The first attempts to improvise can be a little overwhelming to a student, who sometimes comment that they “don’t know what to play.” For encouragement, I remind them that they are already quite experienced and even expert improvisers, since they are very good conversationalists. They might have a general idea of what they will say before speaking, but each sentence is improvised on the fly as they hear it unfold.
Tegan (who begins high school this fall and plays both cornet and piano) has never played in a school band program, and so I was looking for another way to broaden her musical experiences. Her father, Brad (who has his own music education blog, Music Learning Workshop), owns the entire series of Jamey Abersold play along jazz CDs. From that collection I chose the standard, “You Stepped Out of a Dream” (which has a beautiful melody, an interesting, yet relatively simple chord progression, and a moderate tempo). Tegan could play the melody and all of the corresponding chords and applied scales, yet was experiencing the block mentioned above. For a cornet player, any kind of mental hesitation tends to also migrate to the airstream, which is like pulling the plug on an electric piano…no sound.
After trying a few different approaches, we had success with what I call “Motivic Cells,” which are based on a simple (in this case, three note) motif. Tegan composed her motif from the first chord’s applied scale, a good first step in deciding “what to play.” I really liked that her motif had a high “hip factor,” a term I use for the notes from the scale that are not the 1, 3, 5, or 7 making up the underlying chord. This means that a monophonic instrument like her cornet can easily add more sophistication to the harmony, plus the opening perfect 5th interval followed by a major 2nd was an expressive gesture. Tegan then decided how to adapt her motif to the rest of the progression, preserving the same intervals. I suggested that we modify the motif in measures 5-8 to bring out the smooth voice leading inherent in the Cm7-F7 progression. Then to give her more time to set up and breathe, I placed a half rest in front of three of the cells, and then had her play the resulting motifs in time to familiarize her ear with the sound of the pitches.
Next I improvised a short, cell based solo for her, illustrating how the notes could be played in any order, repeating some or leaving others out, and with any rhythm. While that still allows for a lot of freedom, the pitch choices were not as overwhelming. When Tegan took her turn, we (including her father, who was also there) could hear that the air and sound were already better, so it was easier for her to try out her ideas. There was also an audible, inherent form to her solo and she did a great job at keeping her place in the chord progression. I’m looking forward to hearing Tegan’s next solos once she becomes even more familiar with her cells!
Be sure to check out the newer post, “More Ways to Improvise Using Motivic Cells.”