Improvisation is an essential skill in today’s musical landscape. Professional musicians of all kinds are often expected to improvise whether on a “classical”, “jazz”, or “commercial” gig.
The National Core Arts Standards (http://www.nationalartsstandards.org/), a grouping of principles around which music teachers are to design their curricula, are divided into four main categories: “Creating”, “Performing/Presenting/Producing”, “Responding”, and “Connecting”. In instrumental music instruction, a great deal of time is spent on perfecting the performance-based category, and with good reason! We, as teachers, want our students to showcase their skills in the best ways possible during concerts, festivals, and other opportunities. However, we are also obligated to provide our students with a well-rounded education in all areas of musical activity. These two approaches do not have to be at odds with each other. There are ways to engage students in creativity while also working on performance-based skills.
Improvisation is an essential skill in today’s musical landscape. Professional musicians of all kinds are often expected to improvise whether on a “classical”, “jazz”, or “commercial” gig. Improvisation allows us to hear players “thinking in music”. A player’s knowledge of melody, harmony, rhythm, and style becomes apparent when we hear them improvise. Unfortunately in many cases, students only receive improvisation instruction if they are involved in a jazz ensemble. Furthermore, the complexities of jazz harmony can make improvising a daunting task for the young musician.
Chord symbols, unfamiliar tonalities and key centers, and a complex system of nuanced style can make improvisation seem like a scary experience. By scaffolding improvisation activities from the very beginning of instrumental music instruction, you can get everyone in the band creating music for themselves in a fun and low-pressure environment!
I teach my beginning band students to improvise in the first few weeks of instruction. Most of my improvisation activities for beginners revolve around call and response. By building up a repertoire of simple tonal and rhythmic patterns, students develop a vocabulary of musical material. I firmly believe in the philosophy of “sound before sight”. If students know what particular patterns sound like, they will have a more informed perspective when they sight-read a piece or are taught new notation concepts. Setting the foundation for solid ear training at an early stage in musical development will benefit them as they move on to play more complex music in high school, college, and beyond.
It’s very important that you engage in these activities every day of instruction. If your program does not meet every day, these activities can still be useful and effective! You will just need to commit to these exercises every day that your class meets. Young students need consistency and the more opportunities you provide for them to practice these skills, the more successful they will be. By spending time on improvisation during every rehearsal, you are showing your students that you believe improvisation is an integral aspect of musicianship.
When students can successfully play one note and articulate correctly, they are ready to improvise! This kind of rhythmic improvisation allows students to practice articulating and learn to play rhythmic values that they have not yet learned to decode. All of these activities are done in call and response fashion. You can model the “call” on any instrument with which you feel comfortable. We will typically start with four-beat patterns consisting of half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. Sometimes it takes a little while for beginners to latch on to the constant back-and-forth nature of the exercise, but after a few days of practice they’ll be experts.
As students learn more notes, you as an educator have more options to combine pitches and rhythms. You can easily introduce concepts such as half steps vs. whole steps, major vs. minor, and modes once students have more technical facility and theoretical knowledge. Before you know it, students will be echoing and improvising small melodic patterns!
Once students are comfortable echoing musical ideas, I start allowing them to improvise. I have two signals. A closed fist signals for the students to echo exactly what I just played. An open hand instructs them to improvise a pattern of their own. The mass improvisation does sound a little chaotic, but it allows each student to improvise without fear of being singled out. Once you get used to the cacophonous sound, you’ll be able to assess individuals and sections within the group.
After students are able to echo and improvise, I’ll take volunteers to lead the group in the exercise. By this point, there are normally a good number of students who are excited to take charge. Of course, you’ll have the student that gets overzealous and plays a pattern that can’t easily be echoed, but with a little coaching they’ll generally ease up on the difficulty. This kind of activity increases student investment in the content and helps them feel as though they have a voice in the classroom.
In an effort to help you get started, I’ve included several resources for you! One is a notated example of the call response approaches we discussed here, which you can download below. Additionally, here’s a list of links to YouTube videos of myself demonstrating the concepts. You can use those videos for your own musical development or use them with your students, which could be especially valuable in our current season of distance learning.
If you invest in a few minutes of sound-focused creativity every day, you’ll see a huge change in the attitudes and abilities of your students. They will become more technically capable and willing to take chances. Your students will be able to derive musical meaning from notation and connect what they hear with their instrumental abilities.
When it comes time to introduce concepts like chord changes, licks, and scales, students will have a more informed perspective, making the process less daunting. More students will want to take solos and share their creativity. If we teach students to improvise from the very beginning of their instrumental musical instruction, we can create a community of musicians who see improvisation as a central behavior of sound musicianship and are unafraid to share their ideas with the world.