Music improvisation tips for teachers and pupils

One of the most important aspects in teaching improvisation is to create a situation where the pupil feels safe from negativity. They have to feel that errors are part of the learning process. This in turn, will build confidence and trust – the most important aspect in a teacher-pupil relationship.
Also, the teacher must be able to demonstrate what the pupil is expected to do. If in the rare case, the pupil is outplaying/outperforming the teacher, the teacher must be honest enough to admit to the student that they cannot demonstrate what they teach – or if the teacher has a strong educational/intellectual background, such a teacher can still be effective in presenting concepts and ideas without actually being able to demonstrate them. 

It can be hard for a teacher to articulate (or a pupil, understand) a concept that seemingly comes from within, from ‘feel’. Therefore, here are 3 tips for teachers and students to use in order to develop a good, structured learning process for improvising music:

1. Teach the language – in musical terms, you have to learn the basic “words” and eventual “phrases” with which you will convey. It’s the same thing as when you learn a language different from your own. This includes
Try using a game of call and response, or “I play, you play,” often with a backing track playing in the background. If you like jazz, for example, someone could play a few jazz licks. As you become familiar with what you’re hearing, you’ll be ready to begin. The other person plays a lick and then the student plays a lick. This continues until the phrases, or riffs, are internalised by the student. Then they reverse roles: the student plays a phrase, and the musician responds.
For first timers, I will typically stay inside one key, either C or G, and move first from licks (if teaching guitar for example) to two measure phrases, then four measure phrases, and so on, using call and response. But I don’t spend much longer than 20 minutes of an hour-long lesson on improvisation techniques. For example, I might start talking about chords but then I guard against giving too much information all at once.
2. Use scales – whatever the students experience, by the end of their first lesson, they would be able to improvise on a scale. I recommend choosing songs with chords in one key as they are great for call and response with melody. This way, the student experiences success while taking a small initial step toward learning how to improvise.
3. Use rhythm – tapping the beat is important and also fun. Before you play your instrument, you need to be able to feel a pulse and nod your head/body to the rhythm.
In any improvisation lesson, the teacher should set the rhythm on the two and four count beats and instruct the student to pick up their instrument, but NOT play it. Instead of playing, the student should learn to tap/clap on the two and the four counts. Then you can use some call and response and then it’s on to something a little more advanced like the teacher playing their instrument while the student improvises a rhythm.

Once the pupil has fully understood  the rhythm, they can move on to phrases with the understanding that they’ll have to sit and listen for a specific rest period. It is important for the pupil to play a short phrase and then stop. So, for example, the teacher and pupil could do a one-beat/measure phrase, rest and then, if there is a two-beat/measure phrase, the pupil will rest for exactly that same length. This soon results in playing a simple three-note melody that is rhythmically-focused.

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