Improvise in Baby Steps

I remembered a particular lesson with a student advanced in note reading – he’s probably grade 7 or 8 in ABRSM music grade. That lesson focussed on primarily improvisation. I got him to “just play anything” based on a set chord progression. We did a bunch of other things as well. Towards the end of the lesson, I asked him how did he find the lesson. He said he felt he didn’t know what to do at times as there were no notes.

On reflection now, I think I gave that student too much of a challenge. It’s almost like I have thrown him a piece of paper, some paint and say paint me something happy. For someone who is used to paint by numbers, having to decide what specifically to draw/paint and what colours to use must have been a monumental task. And yet I did that to my student.

If I had to redo that lesson, I would have started that student from the beginning, gave him easy tasks to complete and build up his confidence in improvising. For instance, based on a straight forward melody, I would ask him to, for example:

  • add upper neighbouring notes to the melody
  • add lower neighbouring notes to the melody
  • add passing notes to the melody
  • add appoggiaturas to the melody
  • add turns to the melody
  • using the same rhythm as the originaly melody, improvise using chord tones
  • change the rhythm of the first, second, third, etc note of every measure
  • add fill-ins – neighbouring notes, turns and chord tones

Hopefully through the above process, he would discover the joy of making small alternations to an existing melody and eventually be skilled at it.

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