Junior High Band
Jazz Band Tips

Teach Improvisation

Jazz musicians have the ability to hear a note and know, or feel, how it's fingered. To some it comes naturally. To others it's a developed talent. Below are practice suggestions and warm-up exercises that can help develop that ability. How to use the pentatonic scale is also included as well as a suggestion for a written solo assignment.

  1. Practice Suggestions
    1. Practice simple tunes in all keys. Play each tune through the keys chromatically, diatonically, and around the circle of fourths.
    2. Play along with the radio or a recording. Play the melody. Make up simple harmonies.
    3. Use the Jamey Aebersold books and recordings or similar materials.
    4. I really like Jeff Cunningham’s practice routine. His 30-minute practice session includes the following: (1) scales, arpeggios and the chromatic for 8 minutes, (2) method book work for 10 minutes, (3) ear training exercises for 6 minutes, and (4) “Real Music” for 6 minutes. See his website for more details.
  2. Warm-Up Exercises
    1. Echo Drill
      After warming up with a pentatonic or blues scale (see Pentatonic and Blues Scales Warm-ups), play one-measure rhythm patterns using the first two notes of the scale. The band echoes in the next measure. After a few two-note patterns, move to three-note patterns. The band continues to echo. Keep adding notes until you are using all the scale tones. (See below)
    2. Two Measure Echo Swing

    3. 12-Bar Blues Accompaniment
      For one of its Summer Jazz Workshops, the Brigham Young University Music Department invited Jamey Aebersold to be the guest clinician. One of his classroom presentations was on the blues scale. He taught the students how to play the blues scale and when to use it (see Blues Scales Study Guide). Then he played a piano accompaniment while the students soloed using what they learned. After the class I asked him to teach me the accompaniment he was playing. The left hand was a bass line that followed the 12-bar blues progression. The first right-hand chord in each measure was 3, 5, 7, and 9 of the corresponding Dorian mode. The second right-hand chord in each measure was 2, 4, 6, and 8 of the corresponding Dorian mode. (See below) This was a very helpful tool that I used often. It's easy to transpose into other keys and it's relatively easy to teach to young jazz pianists. Click HERE to download a Microsoft Word version.
    4. 12-Bar Blues Warm-Up
      To practice the 12-bar blues as a band, have the rhythm section play the accompaniment (see above), the brass outline the chord progression (see below), and all the saxophones improvise -- in this case, with the concert Bb blues scale. Repeat, having the other sections improvise in turn. For a real musical(?) thrill, everyone improvises the last time through.

      Improvising as a section is much less stressful than improvising alone. After the students gain some confidence, give them the opportunity to volunteer and solo alone.
  3. Pentatonic Scale
    One way to introduce improvisation to beginning jazz musicians is by using the pentatonic scale. As the name indicates, it is a five-note scale. All of the notes sound good anywhere within a blues chord progression.

    The notes in the pentatonic scale are notes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 of the major scale, which are C, D, E, G, and A in the key of C. When improvising, use the pentatonic scale that starts a minor third above the key of the chord progression. For example, when improvising in the key of F, use the Ab pentatonic scale, Ab, Bb, C, Eb, and F. When improvising in the key of Bb, use the Db pentatonic scale, Db, Eb, F, Ab, and Bb.

    Notice that the pentatonic scale is very similar to the blues scale. Adding one note to the pentatonic scale forms the blues scale:
    • A blues, played in the key of A = A C D D# E G
    • C pentatonic, played in the key of A = C D E G A
    • Move the last note of the pentatonic scale to the beginning and it becomes, A C D E G
    • Insert a D# between D and E and it becomes the A blues scale, A C D D# E G
  4. Written Jazz Solo Assignment
    As part of the instruction on improvisation the students were assigned to write a solo. Most of the junior high arrangements nowadays come with written solos and chord symbols for improvisation. After analyzing a couple of the written solos to see which notes and what kind of rhythms were used and after reviewing the music writing basics (see Music Writing Basics), the following guidelines were given for the assignment:
    1. Listen to the rhythm section, other soloists and especially the pros.
    2. Use manuscript paper and a ruler.
    3. The notes should be mostly chord tones and scale tones and parts of the melody.
    4. The rhythm of the solo should be mostly 8th-notes. Quarter-notes on the after beats and triplets occur occasionally.
    5. Use two- and four-bar phrases. End each phrase with a long note or a rest. Work toward a climax rhythmically and melodically.
    6. Use the characteristic sounds of your instrument, i.e., scoop into notes, growl, glissando, rips, high notes, etc.
    7. If it sounds good to you, that's good. If it sounds good to you and others, that's better.
    8. Minimum length is 12 measures.

Video Disclaimer

The attached videos are not perfect examples of how each tune should be played. They are recordings of junior high students, some of whom have had their instruments for only a few months. Also, they are not professional recordings. They were taken by band parents using home equipment and naturally focusing on their own children.

I include them for two reasons: (1) To give you an idea of what the arrangements are like, and (2) To illustrate the kind of performance you can expect from your junior high students.