Making improvisation accessible and engaging
Improvisation is personally not my forte. If asked to improvise in front of others I have to admit that I feel quite uncomfortable. That said, I would never tell my students that and I recognise the importance of introducing students to this skill and teaching them to respect it, (hopefully) to love it, and to feel comfortable doing it (more so than me!).
Last week I felt lucky enough to attend a workshop run by the inimitable Steve Sedergreen called Start Playing Jazz Piano Now based upon his book of the same title. In his speech, he advised us to practise 'fixed' first before trying to improvise. He said to throw out the advice often touted by American jazz musicians, that we should 'practise everything in all 12 keys' and instead that we should practise the music/chords more or less as written first, become comfortable with that and then use that as a springboard from which to improvise and experiment.
In reflecting on Steve's advice, I realised that, inadvertently, this is something that I do with my students already. I take scales that my students are already familiar with, or clusters of notes, get them to practise this first and then use this as a basis for improvisation.
Please read below my tips for teaching improvisation and how I approach it with my own students.
Make it accessible. Allow students to have success when beginning the exercise, make it more challenging only once they are comfortable. Stick to keys or scales that they are familiar with or that can be easily learnt for the particular exercise. This will give students a sense of achievement early on and build their confidence. One of the biggest roadblocks when it comes to improvisation, is when students have a lack of confidence and self belief.
There are no mistakes, only discoveries. Allowing students to explore sound, hear dissonance and decide for themselves what works and what doesn't (with some guidance and parameters) gives students the opportunity to make discoveries about harmony. Sometimes, when placed correctly, dissonance does in fact work and can play an important role in creating tension. Students won't know this if you strictly only allow them to stick to a certain group of notes. Give them guidance, but if their finger slips or they 'make a mistake' they won't have the opportunity to understand why you have asked them to use a particular scale or group of notes, and whether or not this rule can be bent (and potentially discover how as well!). This can teach students an important lesson about tension and resolution in music - OK so your finger slipped and you hit the 'wrong' key, now how do you resolve the tension you just inadvertently created? Do you even need to resolve it? Can it remain as a stark reminder that not all music has to sound harmonious to be deemed 'right'? Should you revisit that dissonance, create it over again and resolve it or leave it hanging? Should you be more careful to avoid that key next time so your improvisation sounds more harmonious? These are all questions you can explore with your student when this inevitably happens.
This should go without saying, but improvisation should not be stressful. It should be a joyous activity that is not high stakes, allows for easy wins but building challenges where appropriate/necessary and most of all, it really should be about having fun. If you as the teacher do not make it a fun activity, you will lose your student's interest and motivation and they will not feel comfortable to improvise. If students don't feel comfortable to improvise then they will never do it effectively. If they feel like it will create stress for them, they won't relax enough to be able to play without inhibitions, which is an important factor of effective improvisation.
Improvisation exercise examples
Some of my favourite improvisation exercises from the Piano Safari series (linked below). In these books, there are a variety of different genres / styles for students to improvise in. In the cases of these activities I follow these steps:
- I play the accompaniment first, asking the student to listen carefully and describe the mood/style/feel.
- Once we have discussed this, we talk about the rhythm and pulse, how does the piece feel? Will improvisation work with a more steady beat or should you try and add faster rhythms?
- Next we discuss articulation and how that affects the overall feel of the music. Should we play legato? staccato? a mixture of both? How else might we play the notes?
- Then, I show the students which notes they can use, whether it be a particular scale or the black keys, white keys etc. We explore the tonality of the notes and listen to how they sound.
- Once students are comfortable with the selected key, notes etc, we begin the improvisation! I play through the accompaniment a few times, listening out for things the student does to pick up on and comment on. These can include interesting rhythms, patterns of notes that they try, if they do something unexpected like playing a chord etc. I never bring up anything negative, only positive and say things like "hey, I noticed that you did x, I really loved that! Why don't you try and explore that idea a little more next time we play it?". Without fail, students will take on this feedback and suddenly, they are creating little phrases all on their own with just a hint of feedback.
- Once we have discussed some ideas for students to keep trying out in their improvisation, we play it over again so they have the chance to action my feedback in the moment and try new things.
- If I think a student is playing it too safe, I try to encourage them by showing them a couple of ideas or asking them to try and come up with some ways of changing up what they were playing.
Apart from the Piano Safari book exercises, I also do the typical 12 bar blues exercises. However, my favourite improvisation exercise comes from the opening chord sequence of Satie's Gymnopedie #1. These first two chords played over and over provide the perfect backdrop for exploring improvisation in D major. Most upper beginner and beyond students will be able to play a D major scale without too much trouble. These are the steps I take with this exercise:
- Firstly, I teach the D major scale (or ensure that my student is comfortable playing it before we begin).
- Then, I partially play through the Gymnopedie so that the student has a clear idea of the mood/style of the piece and is ready to match that when it comes to their turn to improvise.
- Next, we begin improvising! I play the accompaniment and students can choose to play one note per bar, one note per beat or try and create some faster rhythms (as long as they match the style/feel of the piece).
- For more advanced students, I then get them to play the accompaniment themselves as well as improvising with their right hand, but only once I am sure that they are comfortable to do so.
There are so many ways to make improvisation both accessible for beginner students and also more challenging for those students who are more advanced. Being able to use the same activity but adapting it to different abilities is simply good teaching and shows how well you know your students and their abilities, but also how far you can push them!
I hope that these activities and ideas can help to instil a love and appreciation for improvisation in your students.
Piano Safari (books can be purchased from most music shops in Australia)
Start Playing Jazz Piano Today - Steve Sedergreen