Some thoughts on learning to improvise

I was in the jazz band at school and big band at music college, so over ten years I reckon I took part in about 500hrs (very rough guess) of rehearsals and gigs. During that time I gradually learnt to improvise from listening to others, the odd bit of constructive criticism, going to gigs, etc. and so I got by. I guess this is discovery learning?  

But by music college it was clear I wasn’t very good at improvising! Definitely a classical musician having a go at jazz I didn’t really know what I was doing!  Then in my final year at music college they started getting a visiting jazz trumpet teacher once a month so I signed up for a  lesson. He gave me some great advice about how to generally improve my jazz playing then at the end of the lesson he said before I see him next time to go and find 10 jazz licks, learn them in every key and learn all these crazy jazz scales I’d never heard of…

So I never signed up for another lesson.

It was a revelation! But I didn’t have the time to learn all of those licks and scales I had a final (classical) recital to prepare for and there was no way I was going to turn up not having done the homework.  So I guess that was the first (and only) explicit teaching I ever received on improvising, I desperately needed it but it was just too late.  Before that point it was all a complete mystery for me I just thought that there was no method/pathway of how to be a better improvise. I never knew!

I wonder what would have happened if I had been given that lesson ten years earlier? Maybe at the age of 11 it would have been too much, I was still developing a love of jazz and enjoying discovering and creating. But five years earlier or when I just started at music college having got to a certain level I think it could have made a real difference.

My first college flatmate a (now mercury music prize nominated) drummer definitely got a lot of explicit teaching from his tutors and at the right time (but I also think he had the teacher from Whiplash). For me a great example of explicit teaching ensuring someone achieves their potential.

So looking back (and I guess this is the whole point of this blog post) I wish that I’d had more of a mix of discovery and explicit teaching of how to improvise. The discovery learning ensured my passion and drive for the music but if I had been given at the right time some explicit teaching of how to improvise- that there is a method to be followed, that there are scales and licks (e.g.) to be learnt to become a competent and fluent  improviser. Then perhaps that could have made all the difference to me developing as a jazz musician.

Back in the classroom I think it’s important to have both discovery and explicit teaching in many areas. To give learners the chance to discover, experiment, create and enjoy the mystery but then at the right time also be explicitly taught how to improve. I am sure that great teaching should/does incorporate both approaches and that a great teacher knows when to allow students to discover things for themselves but then step in to give them the expert explicit knowledge when required. Hopefully this allows them to develop their passion and own style but also provides a clear pathway and method of how to achieve rather than keeping things a mystery.



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