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Ditto to all the above! There has been a lot of information already shared so I won’t repeat. I agree wholeheartedly with Shawn and Garth. A few different/additional thoughts…
I think that even when we give kids understanding of chord changes and scales, many are still overwhelmed and hesitant by the fact that they have to “make something up on the spot”. This can be very intimidating. I urge (and almost force) my middle school students to start with the melody. All of those notes all ready work and all ready sound good! Even if for the first few solos they quote the melody exactly as written, they are building confidence playing by themselves and ingraining ideas that can be used later. Once they are comfortable with the melody, they can SLOWLY begin to change/add/embellish on what is already written. Change up a rhythm or two, add a note here or there, subtract a note here or there. Again, the basic framework for the solo is still in place, they are just slowly making it their own. The other thing does is help everyone, the soloist/rest of the band/combo know where they are at in the changes and not get lost. No one likes a wandering soloist! You can even have them analyze the melody and see which notes of the scales were used. This will help them identify those “cool notes” that Shawn and Garth talked about above.
Scales are the alphabet of improvisation, and especially major scales. Once kids know/understand their major scales you can begin talking about modes. Start with Ionian (major), Dorian, and Mixolydian. So in the key of C (all white keys on the piano), C to C is Ionian, D to D (still all white keys) is Dorian and G to G (again, all white keys) is Mixolydian. These 3 changes make up what is referred to as the ii, V, I (Dorian, Mixolydian, and Ionian) progression. What’s so hip about this little guy? It’s all one key area (again, if C is Ionian, then they still play all white keys even if they are on the ii or the V) AND it’s all over jazz music! I have heard a few different improvisational gurus talk about how if you can understand the ii, V, I in all keys, you know the vast majority of what improvisation is about, especially at the pre-college level.
Last thought- my college improv professor said that it takes 100 bad solos to get to one good solo, so get the bad ones out of the way. I think that yes, kids are hesitant, but it’s almost one of those things where you have to push them in the deep end so that they know they will float. We can put on their little floats and flippers, but they need a little nudge to get going! In my middle school combo classes I tell them that I will never make them improvise during a concert (I might strongly encourage, however) but during class and rehearsal, they have to improvise. Like Shawn said, it is at the core of jazz music.
You can email me at email@example.com with any questions!