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Teaching Improvisation through the Blues

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When it comes to learning to improvise, I believe the blues is one of the most important basic elements, for several reasons:

  • The chord changes are highly predictable, which allows you time to think.
  • The scales that are used are not complicated, which also allows you time to think.
  • The harmonies can accommodate every mood, from lonely and sentimental to angry and vengeful, with a little joy in between.
  • The blues form provides the bedrock for what jazz improvisation is.

Just recently I was teaching at a summer jazz camp, presiding over a class of elementary and middle school students. They hadn’t been playing their instruments for more than a year or two and they hadn’t learned all of the major and minor scales. We played over a couple of tricky scales and talked about some basic theory, but in order to keep their attention I needed something else.

ROUND 1 – I quickly turned to the blues, calling upon each student to take a solo with instructions to simply “play what you hear.” Everybody’s eyebrows rose and a dark cloud of horror descended upon the room. The students anticipated that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish this task—but I did get their attention. I knew that once they took a chance at improvisation and saw that it wasn’t as intimidating as it seemed, the dark cloud of horror would be replaced by sunshine rays of confidence!

ROUND 2 – I had the class sing simple “riff” ideas based on one-, two- and three-note phrases. We composed four riffs, then played them over the blues as I called out the numbers.

ROUND 3 – Now the class had a simple improvisational language that they could reference. With great success, I called upon each student to solo once more over the blues, using the four riffs we learned and I challenged them to make up their own riffs as well.

ROUND 4 – A couple of the older students were a bit more advanced than the rest of the class, so I had them “trade fours” with the beginning students. In mimicking the more advanced students, the beginners began to play more linear ideas, using the scales they were having trouble with at the beginning of the class.

As a teaching tool, the blues provides the perfect canvas for working out improvisational concepts at every skill level. I’ve adopted the blues as a practice tool in my own development. For instance, when I’m trying to incorporate a new improvisational concept into my ideas or when I’m practicing breathing/wind production during improvisation, I find the blues to be a perfect medium.


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