Aural Techniques for Teaching Jazz Improvisation
The instructional techniques that follow are intended to introduce the abstract nature of jazz improvisation from a totally aural perspective. The concepts range from simple imitation to “free” group improvisation, providing the instructor with a variety of avenues from which to address jazz as a unique musical language.
The aural techniques can be applied gradually in school jazz ensemble rehearsals or sessions. The modular design of the method offers flexibility and considerable space for the instructor to shape the activities to the level of the group involved. Directors with little or no jazz experience will find the information highly accessible.
1. Body Rhythms
Activities: Establish a constant pulse and instruct all participants to tap their feet to the beat. Accent the first of every four beats to establish the feeling of a 4/4 measure. Clap a measure-long motive and ask the group to imitate the pattern in the bar that follows; repeat the motive until the group responds accurately. Gradually alter the patterns, presenting more complex rhythms, altering the dynamics, and shifting accents in the measure.
Ask individual students to serve as lead clapper and point out the improvisational role they will play as they generate original patterns.
Repeat the process in 3/4 time. Advanced music students will also benefit from repetitions in odd meters.
When the group is comfortable responding to one-measure patterns, expand the motives to two bars and eventually four.
Objective: This technique will guide the student in establishing an internal basic pulse while responding in direct imitation to a second level of rhythms related to the pulse. By reducing the activities to the common denominators of hands and feet, we stress “time” and simple rhythmic/dramatic response.
When a student serves as leader, stress creating a variety of rhythms, accents, and dynamics that comfortably fit the structure of the measure(s) and illustrate how the motives must be presented clearly in order to be imitated readily by the group.
2. Call and Response
Activities: Instruct the group drummer to play a repeating medium-tempo swing pattern. Inform the group that you will use only concert Bb and one 4/4 measure and ask them to repeat your motive in the second measure. All participants (including bass, guitar, keyboards, and drum set snare drum) imitate the bar-long motive verbatim with all articulations, inflections and dynamics.
Eventually expand phrase length to two measures and even four, continuing to use only concert Bb and carefully mixing the dramatic effects. Ask individual students to serve as call leaders.
Expand the tonal field to TWO pitches (Bb and C) over one, two, and four bar phrases. Continue to employ various dramatic effects and call upon students to act as leaders.
Gradually employ added pitches of concert D, F, and G (resulting in scale tones 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 in Bb or Bb pentatonic scale). Expand by adding Eb (4) and A (7) to fill out Bb major scale. You can similarly employ other scales and modes as you see fit.