Tag Archives: improvisation

How to Teach Improvisation on the Piano

Blog-HowToImprovOnPiano_March2017_BG_Proof3a

By Loren Gold

I’ve been playing keyboards on the road with The Who since 2012. It is the greatest job I’ve ever had, but it was a long road to gather all the techniques needed to get this dream gig. My journey started with classical piano lessons when I was seven. My first piano teacher may not know it, but they nurtured my love of piano, and got me on the path to “stardom” by giving me a solid foundation in technique. Having a solid background in classical music has allowed me the freedom to become creative with my composing and while playing other styles like ragtime, blues, rock, gospel, and R&B. Here’s how you can start incorporating improvisation in your piano lessons with your students:

  1. Establish a strong foundation in technique, ear-training, and theory: During lessons, you’re likely already focusing on fingering, hand position, scales, and other techniques that help create a strong and healthy musical foundation for students. Having a strong ear and theoretical understanding of compositions will allow students to be more creative improvisers.
  2. Choose repertoire that makes sense: The goal is to provide your students with all the tools needed to learn to improvise in lots of different styles, but to make the best impact on your lessons, introduce improvisation along with pieces that compliment what you are working on, or songs the student is already familiar with.
  3. Seek Inspiration: Before diving into soloing themselves, students should study and listen to example solos by other artists to help inspire ideas. Students can transcribe these solos and learn to play them lick-by-lick, including dynamics and articulations.
  4. Connect the dots: Like any other piece of music you’d teach in your lessons, point out how the chord progression is utilized in the construction of the example solos. Connect the dots between how scales, modes, and popular licks relate to chords, and how they can be used in crafting original solos.
  5. Leave the page: Once your student has mastered an example solo, encourage them to slowly branch out and incorporate their own ideas. It is essential that they are encouraged to eventually stop thinking about what they’ve learned verbatim, and begin to “go off the page” and play from the heart. You can try comping the chords, so the student can focus solely on their soloing, or use a backing track if one is available. Remember, there are no wrong notes when experimenting with improvisation! It’s time to explore and find a voice. Encourage mistakes while also helping them remember what works.

whiskeylights-1A great example of a familiar tune that can be used as a starting point in introducing improvisation is “Whiskey Lights” from Sitting In: Rock Piano. “Whiskey Lights” is in the style of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and includes a repeated eight-bar section for improvising (mm. 26-33). The first thing you’ll notice in the piece is that there is a solid repeated bass line throughout the entire song. Once this bass line is mastered, the right hand is free to explore mixing and matching various rhythms, ideas, and patterns to create something unique through improvisation.

If your student isn’t familiar with “Light My Fire,” encourage them to listen to a recording of it, and particularly pay attention to what keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger play during their solos.

A great way to correlate “Whiskey Lights” to their standard repertoire is to show how those pieces present similar challenges. For example, look at the first four bars of Mozart’s “Sonata K. 545.”

Sonata_k545

If the simple Alberti bass pattern is played evenly, the top melody can sing above it just as an improvised solo should be free to soar above the accompaniment in “Whiskey Lights.” It is a simple correlation, but critical to being a good soloist. You can also talk about the makeup of The Doors: they didn’t have a bass player so Ray played all the bass lines on the organ. Rock trivia and history can be a huge inspiration to some students!

Next, play through the entire written music of “Whiskey Lights” including the notated comping in the solo section. Point out how the chord symbols above the right hand show the chord progression, and how the same progression is used in the solo section. Show the theory behind the chord construction and related scales including the E Dorian mode which will be useful in soloing.

Page_9-10There are also four sample licks on pages 9-10 that provide notated ideas and suggestions. Note that “Lick 1″ adds a flat-5 to give the solo a more bluesy sound.

Now it’s time to start improvising! While it’s great if you and your student play a duet on the piano—you comp on the chords while your student solos—the tracks that accompany the book include live bass, drums, and guitar players (and sax on some tracks) who are playing in the appropriate style. Encourage students to use the “Rhythm Section Only” tracks at home when practicing on their own. Click here to access the rhythm track for “Whiskey Lights.”

During lessons, continue to focus on fingering, hand position, and other techniques while your student is learning improvisation. The idea of soloing in a lesson shouldn’t be a foreign concept. Mix it in with standard pieces so you can focus on the similarities of techniques needed to play well, no matter what style the student is playing. Having correct technique lets you be a more creative improviser, and maybe you’ll even have a dream gig with The Who someday!

LorenGoldLoren Gold is an in-demand keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter who has played extensively with international pop and rock acts such as Roger Daltrey, The Who, Kenny Loggins, and more. He has served as musical director for artists such as Taylor Hicks, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato. In addition to touring and session work, Loren composes original music for films and TV. Learn more at www.lorengold.com.  


 

 

Preparing Students to Improvise

BJim Snideroy Jim Snidero

Improvisation is a scary proposition for many music students and teachers. But the word “improvisation” is fairly misleading, as much of what an improviser uses to create a solo is actually preconceived, and therefore can be learned and developed.

Preconceived concepts regarding form, rhythm, melody, harmony and importantly, solo construction, are some of the elements that are tirelessly practiced and perfected by great improvisers (e.g. masters). This creates a foundation for what will be played. Furthermore, masters have preconceived concepts regarding how they will play. Tone, technique, time feel, articulation, phrasing and vibrato style are often the thing that most identifies a master, being carefully formulated and developed, then repeated over and over again.

What separates an improvisation master from everyone else is (1) the quality and quantity of what’s preconceived, (2) art and, (3) taste. The good news is that (1) can be studied and practiced to the point that you can gain control over a massive amount of preconceived concepts. The bad news is that not everyone can create a work of art, and not everyone has exquisite taste.

Masters strike a balance between preconceived concepts and going with the moment, letting their “spirit,” for lack of a better term, lead them to very human expression. This creates a kind of inspired flow. And this sense of balance between essentially “knowing and not knowing,” to quote Chick Corea from a 1976 Keyboard Player magazine article, is informed by incredible taste and yes, talent. But here’s the thing: it’s very tough to create (2) and (3) without (1)! And (1) is something that most definitely can learned.

There’s a little secret that masters know regarding preconceived vocabulary. To quote Chick again from the same article:

“The myth is that you always have to play something different to be spontaneous. But that’s not true. What’s important is how “there” you are when you’re playing: that’s really the point. Good music is just good music whether it’s composed, improvised or whatever.”

No matter how many times you play an idea, if you are “in the moment,” it is spontaneous and can never actually be played the exact same way again, as no one ever experiences a moment exactly the same way. Charlie Parker played some of his signature ideas thousands of times, but they never sounded exactly alike. The same can be said about virtually every master. So preconceived vocabulary is crucial to the creative process.

Transcribing a solo is the best way to build vocabulary, but quality books are also a good source. For example, the new edition of the Jazz Conception series contains a section on improvisation, extracting over 100 ideas from 21 etudes over various common chord progressions. Vocabulary and context!

Once ideas are committed to memory, you then have material to develop both timing and balance. If one idea is active, dense with notes or rhythms, perhaps the next idea could be static, using just a couple of notes or rhythms. If the contour of an idea ascends, perhaps the next idea might descend, creating a peak. This helps you to develop a sense of balance, maybe even taste.

These instincts then allow you to assemble ideas in a logical and musical manner, often helping to “say” something when improvising. The more material, the more you can say. Eventually, your instincts will allow you to play new things that you hear spontaneously in a musical, logical manner, or react to what your bandmates are playing. You will then be able to balance improvisation between “knowing and not knowing.” It’s powerful stuff, not to mention a whole lot of fun!

Jim Snidero is an alto saxophonist, author and educator living in New York City. He is a Savant recording artist, author of the Jazz Conception series and president of The Jazz Conception Company.

Shop the Jazz Conception series here.

What’s a Jazz Play-Along?

What’s a Jazz Play-Along?
A question and answer approach.

Peter BarenBreggeAn example of a modern jazz play-along is Freddie Hubbard & More (book and DVD-ROM). This jazz play-along features jazz standards composed by jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard plus jazz standards by other jazz composers. Each tune features a written-out melody, written-out sample jazz solo, and written chord changes for soloing. The innovative, easy-to-use TNT2 Custom Mix software on the accompanying DVD-ROM allows you to customize a demo or play-along track, loop a section for specific practice, slow down or speed up the tempo, and more. The pro rhythm section and horn player demo tracks provide examples of jazz interpretation, articulation, and improvisation. By removing your instrument part from the track mix, you can play along to practice with the rhythm section. Tips and suggestions for improvisation are included for each jazz standard.

Q: What is a jazz play-along?
A: A jazz play-along is a practice tool to help you improve your jazz improvisation skills. The music is typically based on jazz standards, i.e., jazz tunes that are frequently played by jazz musicians.

Q: How does a jazz play-along help me learn to improvise?
A: Essential concepts to learning/improving jazz improvisation are: 1. listening and, 2. “hear it—sing it—play it.” For example: if you play a C, B-flat, E-flat, or bass clef instrument, here is a simple plan for each jazz standard in the play-along using the Freddie Hubbard & More Jazz Play-Along. Sample pages are provided here.

  1. Listen to the demonstration performance (by trumpet or saxophone) of the melody and sample solo on the play-along DVD disk. Repeat as needed.
  2. Sing along with the melody and sample solo using simple “dah” or “doo” jazz syllables. Repeat as needed.
  3. Play along with the demo track of the melody and sample solo and imitate the style and concept played by the pro jazz player.
  4. Play the melody and sample solo with the rhythm section only—mix out the demonstration trumpet or sax. Repeat as needed.

What have you accomplished?

  • You will have listened to the melody and sample solo played in a jazz style.
  • You will have sung along with the melody and sample solo. This has opened your ears to some musical nuances and allowed you to delve deeper into imitating the demo performance.
  • You have played-along with the rhythm section to imitate what you have heard and sung.

Q: What about improvising on the chord progression? I’m used to playing only written notes, I don’t know what to play when I see chord symbols.
A: Essential concepts to begin to improvise. 1. learn the form, and 2. learn the chords and melody, and 3. learn to play using your ear—not the written page.

  1. You have learned the form from listening/singing/playing.
  2. You have heard and recognize when the chords change and learned the melody by listening/singing/playing.
  3. With the melody and sample solo mixed out, play the root of each chord in the chord progression with whole/half/quarter notes depending on the duration of the chord. Then play the third of the chord, then the fifth, and so on. Repeat as needed.
  4. In the solo section with chord changes, play the sample solo numerous times with the rhythm section. This written-out sample jazz solo provides you with motifs, ideas, snippets, and devices that you can use in your solos to get you started.
  5. As you begin to improvise, start slowly and simply by playing the root, third, fifth and seventh tone of the chords. Embellish the melody rhythmically and melodically, use snippets and ideas from the sample solo and the melody. Slow the tempo down as needed.
  6. As you become more familiar with the melody and harmony, close the book and play by using your ear. Trust your ears!

Final comments:

  • Jazz improvisation is not an overnight learned skill, it is a lifetime quest!
  • To become a jazz improviser, you will need to spend time listening, learning, transcribing solos, and imitating. Immerse yourself.
  • Books and jazz instructional media are valuable tools, but in conjunction with listening and imitating.
  • Play songs by ear.
  • Depending on your experience level, using this play along and following these steps will get you going with jazz improvisation.
  • The written-out, sample jazz solos are not necessarily a definitive solo but merely examples of how to improvise on the given chord progressions.
  • For a rhythm section player (piano/bass/drums), there is a corresponding book/DVD for rhythm section instruments.
  • Check out the Freddie Hubbard & More Jazz Play-Along published by Alfred Music.

Have fun playing jazz!

Pete BarenBregge

7 Steps to a Killer Music Program

Caleb ChapmanBy Caleb Chapman

Starting a Music Program from Scratch
Back in the fall of 1998 my wife, Alison, and I went for a lazy Sunday drive that changed my life. I was an undergrad student at Brigham Young University in Utah completing a music degree with plans to pursue an MBA. On that drive, Alison suggested that instead of me pursuing a business degree, we should open a music school. To me it seemed like a crazy idea with little chance of success, but I learned a long time ago to listen to my wiser partner. So, just one month later, without much experience, without money, and without any significant business training, we opened a tiny music school in Utah.

Onward and Upward
Today that tiny music school has grown into a program with 13 ensembles and close to 200 top-notch young musicians, ranging in age from 10-18.

Our flagship group, a jazz ensemble called the Crescent Super Band, has received international attention, thanks to the program’s 22 DownBeat Awards, and appearances at venues from New York to the Netherlands. In fact, the band has been named Utah’s “Best Professional Ensemble” in any genre by Utah Best of State for 8 consecutive years – pretty amazing for a bunch of high school kids.

In a very short period, our graduates have landed significant scholarships in many of the nation’s top music schools – Berklee, North Texas, Miami, USC, the New School, and many others. In fact, each year our 20-30 graduates from the program rack up well over $1,000,000 in scholarship offers.

I just got word that an upcoming show for the Crescent Super Band at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola has already sold out and our headlining debut at Carnegie Hall has almost sold out a month before the concert. I had to pinch myself when I got this news! How did we go from that Sunday drive in 1998 to having a full house at one of the world’s most famous concert venues?

A Recipe for Success
As I took a moment to reflect, I realized that there are several key philosophies that have served us well. They are not genre-specific and I am confident that the success our program has experienced can be duplicated anywhere when these principles are implemented. And, while none of them are “groundbreaking,” when combined, they provide a powerful recipe for a successful music program.

1. Keep music fun
As soon as studying music becomes something our musicians have to do—a chore—we have lost the battle. And this isn’t true just for our students; music needs to remain fun for the educator as well. Think back to what sparked your own passion for music. How can you instill that in your students?

2. Instill pride in the product
Music programs are cool! How can this be communicated properly, and the pride shared with the students and community? It comes from a mix of culture, programming, recruiting, professionalism, and other aspects. It starts with the way you, your students, and the public view the program. What can you do to position your group as a cultural resource to your community?

3. Remove students’ perceived limitations
Young musicians don’t know what the limitations on their ability are until you tell them. Don’t be afraid to set the bar high and keep notching it up. You will be amazed at the results!

4. Practice (and rehearse) for perfection
You already know that when a student practices while allowing mistakes, all he is doing is getting better at making mistakes! Create a culture that strives for as much accuracy as possible in rehearsals as well as performance and select the repertoire that will allow you to do that. What motivates your students to strive for perfection?

5. Empower your musicians with clear guidelines for learning the repertoire
It’s the old “teach a man to fish” analogy. A good educator can teach students how to play any piece of music. A great teacher will educate those students on how to accomplish this on their own. This approach allows them to learn new music during their individual practice time and not just when they are in rehearsal. For example, something that worked great for my jazz students was establishing a set of “rules” for articulation, which they apply to every piece they sight-read or play, whether in class or at home.

6. Surround yourself with a powerhouse team
Start with mentors for yourself; assemble an all-star cast of musicians and educators that have the skills that you want to develop who are willing to coach and guide you. Then, build a dream team for your students—clinicians, a network of private teachers, parent volunteers and boosters, and a staff of specialists. We’re all in it for the same reason: the students. Let’s help each other succeed.

7. Listen. Listen. Listen.
Encourage your musicians to learn the language of music through active listening. Provide information on area concerts in all styles, not just the one they are focused on in the classroom. Assemble listening recommendations and a forum for them to share their current interests and artists they have discovered.

As an educator, I love hearing about how other educators help their students succeed. What are your tips to helping your students achieve their best? Share in the comments below.

Caleb Chapman is an award-winning performer, author, music educator, and producer. His new book, The Articulate Jazz Musician co-written with Grammy-winning saxophonist Jeff Coffin, was released by Alfred Music in 2013. For more information on Caleb’s projects and educational innovations, visit CalebChapmanMusic.com.