Teaching Improvisation to Groups by Christopher Norton

My guest writer today is renowned New Zealand born composer and music educator Christopher Norton. Christopher is well-known for his Microjazz series;  a collection of jazz piano books for students of all levels which has sold well over a million copies worldwide. More recently, he has written Micromusicals for schools, and he continues to compose music in many different styles and genres. In the first of a short series of posts for my blog, Christopher sheds some light on teaching improvisation to groups. Over to Christopher…


I’ve just come back from a 2-day Keyboard Kamp (like the spelling? – I’m in North America now!) with young students from all over Canada. My brief was to teach improvisation in groups, ranging in age from around 7 years old to teenagers as old as 16. I had to decide in advance which material to use and how to use it, all without any music in front of the students (who were also sharing keyboards!) That was my choice – I have learnt that relying on students reading music can prove awkward, because in most groups music-reading ability is variable, to say the least.

I used 2 main series, Connections for Piano and American Popular Piano and used a variety of approaches. The first piece was from Connections 3 – Samba Sand. The tune employs the same three chords, three times:

Connections for Piano has backing tracks and I use these all the time when doing improv. But the first thing I did was teach 3 chord shapes, played with right hand initially, but not too low or too high on the keyboard. The chords were:

I taught each chord, one at a time, by saying the names of the notes from the bottom note – “B, D, G” was the first chord. Once everyone could play the chord comfortably, I named it “chord 1” and proceeded to spell out the next chord – “C, E, G” (‘chord 2’) The group seemed relieved to find they were playing a chord of C major!) Finally chord 3 – A, D, F#. I did quiz the group about what they thought the chords might be, then explained very quickly about the broad concept of inversions. If you haven’t noticed already, there is a first inversion of G, a root position C and a second inversion of D.

Now, with a backing track (available with all Connections for Piano pieces) I got them to play the chords, with me shouting out helpfully, in advance, what the next chord was going to be. This was taxing enough for the students, especially when the 8th bar of each phrase was a specific rhythm on chord 1:

Once the students have the chords feeling semi-automatic (with the track) they can start the improvisational aspect – chord rhythms. I suggest some repeated rhythm patterns, like:

Trying different rhythm patterns over a specific chord pattern is sufficiently taxing for a group, while still being fun.

The next thing to try is a left hand bass line, using the original piece as a template (for the teacher – the students still do it by ear). So I say, “when I say G you play this pattern”:

They learn that, then I say “if that is G, what is C?”. They hopefully find C, E, G. Then D, which has an F# (D, F#, A) Then through the chord sequence, with the track, with me shouting “G!”, “C!” etc. just before they are due to play the chord.  The whole sequence:

G / / / |C / / / | G / / / |D / / / |

G / / / |C / / / | G / D / |

(And repeat x2)

The next step is to play the 3-note chords in the right hand and the bass line in the left hand, with a variety of rhythm patterns in the right hand, including off-beat crotchets and even off-beat quavers! Reggae and ska sorted.

The next article will talk about right hand improvisation. But chord rhythms and a bass line, and using chord numbers as well as names, is a great start!

The Connections for Piano series, with tracks, are available from www.80dayspublishing.com.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

A few thoughts on Practical Musicianship and Keyboard Harmony

Today’s post highlights an important yet often forgotten element in music education. Most pupils take instrumental exams at some point in their musical training and are therefore familiar with aural and sight-reading tests (nearly all practical exams have these elements, irrespective of level). However, a much broader based training is necessary if pupils are going to become rounded and complete musicians.

Even if a student finds the  supplementary tests in instrumental or vocal exams straightforward, they would still benefit from more practical based musicianship exercises; one solution could be Practical Musicianship Exams. The ABRSM (Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music) have a series of graded tests (1-8) covering a whole spectrum of skills which are different yet comparable to those found in the conventional aural tests. Practical Musicianship exams can be taken instead of the Theory exams (most notably, Grade 5 can be supplemented for Grade 5 Theory), and it’s an extremely useful alternative.

Subjects covered are similar to some of those featured in the Aural tests at the early grades, but from Grade 6 onwards, there are differing worthwhile tests. Pupils are required to sing (or play some tests from memory) diatonic melodies (in more extended, complicated examples than those found in traditional aural exam tests), middle or lower part melodies, melodies with added expression, articulation, dynamics. There are also memory tests where the candidate is asked to play back, as well as transpose at sight, and recognise changes in a short musical extract. Answering questions about an extract from a score is another valuable test too.

The real benefit to any practical musicianship test must be the element of harmonisation, and ‘free’ playing or improvisation which is promoted in the advanced grades. If the keyboard is not a student’s métier, then practical tests can be played on any instrument.

It’s the element of thinking ‘on the spot’, which builds the foundation for advanced study. Theory exams are a great tool for understanding and practising harmony and counter-point; they could be considered the ‘first stage’ of learning, however, the realisation of harmony is truly grasped whilst improvising or harmonising at the keyboard. Useful exam tests include continuing a two bar melody by elongating to last eight bars, realizing a short figured bass passage by adding the required chords, and performing a ‘free improvisation’ based on a given poem.

Whether students decide to take an exam or not, keyboard harmony should perhaps be introduced into weekly practice regimes. Learning how to harmonise at sight and to assimilate figured bass are skills which are perfected over a period of time and with regular cultivation. Once basic harmony is understood, pupils can begin to harmonise,  so here are a few suggestions and ideas to implement during practice sessions.

1. An understanding of basic triads (chords which use the root or tonic, third and the fifth notes of a scale and are built on degrees of the scale) and chordal progressions is needed, so ideally some theory must be studied first. The example below shows how triads are built on each degree of the scale (in C major here), and it’s these which form the basis for harmonisation.

Chord progressions 2

Then, for those with sufficient keyboard skills (possibly Grade 5/6 level), start by playing cadences (i.e. the ends of phrases and pieces which normally consists of just two chords). Work out basic cadences: Perfect (which uses chords VI),  Imperfect (chords  I, II, IV or VI to V), Plagal (IV-I) and Interrupted  (generally VVI) cadences, listening to how they sound and feel to play (you might find it useful to write them out first on manuscript). You could practice playing them in all different positions around the keyboard.

2. Now play those cadences in every key; it’s probably best to work through the keys methodically adhering to a pattern such as the circle of fifths or fourths. Once you are familiar with these chord patterns, more chords can be added to each cadential point, so that you end up with a four or five chord cycle such as; chords I – IV – V – I (or tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic chords, see example below).

Chord progression

Incidentally, this simple chord cycle is one used often in pop music, sometimes repeated ad infinitum over an entire song. Again, try to work at these chords in all keys and observe the bass note in every chord as this is the key to successful harmonisation. The feel and sound must be noted and assimilated, as it will prove crucial when playing on the spot, adding chords to melodies.

3. Once basic chords and their patterns are thoroughly ingested and can be played without too much thought (i.e. without having to slowly work them out),  look at fairly simple melodies (perhaps those consisting of two or three four bar phrases), and decide how and where to harmonise by adding chords (either in the right hand or splitting the harmonies between two hands; the latter takes some practice). Sometimes one chord per bar will suffice if the tempo is quick. Next, play the harmonisation slowly at the keyboard adding the melody at the top of the texture. Concentration is key to begin with, and rather like sight-reading, it will all become easier and quicker over time.

4. Practice simple harmonisation for a while before negotiating Figured Bass, which is another type of harmonisation where symbols and numerals written under the Bass line indicate certain intervals and chords.

5. Reading through and studying hymns can be particularly helpful when learning to harmonise (and good sight-reading practice too!). Mentally take note of the chordal progressions, which will become more familiar. It’s also possible to notice the same patterns appearing countless times. Start by opening any hymn book, and also get a copy of J.S. Bach’s 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies with Figured Bass (Riemenschneider), which are fun to sight-read and are a good place to begin. There are, of course, many other useful materials and resources. Melodies of popular songs are another never-ending source of suitable harmonising material.

6. After a period of study the basis of harmony and harmonisation will have been learnt and the student can begin to experiment with improvisation. Sometimes just creating a ‘mood’ or atmosphere in a short simple improvised passage of a few bars, is necessary to start with, again, slow-moving harmonic progressions (such as those suggested above) will form the backbone of any melodic exploration.

These stages may take some time and pupils do need to be fairly fluent at the keyboard (or any instrument) to harmonise and improvise effectively, but it’s definitely a productive and interesting area of musical study to be encouraged in lessons.

Image link

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Higgledy Piggledy Jazz

BOOK SHELF HIGH RES 1

There are many piano tutor books on the market providing teachers and students with plenty of choice regarding how best to learn the instrument. Indeed I have covered this topic myself in my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? It can be a bit of a minefield as not all piano books are the same and some do tend to leave out crucial learning aids. However, once piano basics such as note learning, rhythm and fingering have been mastered, the majority of pupils ‘graduate’ on to simple piano albums which usually focus on written out music whether that be Classical, Pop, Rock, Jazz or any other desired genre. Very few venture into the realms of improvisation. There’s no doubt that it’s crucial to start by consolidating a student’s knowledge of note reading by working at written out music, but how much more fun it would be for pupils if they were to be encouraged to improvise and eventually play their own compositions in addition to the usual staple diet of technical work?

Higgledy Piggledy Jazz is an exciting concept consisting of several music books and accompanying CDs which concentrates on basic Jazz and improvisation skills. Written by pianist, teacher and music educator, Elena Cobb , the books are unique and a useful resource for any teacher and pupil. Elena hails from Russia where she studied at a specialist music school and then at music college. She moved to the UK in 1996 and has since taught the piano for many years combining this with composing music especially for young pianists.

Elena told me what inspired her series; ‘I grew up in the world where in addition to many hours of lessons with music teachers we had plenty of time for everything else. Modern children are expected to do everything quickly and are overloaded with ‘activities’. I wanted to give little people a better chance to understand what this fuss is all about in the bass clef of the piano scores. In my HP Jazz for piano book I added a little ‘extra’ from my childhood – coloured notation. Memories of complete loneliness when practising and scary moments of playing everything on stage alone, brought the idea of a play-along CD with the live recording of a professional Jazz Band. I want children to feel like stars as well as to learn to keep the beat. So I guess, the CD works both as a metronome and a backing track! I am a firm believer that the core requirements like reading the notes and correct hand technique in learning to play the piano should not be sacrificed in preference of being considered a ‘nice’ teacher who will ‘show’ the notes on the keyboard. Children need to learn to read the music in order to make progress and to become independent. And the key element to my books is to make this process a fun experience.’

I spent some time playing through many of the pieces from the Higgledy Piggledy Jazz Series, and the most prominent feature (for me) are the multiple  passages within each piece, encouraging improvisation; where the left hand plays various chords and the right hand must negotiate ‘made-up’ or ‘composed’ passagework around certain suggested chord structures. There are so few work books that address this subject and it’s simply a great idea. The books are beautifully produced with colourful illustrations (all drawn by Elena’s artist sister,  Nathalie Chabelnik-Wood). The tunes are lively, melodic and nearly all require plenty of rhythmic drive; these volumes would be ideal for students who need to address rhythmic issues such as learning to ‘feel’ the pulse. I asked Elena about the improvisation element; ‘As many classically trained piano teachers are still on the fence about teaching improvisation, I see it as a fantastic opportunity to try. My piece ‘Super Duck’, with its straight forward layout, is the ideal place to have a go! ‘

Higgledy Piggledy Jazz  (which is available for piano and other instrument combinations too) can be played with  backing CDs of varying speeds and instrumentation, and is between Grade 1-3 level. Elena has also written a volume entitled Blue River. This is full of effective Jazz and Silver Screen inspired numbers; Star Dust, Tango Leone and Cloud Seven, Latin to name a few. Blue River would suit intermediate level players from around Grades 5-7, but is actually also great sight-reading material (I had a lot of fun playing through it!). There’s no denying that Elena’s music will both entertain and inspire young players to enjoy the learning process. You can listen to some of the pieces featuring in the HP Jazz series and buy the books here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.