Stack Your Jazz Ensemble with Soloists

If you struggle with teaching jazz improvisation in the classroom, you are not alone. It can be an enormous challenge if you have no experience playing jazz or have trouble helping students overcome their fears.

I’d like to share approaches to improvisation that I developed through years of experimentation as a clinician for middle school, high school, and university jazz programs. This material engages newcomers and has built a foundation for nationally recognized jazz soloists.

Ellington BandPortrait of Duke Ellington, William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

Step 1: Build community through improvised games

Improvised games and activities help students feel comfortable playing for one another and cut through fear and anxiety. See my post, How to Empower Fearless Improvisers in the Classroom for some examples.

Step 2: Rhythmic improvisation

A grooving time-feel is the most important element of a jazz solo. Prioritizing rhythm in our teaching produces tremendous results.

  • Teach one- or two-measure rhythms on a single pitch through call and response. You can use rhythms from a chart you are working on.
  • Have students play the rhythm individually or in pairs.
  • Once the rhythm is grooving, let them change the pitches, but stick to the given rhythm.
  • Players can trade phrases or improvise together.
  • Repeat this process with several rhythms, then let students mix them up.

Feel free to distribute the drum groove tracks from my book, which you can download for free.

Step 3: Get off the page

Jazz is an aural tradition—generations of musicians learned to play without notation. Your students spend most of their time in class reading notation, so this is a perfect time to work with sound before symbol approaches.

This philosophy parts company with traditional jazz improvisation methods. I’ve had greater successes when students aren’t bogged down with theoretical information in the early stages. Theory and harmony can come later.

Step 4: Choose a tune that stays in one key center

Most easy charts fall into this category, including twelve bar blues. Remember, just because the chords change doesn’t mean the key changes.

Step 5: Teach everyone the melody

Teach everyone in your ensemble the theme by ear. Teaching music by ear may be slower at first, but the results are worth the time and effort. Ask each musician to play the melody for the class.

Step 6: Variations

Invite your students to make small changes to the notes and rhythms of the theme (see my post, How to Improvise Variations on a Theme). Ask each student to prepare a variation at home and perform it for the class.

Step 7: One scale

Give your students a single scale to experiment with. This is “horizontal” approach: improvising with a single scale over a harmonic progression. If you don’t know which scale is the best fit, extract a scale from the pitches of the melody.

If the song is a blues or in a major key, a “major blues” scale is a great fit: 1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6, 8. Listen to Johnny Hodges craft a compelling solo with the major blues scale on Duke Ellington’s Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.

At this point, let students choose from the three tools in their toolbox:

  • Rhythms from the piece
  • Variations of the melody
  • One scale

Invite them to experiment, use their ears, and take risks. The early stages of creative work are always messy and making mistakes is an important part of the process. If you have built a nurturing community, students won’t be terrified of taking risks in front of their peers.

Step 8: Listen to several great recordings

Find inspiring small and large group recordings of the piece. Actively listen to the differences between soloists and have a discussion in class.

Step 9: Give students a recording to practice with

Find a great professional recording for students to jam with. You can also record your rhythm section, use a free play along track from Learn Jazz Standards, or generate a track with the iReal Pro app. Playing along with great recordings is more inspiring than practicing with a canned rhythm section track.

Step 10: Find performance opportunities

Playing jazz in small groups is the best way to develop skills as a soloist. In the coming weeks, I will post about how to launch a successful combo program.

Encourage your students to play at local jam sessions, or you can start a student jam at a local venue.

I hope you find this material helpful for your program. Please share your experiences and feel free to ask questions in the comments.

– ST

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