Teach Improvisation to Your Entire Ensemble at Once

Group Improvisation

Have you ever tried to teach improvisation to an entire band at once? I have, out of necessity: most of my students were not working on improvisation at home, no matter how much I suggested, incentivized, encouraged, and begged.

I’ve tried all kinds of ensemble exercises and activities: blues warm-ups, call-and-response, learning ‘head’ tunes, using the circle of fourths, using pentatonic pairs, etc. Some captured the students’ interest at first, but all eventually stalled. Ultimately they never made much of an impact on the students’ abilities to play a convincing improvised solo.

But I started to figure out a few important truths:

  1. Aural learning is the most direct and effective way to get students improvising immediately.
  2. Group improvisation work has to be part of every single rehearsal.
  3. Using our actual repertoire as the improvisation learning vehicle has huge benefits:

– It enables me to equip the students with specific tools for improvising on songs they will actually perform (more below).
– It also allows me to justify ‘taking time away’ from rehearsing the actual arrangement, because the aural work we do carries over to their performance of the notated parts. I guarantee it.

What follows is the thumbnail-sketch of the method I’ve developed for an effective and rewarding improvisation warm-up, using music from your repertoire. It’s easier to teach with sight and sound, but I’ll do my best to lay it out for you in this article.

How to Start the Entire Band Improvising

  1. Identify the key of the song. Ask the students what key they think it’s in. Have them look at the key signature. If it’s a minor key, then you have a nice teachable moment on your hands.
  2. Number the notes in the scale. Use hand signals (i.e. hold up your fingers) to identify the scale degrees: one finger for the first note, two fingers for the second note, etc.
  3. Teach them the root movement of the chords to the solo section. Use your fingers as above. Do not even use the word chord. Tell them this is the accompaniment. To initiate this process, you should sing or play the root of the first chord in a simple rhythm that fits with the groove of the tune:Rick Hirsch music example 1Have everyone play the roots of the accompaniment using the simple rhythmic pattern you just taught them. Play through the accompaniment several times until you sense that they’ve internalized it. If the solo section is long, break it up into smaller chunks. Teach the first part today, and add the next part at another rehearsal soon.
  4. Get the rhythm section cooking. Your objective here is to have the rhythm section players get comfortable as soon as possible. With this in mind, it is not important that they play the rhythm grooves precisely as notated in their parts (you can get to that later). Rather, ask the drummer to play a groove that will fit with the accompaniment pattern we’ve all been playing. Then have the bass player join the drummer in the same way. Then add the remaining rhythm players, then the horn accompaniment.
  5. Time to improvise! Count off the rhythm section, and then tell all the wind players to improvise at the same time. Do not give them any additional instructions. It will be noisy, but there is safety in numbers.

All of this takes about 10 or 15 minutes. One rehearsal and you’re up and running. You have now established the core of your improvisation warm-up. When you begin every rehearsal with 10 minutes of this warmup, every member of the band will begin to internalize this song and acquire specific language for improvising on this tune. The rhythm section will become rock-solid on it, too.

It is important to note that you must add something new every rehearsal or two. This can be a minor change in the process (e.g. Have the students improvise in pairs, or short 2-measure solos) or a new musical skill (e.g. This is how you build a triad on each root of the accompaniment). Introducing new elements prevents the students from going on autopilot and develops specific skills and knowledge.

Directing Student Improvisations

  1. Discuss improvisation strategies as a group. Do this immediately after you let all the horn players improvise (simultaneously) for the first time. Some students will intuit what to do, some won’t. Ask the kids what they think they’re supposed to play when they improvise. You’ll get answers like “play in the key,” “play the rhythm of the song,” or “play the chords.” For now, stay away from chords. Acknowledge these responses and choose one of the simple ones (e.g. play in rhythm of the song) and tell everyone that they’re going to improvise again and that you want them to focus on the rhythm this time.
  2. Have them improvise in sections. It can be a bit overwhelming to have 12 or more wind players going at it all at once. Simply use hand signals to cue one section at a time (saxes, then trombones, then trumpets, for instance).

You’ve Laid the Foundation, Now Build the House

At this point in time you have established—and the students have internalized—the song’s form, the key/tonality, the rhythmic-metric context, and such. Your objective now is to gradually add to their tools and skills on this song. Here are ideas for things to introduce over the next couple of months: Call-and-response, rhythm sheets, harmonizing the accompaniment/chord structure, guide tones, melodic vocabulary from a source recording. There are many other ideas out there, too. Be creative and resourceful, and trust your instincts as a musician-educator.

Applying This Method to a New Tune

  1. Determine the solo section. Even if it’s not a repeated section in the score, often times it works just fine to repeat it. If it’s a longer form like AABA, I’ll treat the A and B sections separately and will put them back together later, well after the students have developed some comfort with each.
  2. Boil down the chords to the most structurally important. As you may remember from college music theory, not all chords are created equally. Observe the overall harmonic rhythm. Listen to the recording. Play it on piano. Determine which chords sound like they are in important places, and which chords are extra seasoning:Rick Hirsch music example 2Remember, the more simple your chord reduction, the easier it will be to get your students improvising right away. You can always insert more chords later.

Not Just for Jazz

I’d like to mention that this process is not just for jazz band. As a visiting artist-educator, I’ve used it with middle school concert bands, string orchestras, and more. Students with as little as 1 or 2 years on their instruments can succeed with this approach.

I hope that you’ve found something worthwhile in here that you’ll be able to try out with your students. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to discuss it further. I love doing pedagogical consultations with teachers, and Skype is great for things like that.

Rick Hirsch by Chuck Fong/Studio 2Rick Hirsch is a lifelong jazz educator based in State College, PA. He has been on the music faculties of Penn State University, Northern Illinois University, and high schools in PA and WI. And he is in demand as a visiting artist-educator, in which he composes commissioned music for school ensembles and follows up with residency visits to work directly with the students for whom he wrote the music.

Rick’s compositions and arrangements are published by Alfred Music, the UNC Jazz Press, BRS Music, and his own HirschMusic Publications. This article is excerpted from his 2015 presentation at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. You can reach Rick through his website www.RickHirschJazz.com.

Photo by Chuck Fong/Studio 2


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