Introducing Jazz Improvisation to Students

This article was written in response to a request that I had from the Facebook page "The Piano Curriculum Series" which is administered by my friend in Houston, TX---Elise Russell.  The question was submitted from a teacher who is classically trained, and wanted some help in how to introduce some basic jazz improvisation to students in her studio.

QUESTION:               I am a classically trained musician with an MA in Piano Performance.  I have been teaching for several years; belong to MTNA and other professional organizations.  I am also on Facebook and have joined several professional groups.  I am enjoying the comaraderie of these groups and have learned much.  With all of this being said, I have never studied jazz and it seems as though many teachers around the country think this is quite an important part of piano study.  I would like to explore this, but have absolutely no idea where to start.  I did purchase some material, but have not been satisfied to date.  Would you please give me some ideas on where to start with my students?

RESPONSE – from DENNIS ALEXANDER, pianist/composer; Alfred Music Publishing

First of all, take comfort in knowing that you are certainly not alone!  Most classically trained pianists have no background or understanding of “jazz piano techniques” and are, for the most part, not even interested in this style.  So, I applaud you for showing an interest in this medium and for your willingness to explore some jazz study with your piano students. 

For any student or teacher wanting to learn some basic techniques of jazz performance, one of the important things to realize first is that the sounds of jazz are varied and many!  One needs to understand that jazz incorporates blues, rags, swing,

bop and more.  The importance of listening to many styles of jazz can never be overemphasized, for it is through listening that students learn to identify what most appeals to them.  And so, plan to spend a little time listening to the likes of Oscat Peterson, George Shearing, Eubie Blake,  and Thelonious Monk to name a few.

            For the early intermediate level student who shows an interest in jazz study, I would start by having the student learn a few pieces by pedagogical composers that are written in jazz styles.  This is where the student will learn about swing rhythms, basic chord progressions, tasteful melodies along with interesting syncopation and other jazz elements that fit nicely together!  Some good sources for these jazz collections would be:

“Especially in Jazzy Style”, Bks. 1,2,3 by Dennis Alexander (Alfred); (You can see examples of the music and hear audio recordings by clicking on my "compositions" link above, and then choose either "Early Intermediate Solo Collections", "Intermediate Solo Collections", or "Late Intermediate Solo Collections".)

Other collections that might interest you include: “Microjazz Collections” by Christopher Norton (Boosey & Hawkes); “Jazz in Focus” by Kevin Olson and Edwin McLean, (FJH Music);  “Jazz Montage” by Larry Minsky (Alfred); "That's Jazz" by Bradley Sowash (Kjos).

            Assuming that your student has some basic understanding of syncopation along with some basic knowledge of chords and cadences, you might try assigning a simple exercise that requires the student to play simple chords in the LH and improvise a melody line in the RH----then transpose it to several easy keys.  Something like Example 1 would be fun for an early intermediate level student:

 (See Ex. 1) CLICK ON THE EXAMPLES TO ENLARGE.   Then transpose this simple progression to F, G, D, A, Bb

Next, add a little variation to the rhythm of the RH melody----more 8th notes and some triplets.     (See Ex. 2)

Finally, add some variation to the rhythm of the LH, with some accents on beats 2 & 4 (which often happens in jazz styles).    (See Ex. 3)

Another technique for helping students learn how to improvise would be to take a very familiar tune, in this case “Old McDonald Had a Farm”, and play just the first 4 measures with primary chords in the LH.  (See Ex. 4)   


Then, taking just those first 4 bars, improvise a new melody line to go with the exact same chords, using passing tones, neighbor tones, and new rhythms to create an interesting sound.  (See Ex. 5).   Finally, make the RH melody more elaborate by incorporating some triplet rhythms, along with the swinging 8ths and perhaps try to create a different type of ending.  (See Ex. 6)

 Another good way to help young students learn to improvise would be to take the LH part of a pre-existing piece in a jazz style and practice playing JUST the LH part for 8-12 bars.  In this case, (See Ex. 7), the student learns to play the standard 12-bar blues progression in C Major.  

Once the LH is solid and memorized, ask the student to add a melody to this LH pattern.   Start off with VERY simple melodies and rhythms and then add a few more passing tones, neighbor tones, etc. until something like Ex. 8 is created.   Realize that it might take several intermediate steps, using primarily chord tones and simple rhythms, until something like Ex. 8 is achieved.

 These are just a few ways that I have to be successful in getting students away from the printed page and improvising new melodies and harmonies on their own.  Realize that some students will do this more quickly and easily than others.   Don’t get discouraged if students tend to stumble numerous times along the way.   When they start discovering the many little “formulas” that work for them, they will be well on their way to improvising with more and more confidence and will be very proud of their personal “creations”!   

 Once they have achieved some of these basic goals, another very fine resource is a series called “Jazz Works” by Ann Collins (Alfred) that includes beginning jazz techniques for intermediate- to advanced- level pianists and also comes with background accompaniment disks that are lots of fun to perform with.  This is a beginning “Jazz” piano method that “works” for the classically trained pianist, and includes:

1) jazz theory and skill concepts; 2) practice exercises for skill development;  3) tunes in a lead sheet format like a fake book; 4) comping –playing the chords and creating bass lines; 5) soloing – playing chords and melody and improvising melodies.  It also includes chord and scale charts along with a glossary of jazz terms.

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