how to improvise

Jazz Music and Improvisation Guide Books

As I mentioned earlier, I recently presented to the Piano Pedagogy Group. The piano teachers in this group are currently working on their Grade 10 or their Piano Pedagogy certification through Royal Conservatory of Music, Conservatory Canada or London College of Music . They are all classically trained (translation: improvisation, lead sheets and chord charts are scary). This is a list of the "How To" books that I use whenever I teach and play contemporary music (e.g. pop, rock, Latin, jazz, ragtime) that I shared with them:

Conservatory Canada Contemporary Idioms Syllabus

How To Play From A Fake Book look inside How To Play From A Fake Book By Blake Neely. For Guitar, Piano/Keyboard. Piano. Instructional. Instructional book. Standard notation and instructional text. 88 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.220019)Smp_stars40 (1) ...more info
Lead Lines and Chord Changes look inside Lead Lines and Chord Changes By Ann Collins. For Piano. Piano Collection; Piano Supplemental. Early Advanced; Late Intermediate. Book. 80 pages. Published by Alfred Music Publishing (AP.199)...more info
Volume 1 - How To Play Jazz & Improvise look insideListen! Volume 1 - How To Play Jazz & Improvise By Jamey Aebersold. For any C, Eb, Bb, bass instrument or voice. Play-Along series with accompaniment CD. Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long series. Beginner, intermediate. Book & CD. 104 pages. Published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz (JA.V01DS)Smp_stars30 (22) ...more info
Volume 3 - The II/V7/I Progression look insideListen! Volume 3 - The II/V7/I Progression By Jamey Aebersold. For any C, Eb, Bb, bass instrument or voice. Play-Along series with accompaniment CD. Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long series. Beginner, intermediate. Book & CD. 100 pages. Published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz (JA.V03DS)Smp_stars40 (6) ...more info
Boogie Woogie for Beginners look inside Boogie Woogie for Beginners Arranged by Frank Paparelli. For Piano/Keyboard. Keyboard Instruction. 48 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.120517)Smp_stars40 (2) ...more info

There are a few more in my "To Check Out" pile. I'll add them once I've had a chance to go through them a bit.

Bringing the Groove Back into Music Studies with Pattern Play

Yesterday, ARMTA Calgary hosted a workshop on Pattern Play with piano pedagogue Forrest Kinney. He and his wife Akiko developed this extremely aural-kinesthetic approach to music playing. Seeing as I've been incorporating more of the VARK Learning Preferences into the music lessons I teach, I was looking really forward to this session. Forrest & Akiko Kinney In a nutshell, students are taught two patterns. These are imparted in a "talking drum" fashion: the teacher improvises a short motif using one of the patterns (e.g. E, G, A, B). The student answers with their own improvised motif. With young students, perhaps that is all you want to give them for that lesson as their "pattern play project".

Once the student has gotten the hang of that, the teacher can show the student a simple accompaniment pattern and they switch roles at the keyboard (e.g., E, B). (BTW, the pattern I just described is called Japan).

The next step is to get students to jam hands together. Forrest advises to have them start by playing the same pattern in both hands. When one hand is bored, melodic and rhythmic variation start to creep in.

With this approach, the feeling drives and shapes the music (not the brain) just as equally as boredom does. Forrest said that "boredom makes us receptive to new ideas and to change."

That was an extremely condensed version. Check out Forrest and Akiko's website and their books for a more in-depth explanation.

Two very important points to keep in mind when working on Pattern Play - eyes closed and tap the heel. Yes, that's a very jazzy approach. When Forrest said that, it made me recall my jazz lessons last year when Derek Stoll said the exact same thing.

Pattern Play can be used to help develop students' inner ear, phrasing, and rhythm and flow. Wait a minute, didn't I write about rhythm and flow at some point?

Hiyoshi is a Japanese concept called "rhythm-timing". In his Book of Five Rings, 16th century samurai Miyamoto Musashi said, "In the field of martial arts, one finds rhythm-timing in the techniques of shooting an arrow, firing a gun and riding a horse. The concept of rythm-timing should not be ignored in any profession or art."

Forrest said that somewhere along the way, we lost our hiyoshi. We lost the groove. In the quest to reach a certain playing level by age X and our quest for perfection, we lost the tamashii (soul) and the kokoro (heart)of music. This isn't the first time I've heard this. I heard this during my jazz lessons too and variations of this in my Iaido training.

Pattern Play was developed as a way for musicians, music students and music teachers to get back their groove. To just close our eyes and feel the music. Feel the beat.

Now Kinney's approach won't work for all students or all teachers and Forrest is the first to admit that. However, there are many nuggets teachers and students of all walks can take and use form the Pattern Play approach.

For those of us teaching Royal Conservatory students, we have to follow the syllabus for technical requirements. As supplemental material for the traditional exam students - Pattern Play will be a life saver. Conservatory Canada students do get to improvise in their exams. Pattern Play is a great springboard. Pattern Play will inspire students of all levels who want to go home and be able to play something "cool" each week.

Final thoughts? I jammed on D Dorian last night (eyes closed). I selected one of the "golden chord progressions" and started with one octave arpeggios in my LH and single melody notes in my RH. I soon tired of that and remembered that Forrest jammed on doubled thirds. I hate doubled thirds and normally avoid practicing them. Jamming on double thirds? Much more do-able....and fun. Soon, I tired of that and tried parallel 6ths and the "Mozart trill". I haven't tried transposing the pattern yet into all the Dorian modes, but I know I'll get to it eventually.

When playing back the recording, I got the sense my "inner child" was having a blast. I was giddy in the recording and as I listened to it. I can't wait for my Pattern Play books to come in just so I can play.

Ditto for when I checked out the lesson videos I uploaded yesterday. The kids were pumped and they're stoked that we're going to jam "lots" this month. How apropos that this month's focus in our Musical Exploration is jazz, blues and ragtime.

(c) 2010 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

On Conservatory Canada's Contemporary Idioms Syllabus

Last year, Conservatory Canada released their Contemporary Idioms syllabus. I must admit, I was slow to get on the bandwagon at first, partially because I wanted to hear comments from other teachers and partially because I wanted to take my time looking over the requirements. A few weeks ago, I sat in on one of ConCan's workshops on the syllabus. Unfortunately, I could only attend one out of the four sessions.

Derek Stoll and Steven Fielder made the workshop exciting, interactive and dynamic. It's an exciting program. I imagine teachers are seeing this as a way to keep some students from quitting in frustration because "piano is boring" or because they "hate their songs".

Students study a variety of the contemporary genres: rock, ballad/blues, jazz, swing, Latin, traditional/folk and ragtime. Unlike the traditional conservatory systems, memory isn't stressed. However, students don't get off quite that easily. They need to learn their chords extremely well because they are expected to sight-read and improvise off a lead sheet (or jazz chart). They have to determine which style is appropriate for these selections (e.g., swing pattern, waltz, Latin).

In addition, the technical requirements are very challenging. My older students and I are finding that after years of playing the good old major, harmonic and melodic minor scales, our fingers and brains are running circles with the old church modes and jazz melodic minor scales. We'll get it though, with a lot of patience and practice! Thankfully, we agreed to use this year to learn the new requirements and to simply explore the program. Next year, they'll be more comfortable to take the test.

I actually don't mind learning all these "new" scales. I've been itching to play different technical exercises. Although adding a new program into my studio means the investment of more music (so close to RCM's upcoming release of their new syllabus and books), I am drooling over all these songs that I can add to my gigging repertoire.

My 10 or so students who are trying out the program are enjoying it so far. Some of them are a little frightened about improvising in a certain style or the new technical requirements or reading from a lead sheet but overall, the switch has re-energized their playing and practice. One mother commented that her daughter is practicing "all the time" now, which wasn't the case last year.

The program is not without glitches. I heard there were a few bumps during the last exam session. ConCan was quick to update their syllabus online to reflect the feedback they received from students and teachers. I wrote them yesterday, requesting they ensure the next edition of the syllabus includes the correct book titles as Rideau Music and I have had a tough time tracking down some of the books. They responded to me right away, assurring me that they will make the necessary corrections.

It's a bit of a challenge to figure out how the eight-level system compares to the traditional 10-grade system. ConCan clarified things a bit for me there as well. Level 1 corresponds to Grade 1 in the RCM and CoCan Syllabi. Level 4 is about Grade 5/6, while Level 8 is the equivalent to Grade 10 in the traditional programs. I have heard some teachers say that they're not going to teach beyond Level 4 (some up to Level 6). Lucky me, I have three in Level 4/5, three in Level 7 and one in Level 8.

The program isn't for all teachers or all students, but that can also be said for all the conservatory systems and beginner method books. Some students are clearly "Royal Conservatory" or "Conservatory Canada" material. Then, there are the students who could thrive in either system. And then, there's the group of students who are "just playing for fun".

Regardless of which stream is best for a student, we can incorporate elements from the other programs to enhance our students' musical education.

It is wonderful to see how the resources and programs are evolving to meet the needs and interests of students and teachers.

(c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Musing about Music Improvisation

Earlier this month, one of my junior intermediate students attended the Young Composers' Workshop. The clinician, Robert Rosen, was wonderful with the students. He took them on a "soundwalk" and asked them to describe several sounds using music, such as an alarm bell, a water fountain and a door slamming. They did remarkably well. There's a close relationship between composing and improvising. Mr. Rosen said that the first step to composing is improvisation, while one student described composing as "improvising with an eraser".

I eagerly employed some of the activities used at the workshop. I told my students two things: "do not be afraid to use more than one note at a time" and "do not be afraid to use different parts of the piano". This week, I have been treated to some witty improvisations about puppies playing, kittens fighting over a toy, someone rollerblading down a hill, a creepy walk through a haunted house, a lazy summer day, a child snoring and dramatic thunderstorms.

Here are some interesting articles about improvising:

Happy exploring! (c) 2006 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Improvising at the Piano

Two blog entries in one night? I may be sniffly and sneezy with the cold/flu, but my brain is still coming up with stuff to write... Another interesting project I’ve had my students work on for the past couple of weeks is to play around with the following chord progression:

|: DA | Bminf#min | GD| GA:|D ||

They get about halfway through before exclaiming, “Hey! I know this! Isn’t this Pachelbel’s Canon?”

I’ve asked some my students to play through the chord progression as solid chords, then as broken chords. Then, I give them free rein to experiment with it (otherwise known as improvising). They’ve now all heard about the wedding I played at in which the bride wasn’t at the altar by the time I reached the last page of the Canon. I wound up improvising on the repetitive chord pattern until she reached the front of the church.

Some students have taken to this project like Maestro has taken to stickers

(my dog is obsessed with stickers), while some require encouragement on every single note. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them wind up improvising on this at a party or family reunion. After all, it’s a recognizable tune, the chords repeat (translation: easy to memorize) and everyone who hears them improvise will be impressed that they’re simply winging it.

All right. I'm out of blog ideas for the night. Time for me to practice chiburi. Iaido, is like piano, full of technical details that need to be just so to flow smoothly.

© 2006, Musespeak™,Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.