5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in Your Classroom

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in Your Classroom

We all know that teaching improvisation is important. Nevertheless, it is often set aside in favor of preparing notes and rests for upcoming concerts or festivals. However, if we fail to introduce improvisation as an integral part of jazz ensemble, then the jazz ensemble is not much more than a concert band with “swung” 8th notes.

By dedicating just five minutes of rehearsal each day to improvisation, not only will student improvisation improve, but ensemble parts will get better as well. Improvisational skills and techniques help all students because they require open ears and active brains for listening and responding to each other. This is what music (especially jazz) is all about!

Below I offer five easy ways for you to introduce improvisation in your classroom. These are in no particular order. Pick and choose the approach that works for you and your students.



1. Call and Response

Play a recorded drone pitch on speakers. Begin in a familiar key area such as B-flat. On top of this pitch, play or sing notes in the B-flat major scale, then have your students sing it back to you. Once successful, have the students try to respond using their instruments. I like to start with the B-flat major scale, followed by patterns beginning on B-flat before branching out. You might also try playing a short jazz lick but teach it by adding one pitch at a time, similar to the game Simon.

To get started use this Bb drone and play one or more of the following for your students (remember this notation is only for your use, not theirs):

Two-Note Patterns Beginning on Bb: 5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in your Classroom 1

Three-Note Patterns Beginning on Bb:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in your Classroom 2

Four-Note Patterns Beginning on Bb:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 3

Four-Note Patterns Not Beginning on Bb:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 4

Lick #1:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 5

Lick #2:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 6

2. Creating Rhythmic Interest

Teach your students a short pattern or lick and then demonstrate how to displace the rhythms. Instead of starting the lick on beat 1, play it on beats 2, 3, and 4 or any of their upbeats. Encourage students to use the same notes, while changing the rhythms completely. Explore adding/taking away syncopation or having students write their own rhythms to try out.

Rhythmic Displacement:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 7

3. Playing by Ear

Play a familiar melody such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Ask your student to analyze the tune with questions like:

  • What key are we in?
  • What scale degree does the melody start on?

Next take the tune around the circle of fourths, playing it in all twelve keys. This is helpful for learning their major scales as well!

“Mary Had a Little Lamb”

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 8b

Other simple songs to play by ear include:

Frere Jacques Silent Night Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
Frere Jacques Silent Night Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
Star-Spangled Banner Row, Row, Row Your Boat America The Beautiful
My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee Old MacDonald Had A Farm Amazing Grace

4. Melodic and Rhythmic Embellishment

Take a tune that the students have already learned and played by ear. Now let the students explore adding their own embellishments to the melody. It is not required that they stay within a key, and in fact, it is often best if there are no restrictions on “right and wrong notes,” so that they can figure out on their own what sounds good and what does not. This can be done collectively as a class, or individually.

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” with New Rhythms: 

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 9

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 10

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” with Melodic Embellishments:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 11

5. Simplifying Chord Changes

If you want to work on a specific set of chord changes as a class, I recommend starting with something simple like the blues. Have the class spell out the notes in each chord and find the 3rd and 7th of each chord. These two notes define the chord and we call them ‘guide tones’. If we can find smooth voice leading from one chord to the next throughout a tune using mostly 3rds and 7ths, we have created a “guide tone line.” The guide tone line helps us as improvisers highlight the chord changes.
Once you come up with one or two guide tone lines, try to melodically embellish around them, still highlighting the chord changes as they go by. Try anticipating the chord changes by landing on a guide tone on the “and” of 4 in the previous bar.

Chords in a Bb Blues with Guide Tones in Bold:

Bb7: Bb D F Ab
Eb7: Eb G Bb Db
F7: F A C Eb

Bb Blues with Guide Tones:

5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 14
5 Easy Ways to Develop Improvisation in the Classroom 15

Listening

Additionally, make sure that your students are listening to this music on a regular basis. Expose them to great jazz artists by having music playing as they are coming into and leaving rehearsal. Also, when possible, have students listen to recordings of the pieces they are rehearsing or similar pieces in that same style. To help, I’ve created a Spotify playlist made up of great recordings for your students to listen to.

I hope this post inspires you to devote some time in each rehearsal to improvisation. f you have any questions about this material and how to implement it in your classroom, feel free to contact me.

Dr. Russell Ballenger is an assistant professor of music at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, where he teaches low brass and directs the jazz ensemble. As an orchestral trombonist, Ballenger has performed with the Amarillo Symphony, Mississippi Symphony, Tuscaloosa Symphony, New Mexico Philharmonic, and currently holds the position of principal trombone with the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra. He has performed with the Four Tops, played for the National Broadway tour of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical!," and traveled with Carnival Cruise Lines. Ballenger has had multiple articles published by the International Trombone Association. As a clinician, he has presented at Boise State, West Texas A&M, Brandon, and Indiana Universities. He holds degrees from Indiana University, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Alabama.

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