All State Jazz auditions and Improvisation for novice improvisors.

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    The number one question I am asked is how do you teach students to improvise who haven’t done it before? How do you get past the fear and apprehension? I don’t know if I know the answers to these questions but I have picked up some techniques over the years that I would like to share.

    I am told by my fellow educators that they have students who don’t audition for All-State Jazz due to the improvisation requirement. I have been asked by some to remove the improvisation requirement so more kids would audition. I can’t in good conscience remove what is truly the core of this great American music to help students feel more comfortable but I do understand the trepidation they feel towards it. Instead I would like to start a conversation among all of us who are comfortable in this area where we can share ideas and techniques we have tried and adopted over the years. I love this music and want nothing more than to show others the joy and freedom they can feel when they improvise.

    When I start to address improvisation with new students I always start with their major scales. I am still astonished that the overwhelming majority of students that make it into high school (at least in my experience) still don’t really know their major scales. Improvisation is going to be very uncomfortable if they don’t have this foundation. Once we start to get comfortable with our scales I start them with a chord change (usually just a simple blues such as Tenor Madness!). We learn what the symbols mean first (C7 = C major scale with a lowered 7th). Then as a class we will arpeggiate the changes for the given tune. In the case of this years auditon “Tenor Madness”, I will ask them to write out the arpeggio (C,E,G,Bb) as quarter notes to fill the measure. In measures where there are more than one chord we would switch to eighth notes so we can play the entire arpeggio in two counts. I then have the students play through these arpeggiations so they become familiar with the notes of the chords. When they can play them comfortably we then attempt our first solo. I ask them to play with the rhythm section a simple solo that is composed of only the notes that we wrote out in our arpeggios. If they will keep it simple and use only the given notes they will have success! I have found when they can play a solo (albeit a simple one) where the notes sound good, the fear will slowly subside and they will start to enjoy improvising!

    The next step for me is to have them write out a solo that fits the changes. They now have the notes that will work so this is simply a matter of adding their own unique rhythm. They must then play their written solo with the rhythm section. Some of the students will get a little crazy with their writing and won’t be able to play what they wrote. In these cases it’s back to the drawing board until they can compose and play their written solo. All of this work is doing one thing without them realizing it. They are learning the changes through repetition and readying themselves to improvise spontaneously! There is one really easy tool to use to aid in their practice of playing with the rhythm section. There is an app called iRealpro that will allow students to type in any chord change, select a style, and the app creates a backing track to practice with. This is very much like the Aebersold books but is customizable to fit the changes for the tune you are working on.

    Once the students have had success playing a few of their written solos it is time to improvise a solo on the spot! There will still be some fear here but with encouragement from their teacher and peers they have all the tools to be successful. It is very important that the environment in the classroom be supportive and non-judgmental for this to be successful. Remind them that we are all in it together and will all have our struggles and our successes!

    When they are improvising on the changes and having success you can start to talk about other note choices other than just the arpeggios. That is a whole different conversation but if you are interested there are a couple of tools that you can look at to help. The JazzDeck is set of card that have chord changes on them on one side. When you find the card with the change on it you are working on you flip it over and it tells you what the chord tones are, and gives you a new set of notes that will sound good with that chord. They have a video that explains better how it works at There is also an app which does very much the same thing called jazzbox and it can be found in the apple app store.

    I hope this helps and will start a conversation where others can give their ideas! Always remember jazz is a language and the best way to learn a language is to listen to it!!

    Good luck on your auditions!


    Thanks for posting Shawn!


    Great ideas Shawn! Thank you!

    I’ve found a few other things that have worked positively for me. I get to teach a mix of 7th and 8th grade students in a middle school jazz club. It’s in a instrumental jazz combo setting as opposed to a big band. I favor the combo setting when it comes to learning how to perform jazz (just ask any second tenor player in a big band. Those parts can be ROUGH if students are expecting straight ahead melody). I’ve learned to build a safe-zone soloing approach for self conscious but curious newbies in the middle school level.

    The biggest thing I try to stress from the beginning is that mistakes are our friend in jazz. We learn way more in an impactful way from what doesn’t work than from successes that aren’t necessarily planned. If we can make those impact points positive, even if they weren’t the initial desired outcome, we can teach the kids some resiliency when it comes to learning the art. They won’t be good right away and that’s okay. That’s life. I’ve found that by celebrating a kid brave enough to play a sour note or two in a strong way in front of the class can help not only that student relax and feel more comfortable, but the entire class as well. Making mistakes becomes a positive part of the learning process, not part of a failure like it can so often seem in core classes.

    I agree with Shawn in that major scales are the key to learning their way around chord progressions. In addition, I’ve found that by stressing tonal centers and learning the “cool” notes to play/sing can really help the younger students find success early and encourage them to keep digging as they progress.

    Taking Tenor Madness for example, it’s a great way to get the kids started on a blues scale. If you start with the Bb major scale and then transfer the notes to numbers instead (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8), it can make communication easier and get each student to be accountable for knowing the theory on their own without taking too much time away from playing. Relate the notes of the blues scale to the ones they already know in the major scale. Have them write out the 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7 and 8 as notes on staff paper and label the scale tones underneath. It’s a super safe scale to play and they’ll sound good from the get-go, but please make sure that you stress from the beginning that the blues scale is only a tool. It’s just a beginning. Young musicians who use the blues scale over solos sound great at first, but it soon gets stale and boring to listen to. You can always do an “all-solo” as well. If every student is performing a solo (while the rhythm section holds down the accompaniment) and focusing on their own independent playing, they don’t have time to listen to what others are doing. Once they feel comfortable in this setting, take volunteers to share something cool they learned to play during their solo. If the students find a cool lick to play (a great chance to learn jazz terminology) they can teach it to the other students as well. It provides positive opportunities across the board!

    Once they get the hang of the blues scale, get them to stress the chord changes of the blues progression in their solos. Have them use the blues scale to aim for the chord changes (such as the Eb and F7 chords if we’re talking in the key of Bb). This accomplishes two outcomes. The first being the chord progression becoming recognizable in their ears. If they can start hearing the roots and with the bass and comping instruments moving underneath, they’ll have an easier time equating that to what they see on the page. Have them play the roots with the rhythm section before they solo as well. Anything you can think of to get them to engage their ears as well as their brains. Jazz was an aural tradition first. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that present in a world that stresses literacy first. It’s certainly possible to keep the approach balanced and live in both the aural tradition and literacy emphasis.

    The second is that it will open the door to playing the chord changes in the manner Shawn describes above. It can be a challenging step-up because there is so much to think about when soloing. Once they get to what Shawn mentioned above, you can have the kids start aiming for the “cool notes.” Here’s my take on notes to aim for. Out of the scale tones 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7,8 (using a dominant seventh scale), there are notes to aim for and notes to use as passing tones. My middle schoolers helped me label them as this: The 1 and the 5 is the land of the bass. It’s hard to be cool when you’re playing something the bass player emphasizes. We draw the 1 and 5 with a square around them because they certainly fit in the chord, but the solo ends up sounding “square” (slap knee here) if you emphasize these. We call the 4 and 6 tones passing tones because they sound okay when you go past them, but not so good when you emphasize them in a solo. (This changes as soon as you get to suspended chords but that’s further down the line). The coolest notes to aim for are the 3, the b7, and the 9(aka the 2). These are the notes that the greats use. By referencing the 2 as the 9, you can now also talk about extended chords that are stacked past the 1-3-5-and b7 (hello, bebop).

    Lastly, the more you can play/sing and show that you are not afraid to make mistakes and try to model this stuff in front of your students, the more fearless you can help your kids become. If you get the classroom culture right, they will embrace mistakes made by everyone and learn from them. Everyone will soon be keying in on those teachable moments, not just the ones who need to fix something. Do call and response with them. Get them to react and communicate with their music instead of just focusing on the music on their page or in their heads. Use the written music to help them get to the music that happens off of the page, because that’s when the real magic happens.

    Please let me know if I can elaborate/spew my limited experience at you more. My email is Heck, let me know if you disagree with me. I’d love to learn more, especially if I’m wrong. Even though I teach MS Jazz, steal whatever you’d like for whatever class you teach whether it’s instrumental or vocal. In the end, jazz is jazz and it shouldn’t matter how you make it. Only that you do and that you’re finding success getting better while having fun learning an incredible American art. If you want more vocal specific stuff, I happen to be married to a vocal jazz teacher who has forgotten more than I know about the stuff. I can hook you up with her email for more info too.

    Best regards to you all,



    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 with any questions!


    I forgot to add this to my post last night:

    Another good resource for starting off is “The Real Easy Book. Tunes for Beginning Improvisers”. The is published by Sher Music CO. It contains about 40 standards of different lengths and styles, but all are geared towards the novice improviser. The great thing about this book is that along with each lead chart, it also includes a Supplemental Material page that has piano voicings (basic 3 note and rootless), useful scales, sample bass line and guitar voicings. All of the info that kids need is already right there for them. Very useful and easy to teach from.

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