ear playing. I’ll ask the student to play any note they want on their instrument. I will try to find that note and match it. I do not have perfect pitch, so I don’t always get it right. I often play it wrong on purpose a couple of times before I find it, modeling the idea that it’s okay to make a mistake. Then I’ll play a note and ask the student if they can find it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they’re way off, and I encourage them to think a little bit higher or lower, “oh you’re very close now, there you go,” praising the effort.
Then we do some call & response. “Pick a scale. Let’s go with C. I’m going to play a little phrase and then you play something of your own invention.” A little back and forth follows, and I stress that there is no right or wrong with this exercise. Then we put a beat to it. We pretend we’re marching and tap the beat with our foot, playing phrases that might help us march. Typically I play two measures and I give a gesture with my instrument and have them play two measures — back and forth until we’re feeling good about it. Perhaps at this point I might suggest or ask, “what can we add to our phrase? How about longer notes? Quicker notes? And rests. I often say, “rests are your friends, take a breath, then make a phrase.” You might notice that we are not swinging or playing anything close to jazz yet. I don’t think starting out a first improv lesson trying to play jazz-like music is the way to go. A junior high musician is more familiar with “straight music” that they have played in concert band or from their lesson book. Improvisation does not fall solely into the jazz realm. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart apparently could all “jam.”
The next thing I do is take that C scale and turn it into A minor. Depending on the student, I don’t even use that phrase, I just have them play the notes of the C scale from A up to A (no sharps or flats). Then we’ll try a little call and response with that sound. Then I’ll go to the keyboard and play the following chord sequence:
The Am/G/F/E progression played underneath the A minor scale creates a safe environment where any note in the C scale will sound okay, and some notes will sound better than others. The average student will sense this and will land on those notes and move from one to the next as the chords change. Perhaps they will hear that one measure where the G clashes with the G sharp in the E chord. Again, we’re playing this with a classical feel. I might suggest after a few tries “okay, let’s think about those things we can add” (long notes, quick notes and rests). I may arpeggiate the chords for a Baroque-sounding feel. My hope, at this point is that the student is now feeling “this isn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be, I’m playing things that sound pretty good.”
The next step in this hour-long lesson is to move to the blues. The 12-bar blues is ready-made for the young improviser, and it’s time to play a melody. My choices, depending on the student, are either “C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington, or “Centerpiece” by Harry “Sweets” Edison.

Both melodies are simple and consist of a four-bar phrase played three times, equaling 12 measures. We may learn these by ear first, or read it from the music. I encourage a full and confident tone. After a few run-throughs, it’s time to play with some accompaniment. I either have a play-a-long CD or a 12-bar blues programmed into my keyboard. Here’s where we can start talking about swinging (long-short eighth notes). Most of these students have played in their jazz bands so this is not a totally new concept.
Now’s the best part, we get to play “wrong notes.” An E flat and B flat in the key of C? Ah, those wonderful “blue notes.” We limit our improv notes to the root, 5th, lowered 3rd, and lowered 7th. I don’t always put the root first, sometimes it’s in the middle, and I introduce my favorite phrase, “home plate.” If we’re in the key of C, C is home plate. That’s where things can start and end. It’s a safe note to start on and it’s a note you can rely on at any point within the 12-bar blues.
Then we just start playing. I do a little modeling. This is not an opportunity for the instructor to show off, thereby unintentionally intimidating the student. If you want the student to play some simple swinging phrases, then model them.
If you read about the blues, the first thing it will say is that it is music that expresses deep and intense emotion. Some instructors cannot resist exhorting students to play the way they feel. In my opinion it’s way too soon for this. The typical junior high student at the first improvisation lesson is probably feeling shy, intimidated, and unsure. Is this the way you want them to play? Junior high students are reluctant to express their emotions, especially to a stranger. I leave that concept to much further down the line. At all points during this process I’m offering praise and constructive ideas about the way they are playing.
By the end of this first hour lesson we’ve created music that wasn’t written down, we’ve used our ears, and we have played in a classical and a swing mode. Hopefully the student leaves the lesson with an a-ha moment: this improv isn’t as impossible as I thought.
One of the wonderful things about the internet is the resources for young improvisers. I’m not referring to written texts. All a player has to do after the first lesson is google “C Blues Play-A-Long” and they will get any number of piano-bass-drums accompaniment where, in the privacy of their room, they can play with a band and start to find their own way.
For further ideas on improv, blue notes and words of wisdom from the masters, here are some of my previous blogs: Improvisation 101, and Thoughts on Improvisation.