Limiting Beliefs About Teaching Improvisation

I’m preparing a clinic for music educators at the WMEA conference in February that outlines approaches for teaching creative music in ensembles. I’ve been compiling engaging and effective material that breaks through the confusion and anxiety so many musicians experience.

The first step is to let go of limiting assumptions and beliefs baked into mainstream jazz pedagogy. Reframing the challenges and goals can make a big impact on the outcome of this work.

Improvisation = Soloing

Musicians often use “improvising” and “soloing” interchangeably. Solo improvisation is one subset of a much broader world of improvisation. In the earliest days of jazz improvisation was a collective art, and in traditions all over the world, improvisation is a community activity. (See Derek Bailey’s stunning documentary On The Edge: Improvisation in Music which you can stream for free)

Introducing improvisation as a group activity deactivates the fight/flight/freeze response and engages everyone in the ensemble. Once musicians build trust and confidence in the process, transitioning to solo jazz improvisation is much less intimidating. For some intro icebreaker games, download 10 Improvisation Games for Ensembles.

Learn Chord Changes First

One of the biggest traps we run into as teachers is conflating improvisation with theory and technique. Mastering chord symbols, harmonic progressions, and modes are an essential skills for jazz players, but front-loading improvisation with theory and technique is overwhelming and not particularly effective.

When I was in 8th grade, I showed up to my first student jam session (on stage in front of an audience), and the clinician handed me a lead sheet and a copy of Aebersold’s scale syllabus. I was totally confused and embarrassed because I didn’t think I was smart enough to play, but I tried to fake in in front of a crowd.

Lots of well-meaning teachers bury students in theory packets, handouts, listening lists. There is no shortage of information in the internet age. It’s our job to provide engaging experiences, and introduce only relevant information at the appropriate time. We can help students build a rhythmic and melodic foundation before diving deep into harmony.

Clark Terry, 1981. Photo courtesy of Brian McMillen

I follow the guidance of the late Clark Terry who believed the most important elements of jazz improvisation are sound, rhythm, and ideas. Once students build this foundation and have positive experiences improvising, they are much more motivated to dive into the technical work.

I’m working on a handout of beginning jazz improvisation activities that aren’t theory heavy. Sign up for my email newsletter to get a free copy in early 2018.

Jazz Band Only

Improvisation is not just “a jazz thing.” For centuries, classical musicians were improvisers. Not just geniuses like Bach and Beethoven—improvisation was part of basic musical training until the late 19th century. Professional and amateur musicians improvised embellishments, cadenzas, accompaniments, and spontaneous compositions.

Listen to pianist and scholar Robert Levin speak passionately about the need to restore risk-taking and spontaneity in classical music. He also improvises stunning cadenzas to a Mozart Piano Concerto.

Also see We’re Playing Classical Music All Wrong – Composers Wanted Us To Improvise by Clive Brown

There’s a Formula

When learning straight-forward skills, teachers and students are used to a linear process with clear goals, and measurable outcomes.

Creating art is a messy, non-linear process that requires experimentation, play, failure, and reflection along the way. Download a free copy of my book Creativity Triggers for Musicians to dive into creative practices.

Happy 2018!