Noah is a talented young trumpet student of mine who is just now entering his second year of middle school. We were making more time this summer to work on jazz improvisation, since up to that point, we had been concentrating on his trumpet and music fundamentals, and his school band’s music. When there was time to work on jazz, I had only introduced him the concept of swinging 8th notes on a Blues scale and a simple Blues melody, and improvising over that tune’s Blues chord progression using the Blues scale. At home he could practice these things with a recording I had posted on my website. He had also played the “Pink Panther,” originally on a pass out sheet I had given him that placed the melody in the key of that same C Blues scale, and then in a school band arrangement that was in E minor.
As is often the case with beginning improvisers, Noah had a fair degree of success with this approach, but would not always know where he was in the form of the twelve bar structure (while accompanying him on piano, I would periodically stop and ask him where we were). However as things progressed, we added simple arpeggio exercises that helped attune his ear to the sound of the passing chords (see this progression of exercises, as it applies to “Take the A Train” below).
Most of this was done during the previous summer, so when the opportunity to return to jazz studies came up again this summer, I asked Noah if there was another song that he would like to work on. He surprised me by picking “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a tune that his middle school band director had played for the class earlier that year. This was a big leap for Noah…a longer form song with a challenging melody and a greater variety of chords.
However, Noah is talented, and was not afraid of the work that lay ahead. In his usual fashion, he tackled the challenges of the melody head on, and eventually could play the wider intervals, and became accustomed to the sounds of flatted 5ths, 9ths, etc. He also understood the music theory that supported the spelling of the chords and the applied scales that mirrored the sound of those chords. We made a simple “map” of the tune, to put all of the chord and scale spellings in front of him. An empty map is seen below, with only the melody and chord symbols, and empty staves available for other uses (also see my blog post on “Mapping Out a Jazz Tune”).
Next we tried the aforementioned process of outlining the chords with swinging 8th notes, beginning by playing whole notes on the root of each chord as the chords passed in time (see Example A, which shows measures 5-8 of the tune). That way he was not only able to become more aware of the sound and form of the progression, but to also remember to keep up the momentum of his airstream, in order to support a good trumpet sound. We then added a Root-3rd pattern with swinging 8th notes (Example B), and then as he was able to perform this with our priorities of good time and air, we progressed to a Root-3rd-5th pattern (Example C, which introduces a rhythmic variation by starting on the offbeat of beat 1), and then a Root-3rd-5th-7th pattern (Example D, which introduces an inversion of the A7 arpeggio, for smoother voice leading). We didn’t try running the applied scales, because I didn’t want to present him with too many note choices for his improvisation yet. Experience has proven to me that can often be paralyzing to a young improviser.
Having said that, I had Noah first try taking a solo only using the notes of the chords. While he had some degree of success in following the chord changes, it sounded more like an exercise. Rather than hearing phrases that extended over the measures (just as the tune’s melody does in such a simple but effective manner), his playing was reduced to playing in “little boxes” (my term for the measures), which tends to only satisfy the vertical elements. In other words, the playing is following the chord progression, but the horizontal aspect (the shape of the lines, and how the stream of notes relate to each other) is almost (or is completely) non-existent. Also gone was the sense of swing, the correct air support that would make Noah’s sound sing, and any kind of rhythmic diversity. As bad as all of that may sound, I blamed those deficiencies on the teacher (me!), not Noah.
To get that much needed horizontal aspect of the music working, we briefly discussed and experimented with “shapes” (see my blog post, “Using Shapes to Improve the Structure of Improvised Solos and Compositions”), using one of the open, spare staves of the tune’s map we had made. We only went as far as composing a gently ascending line of whole notes, and having Noah then play it over the accompanying chord progression that I provided on piano. This is a great way hear the effect (and need) for a strong sense of the horizontal, but we still required something else that would get him into the realm of improvising a more complete solo.
The answer was to reduce the amount of note choices even more, in order to encourage and increase the creativity…what I call “doing more with less.” This sounds good, but how was it accomplished? We had a tall order to fulfill…improve the airflow (and therefore the sound), have a stronger sense of time and swing, follow the chord changes (and therefore keeping his place in the progression), AND sound cool!
With all of the chords and scales spelled on the map’s staves below the melody, I helped Noah search for two easy to play, closely spaced notes that would sound good over any of the chords in the tune’s A section. What we came up with was E and F#, which were near the bottom of the treble clef staff, and were both in the same respective overtones of the two different trumpet fingerings (2nd, and 1st and 2nd valves). I didn’t want to have Noah just trust the theory that suggested these two new notes would fit over all the chords, so I had him play those notes on his trumpet, while I played each of the chords on the piano.
What he could immediately hear was that although the notes he played were always the same, their relationship to the harmony changed every time I played a new chord. For example the E was the 9th of DMaj7, the root of both E7b5 and Emin7, and the 5th of A7. The F# was the 3rd of DMaj7, the 9th of both E7b5 and Emin7, and the 13th of A7. Although the relationship of the two notes was the same over the E7b5 and Emin7, Noah could easily hear how they sounded different as the quality of those two chords changed (with their different 3rds and 5ths).
Next up, I had Noah play back and forth between the two notes with swinging 8th notes. Valve-wise this was simple, since he only had to wiggle his first finger as he alternately moved from 2nd valve to the combination of 1st and 2nd valves. That simplicity allowed him to concentrate on keeping the sound full, and to make the notes swing. I also had him try the articulation pattern of tonguing on the off beats (which added a slight accent to bring out the syncopation of swing), and slurring into the downbeats (which were then held their full value, to help emphasize the phrase, rather than the single notes).
With those important priorities of air and time in place, I had him play the swinging 8th notes again, while I accompanied him on piano. Right away you could hear the emergence of music making, since the notes were played with clear intention, confidence and authority. He was making a musical statement, and he could hear it! Another interesting benefit from this approach was that Noah always knew exactly where he was in the form of the tune. No matter when I stopped playing and asked him where we were, he always answered correctly. Because he had mastery over those two notes, he was able to listen more…an important skill for any improviser to have.
Although Noah’s smile showed that we were on to something, we knew that eventually he would need to introduce more variety into this approach. After all, he was not really improvising. To remedy this, I had him occasionally leave out an 8th note (which also gave him the opportunity to breathe!). See Example F for a general representation of what Noah played. This immediately introduced the element of surprise, since it was impossible for me as the listener to predict when the rest would occur. This approach also produced syncopation when he rested on a downbeat, for his next note came in on an offbeat. As soon as Noah heard the jazzier sound, he immediately “played” with the concept in creative ways. He was off to the races!
Another easy way to introduce variety and surprise was to hold out a note at the time of his choosing. Once again this introduced greater rhythmic variety, with the opportunity to create more syncopation as well. The held note also highlighted its particular harmonic relationship with the accompanying chord. Noah could hear this as well, which informed his spontaneous decision making even more. He was able to keep his place as he held the note (a challenge many young improvisers have trouble with) because by now his feeling of a swinging, underlying subdivision was firmly internalized. Things continued to get more interesting, not only because of the variety and harmonic interest, but because his sense of time, and use of solid, fundamental air support delivered his ideas with musical authority (Example G is another approximation of what Noah was playing).
Since things were working well, we discussed occasionally adding a 3rd note choice over each chord. Choosing from the possible chord and scale pitches, Noah decided to use A over the DMaj7 and A7 chords, a Bb over the E7b5 chord (hip choice, Noah!), and G over the Emin7. Example H shows one possible result following those parameters.
I should mention that Noah followed one of my suggestions, and got the iReal Pro app, which generates a rhythm section for play along practicing. You can type in the desired chord progression, set the tempo and rhythmic feel, and even mix the levels for each of the accompanying instruments. It is available on all major platforms, and there are several reviews on YouTube. https://irealpro.com
It was then time to look at the bridge of the song. Noah discovered that the same two pitches could be played over this entire section of the tune, but we decided to find two other notes that would work. In this way the beginning of the bridge, where a GMaj7 is heard for the first time, presented an even greater contrast…highlighting the importance of the composition’s new material. While the pitches B and A would have worked (except during the bridge’s final A7b9 chord, which demanded a Bb), Noah chose a C# and B (the C# was in the G Lydian mode, one of the optional scale choices), and delighted over the more exotic sound of the raised 11th (pretty good ear for a middle school student!). The A7b9 chord at the end of the B section still required that Noah change his B to a Bb, but Noah relished making that change, and hearing its distinctive sound.
With all of the success he was having, we tried one more concept…bringing out simple voice leading between the chords. We concentrated on the most common voice leadings, the b7 of a min7 chord moving to the 3rd of a Dom7th, and the b7 of a Dominant 7 chord going to the 3rd of a Major chord. Again, we used the map of the tune to write out those voice leadings, to make it easier for Noah to see when they occurred. Examples I and J show the way those notes appeared on the map, and how this concept can be used with Noah’s approach.
Of course there are many other concepts we could still try, and many of them are listed in the “Improvisation Lessons” category of my blog. The point of this post is to show a few effective approaches for a beginning improviser that are simple enough to allow them to prioritize the important elements of time and sound, and that reduce the number of pitch choices to the degree that encourages more creativity. They can also hear and play longer phrases, which is more native to the way we speak and communicate. In this environment, it also becomes easier to hear how the pitches relate to the underlying chord of the moment, and to hear the overall harmonic structure of the tune. All of these things combined make it more fun for any student, gives them a greater confidence in their new world of improvising, and inspires them to want to do more. Great work, Noah!