Starting a Conversation – Exploring Improvisation in the Modern Band Rehearsal

As a teacher who came from a background in traditional music education and shifted to teaching modern band, I observed that musicians skilled in popular styles are adept at learning and playing both familiar and unfamiliar songs quickly. Whether they’re handling chords, bass lines, or diving into solos, their ability to adapt their playing to any song often appears extraordinary. However, as I’ve delved deeper into this musical realm, I’ve learned that developing this adaptability isn’t as challenging as I once believed. The key lies in consistently dedicating time to practice and rehearsal, focusing specifically on improvisation skills.

Musical improvisation is a core aspect of the modern band approach as well as national and state-level music standards. Developing proficiency in improvising fosters students’ creativity, critical thinking, musical fluency, and performance confidence. Despite its recognized importance, integrating improvisation into music classes and ensembles can be challenging for educators. The good news is there are straightforward ways to regularly incorporate teaching improvisation in the modern band classroom.

Start Small
Students can start improvising with as few as two notes. For guitars, the 3rd and 5th frets of the high E string are a great starting point, keyboards can use any two white keys, while bass players can copy the guitars. Even beginning students will quickly grasp switching between these two notes and be ready to use them to create music of their own.

Apply it Immediately
Once students are comfortable with switching between two notes, it’s time for them to create music with real musicians. For the notes given above, a recording of any song in the keys of G or C will work well. Play the recording, and all students can improvise simultaneously, in a glorious free-for-all of sound. For beginners, I have found it best to play a section or two of the song and then take a break. Students often enjoy singing along while resting their fingers during breaks, especially to familiar songs.

Add Complexity Gradually
As students get comfortable adding their own sounds to songs, you can introduce more complexity. This can include adding rhythmic elements or incorporating additional notes. To add rhythm, start by having students match their playing to repeated words or phrases. These words can be freely chosen, or they can be sourced from the lyrics of the song. An excellent example to reference is the way Chuck Berry echoes his lyrics with his guitar playing in the opening bars of “Maybellene.” 

Adding more notes takes a bit more time and practice. Start by expanding from a two-note solo to an adjacent string creating a box shape, then experiment with finger spacing e.g., playing on frets 5 and 8. These boxes can then be combined into full fretboard patterns like the pentatonic scale. (See Illustration 1) The diagram shows an example of the progression from 2 notes to “solo boxes” to the pentatonic scale. For major and minor scales, repeat the process with single-string patterns before combining them into full scales. (See Illustration 2)

Make it Routine
Consistent repetition is key to progressing from two-note improvisation to improvising with rhythm and scales. Include time for improvisation in every class or rehearsal, ideally as part of the warm-up routine. For example, use improvising as the bell ringer activity at the beginning of each class, playing a recording immediately and having students improvise along. While beginning students may need breaks, students will quickly become comfortable improvising for an entire song. This activity is a fun and low-pressure way to start class while giving students practice and building their confidence.

Explore Extensions
Once students are comfortable with improvisation, you can explore these two ways to extend their learning. First, encourage them to notice moments when their improvisation matches elements in the recording, progressing from matching single notes to complete phrases, riffs, and melodies. Reinforce this skill by having students make notes of these moments so they can recall them and begin to expand on them. Second, have students record their improvisations and use their recordings to generate ideas for songwriting and other compositions.

By embracing improvisation in your teaching and playing, you open a world of musical possibilities for your students and yourself. This approach will enhance adaptability, foster creativity, and build confidence in exploring diverse musical styles and expressions.

Joe Campbell is a music teacher in rural Nezperce, Idaho. 

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