Fear of Improvising

This is the start of a new blogging series where I will be sharing methods for introducing jazz improvisation to middle school band kids. Although I’ve taught jazz improv for many years at the university level, teaching it to kids is somewhat new to me. Also new to me is the trumpet, which I have started to learn with my 10-year-old son, Logan. We’ve been practicing and taking weekly lessons together since this past summer.

On the few occasions when I’ve encouraged Logan to improvise or experiment with a scale or his own rhythms, he is usually reluctant to try — perhaps from a fear of failing or of “not doing it right.” He has got me thinking, “how can I break this down even more, so it isn’t so frightening or overwhelming?”

In the process of blogging, I will aim to find or create bridges to help Logan overcome his improvisational fears. Logan says he’s willing to give it a try, and I will experiment and tweak my methods as I go. From visiting many band rooms as a clinician, I know he isn’t alone in his trepidation for playing something that isn’t written. Who knows? These blog posts may someday culminate in a method book… or maybe not. We will see how it goes and Logan and I will try to have some fun along the way.

In this first exercise, we did some call and response using a major pentatonic scale (1, 2, 3, 5, 6 of the major scale). Limiting the number of notes to five made it less threatening, but even that was too much at first. The solution was beginning with me playing rhythms using the root only (scale degree 1), and having him repeat my rhythmic ideas on the note ‘C’. Eventually we added a second and then a third note, until all 5 notes of the scale were added. After a week or so of doing this, HE ASKED IF HE COULD LEAD!! This was our breakthrough.

Here’s a short video clip showing us going back and forth, trading one measure ideas:

Since recording this, we have moved on to trading two-measure ideas in our calls and responses.

I hope other music educators will share some “breakthrough teaching moments” related to beginner improvisation techniques, below. I’ll be back soon, sharing our progress and some additional ideas.

Happy Holidays!