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Improvising During Rehearsal

J. Thomas Seddon | September 2012

   It is important to learn to improvise in many different styles. Composers in all areas improvise in the style in which they intend to compose their music; Mozart and Bach were both high-level improvisers. Directors work on this skill with jazz band but not with all the students in the band and orchestra programs. The following guidelines will get students improvising while still using rehearsal time effectively. I use these as part of my warmup. I start with such standard warmup exercises as scales and then add this onto it. It rarely takes up more time than what I typically spend on a warmup any other day and the improvisation exercises function as a transition to get students ready for that day’s rehearsal music.

Simple Melodies
   I begin by teaching what I call ear tunes, simple melodies taught by rote, to my students. My students are also required to learn to play five ear tunes of their choice on their instrument. To reap the most benefit for my band or orchestra program, I choose to teach melodies by ear from the music we are studying, but these can be also be folk songs or anything else easy and familiar.
   I start by playing or singing the melody for the students three to four times and asking them to listen for different aspects of the song each time you perform the song. Examples of things to listen for include tempo, different rhythms, and the shape of the line. After doing this, break the melody down into phrases and echo them with the students until they are able to sing the various parts of the song. Combine the phrases gradually until students can sing the entire song without your assistance.
   After this students should begin working through the phrases on their instruments. Begin by explaining the difference between the starting pitch and the tonic for the key of the song. Then have them find both pitches on their instrument. If students know enough solfege, they should have an easy time understanding the difference between the tonic and starting note. In band, it may be necessary to cover the transpositions and their relationship to concert pitch.
   Have students play the scale of that key and then work on each phrase to get used to playing by ear. Use the same process for learning to play the melody as you did to have them learn to sing in step one. Some students will struggle with this, particularly if it has not been part of their training. Repeat this with different tunes until the students have learned 10-12 songs. This will give enough of a base to begin learning improvisation.

Learning Patterns
   The next step is learning functional patterns, short rhythms or groups of notes that can be used as part of a harmonic progression. These patterns should be presented both rhythmically and tonally, isolating rhythm from notes at first. The aim is to reduce difficulties as much as possible; students may have an aptitude for rhythm that is different from their aptitude for pitch.
   What I learned my first year of teaching is that students would just improvise by following the blues scale up and down. Playing a blues scale up and down while changing rhythms is not improvising. What I tried to get students to do is hear the changes in harmony, so they improvise. They more pieces you add, the more complicated it gets, so by limiting it, students have a chance to grasp it without it being overwhelming.
   I prefer to begin with rhythm. Students usually have an easier time being creative with rhythm. Take a series of rhythm patterns from rehearsal music, or make up your own, and change the articulation to legato, staccato, or marcato, depending on the pieces you are working on. The end goal is improving the music by students choosing the right articulation when performing the pieces rather than the director having to remind students every day. It is best to develop rhythm patterns from the repertoire being studied, and to include both duple- and triple-meter patterns.

   Begin by teaching these patterns by ear with the same type of call-and-response method used earlier for the melodies. When students are secure in the patterns you have chosen, chant a rhythm and then have them respond with one of their own. However, they should only use the rhythmic devices found in your example. For instance, if you chant a pattern of quarter, two eighths, quarter, two eighths, students should respond only using quarter and eighth notes.
   The first several times I have the entire band respond simultaneously, with each student choosing a pattern. This almost always produces what sounds like steady eighth notes and will help students be comfortable improvising rhythm because everyone is doing it at the same time. After this, begin calling on individuals to perform a pattern after you demonstrate one.
   This is also an excellent way to drill complex rhythms, such as those from the third movement of Holst’s Second Suite. They are typically difficult for many groups to negotiate and teaching them by ear first would be a benefit in and of itself. Asking students to improvise using these as a starting point can later be used to identify correct and incorrect music reading when performing the third movement of Holst’s Second Suite in F.

   Once the students become more comfortable with the rhythmic aspect of improvisation, introduce tonal improvisation. This should be done beginning with tonic and dominant harmonies. Many students struggle to hear the difference between tonic and dominant, so this is an important skill to develop. Using two- and three-note patterns in tonic and dominant chord functions, and having the students both sing and play them will help to develop a sense of harmonic flow. Without this ability they will not be able to improvise effectively and have difficulty in reproducing composed music. Once tonic and dominant functions are learned, add sub-dominant chord patterns to the mix. From there, the possibilities are infinite.
   I recommend starting tonal patterns with the circle of fourths. This is an easy introduction to the tonal aspects of improvisation. When I first started doing this type of activity with my students, I began with the tonal patterns and found that students struggled a great deal. By adding the circle of fourths, students become less uncertain of which note to play and are better able to grasp the tonal patterns once presented. Few students have experience using their ears without their eyes; the circle of fourths allows students to begin with something visual and is easy to commit to memory so the focus can shift quickly toward listening. If we do not move students away from the visual world, their comfort with improvisation becomes limited by what the eyes can take in and interpret. To begin teaching using the circle of fourths post the notes on the board. I have found the following format to be most beneficial for my students:

C – F – Bb – Eb – Ab – Db/C# – Gb/F# – Cb/B – E – A – D – G – C

   Have students play each note the circle of fourths choosing the note in the easiest octave. Each note should be a whole note so students have time to think about the next pitch. Students should play their relative pitch corresponding with the concert pitch and play the notes in the circle of fourths in order. It is preferable that this be unconducted so students practice keeping track of the beat.
   The next step is for students echo you singing tonic and dominant three-note patterns; I usually sing the in solfege. Give students the key and the starting pitch and have them learn the patterns for these simple chords. I recommend that the starting pitch be same as the tonic to reduce confusion. Tonal patterns also work well for warming up the embouchure; they are triadic in nature and use a limited range that is expandable.

   The following patterns incorporate an expanded range for practice:

   After the students are comfortable with the patterns and can perform them with relative ease, they should start improvising patterns. The easiest way to do this is to provide a pattern and have students respond using the same chord. When students are comfortable with this, have them respond with a different function. For example if you provide a dominant pattern, they would respond with a tonic pattern.
   After these beginning steps, students should be able to try echoing back entire harmonic progressions. For example, I will play a measure of tonic and one of dominant, and students will then improvise their own patterns. This can easily be expanded to include subdominant chords, and eventually lead to ii6-V7-I progressions. Each new chord should be introduced first on neutral syllables, then solfege, both singing and playing, before adding them into improvisation exercises. This activity can be done in any key or mode and can be used for all types of music.
   Before moving on from this, I recommend revisiting the circle of fourths to combine tonal and rhythmic functions in an easier setting. At this point have students play the circle of fourths in whole notes, then add varying rhythms and styles.

Improvisation Using Melodies
   Students now have a basis for improvisation using one of the melodies from the music being studied. Improvisation should use the harmonic progression of the song, various rhythms found within the piece and the style of the piece; these parameters help direct students’ creativity. When students stumble, help them recover by reminding them of these three things and, if necessary, review the activities that have led to this point.
   Some advanced activities might include having the band play the progression using harmonic progressions already learned and rotating several individuals who improvise while the band accompanies them. This can be stretched into players interacting with each other improvising together in a call-and-response format. It is also possible to alternate the melody and accompaniment through different sections, while soloists improvise, setting up a Concerto Grosso style. This opens up possibilities of teaching various forms, including how to be creative within each form through improvisation.
   Many composers impose restrictions upon themselves before beginning a composition to help limit the possibilities. This allows them to focus their efforts in a specific direction and promotes creativity. By placing limitations on improvising students, we are giving students a starting point for creativity, and once students are set on a path to creativity, their performance level will improve.