Strategies for teaching improvisation to beginners

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Aug 01

Ever wondered how to approach teaching students basic non-jazz improvisation?

We know that as teachers, in order to provide our students with a holistic musical education, we should be incorporating aural, theory, sight-reading, general knowledge, composition and improvisation into our lessons on a regular basis. However for many teachers, it’s hard to know where to start… or where to find the time!

Paul Harris really got me thinking about this recently through his concept of Simultaneous Learning – I highly recommend reading this article if you’re unfamiliar with the concept.

Put simply, if you compartmentalise all the above aspects of your lesson, you’ll never have time to do it all. Instead, Harris recommends finding all the connections between these areas and integrating them regularly into everything you do in your lessons. His book Improve Your Teaching explains it in detail and is highly recommended resource for teachers. I shall be blogging about my own experience with Simultaneous Learning in the near future.

I’m a huge believer in the importance of teaching improvising to students from as early as possible in their music education. It’s a fundamental musical skill that is fun and helps develop an innate understanding of:

  • Harmony
  • Chord progressions
  • Voice leading
  • Structure/Form
  • Rhythm
  • Listening/Aural skills

Best of all, students don’t need to be able to read a note to do it, which makes it a fun and non-threatening warm-up for the start of a lesson.

Please note that for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about non-jazz improvising. We all know that students can readily improvise using a blues scale over a blues or boogie pattern, but what about composing music more in line with film music, ballads, pop and classical?

Many of you will be familiar with the image to the right, called the “Cirlce of 5ths“. Do you use it in your teaching? Do you get students to work around the circle when learning scales and/or chords? Perhaps you have it on the wall for quick reference to keys, related scales and key signatures.

I believe the most musical use of the circle is in teaching students about harmony and chord progressions. Most of you will teach students about the primary triads (I, IV, V) in some way. Perhaps students learn about the 12-bar blues progression (see my previous post “Teaching 12 Bar Blues to inspire beginners (especially boys!)”) which uses only the primary triads, or maybe they study them as part of their theory instruction.

Whatever the method, learning the primary triads in any given key is really useful because:

  • The primary triads make up the most fundamental chordal movement in just about any piece of music – classical or pop. At its simplest, tonal music moves I – V – I, often passing through IV chord on the way: I – IV – V – I. Of course music often goes to lots of other places, but fundamentally compositions have to start and end on the tonic (I) and go somewhere in the middle (normally V at some stage).
  • With just these three chords, students can start making up their own compositions.
  • They help students recognise harmonic movement in their pieces – great for improving their sight-reading.

Take a composition in the key of C. Centre yourself around C on the Cirlce of 5ths and you’ll find that one chord to the right is the V chord (G); one chord to the left is the IV chord (F). The secondary triads (relative minors) are inside the circle: A, Em and Dm. Together, these six chords can create quite substantial compositions.

Whenever my students start a new piece, I drill them on the chords they are likely to find in the piece using their understanding of the Cirlce of 5ths. Students quickly realise the importance of the relationship between the chords and are able to accurately guess the chord progressions they are likely to find in their pieces. This of course, makes reading the music much easier as they are already looking for structures and shapes they understand.

So with all that in mind, here’s a video of how I introduce improvising to my students:

If this is not the sort of thing you usually do with your students, then I hope you’ll give it a try.

If you’d like me to post more ideas, please leave a comment with your questions.


About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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