A Personal Journey With Students Into The World Of Improvisation – Jodie Jensen

Guest Writer: Jodie Jensen


At the end of the academic year last May, I was in sore need of a different approach in my studio teaching life. After attending the MTNA conference in Chicago, I learned just enough about improvisation, teaching improvisation and the eye/ear revolution to push for a change to my current mode of operation. My biggest question/frustration was how to I revamp my teaching to make these principles a solid part of my teaching life. I am an old dog and new tricks are not really a part of my aging process. I also thought I had been doing a rather good job of covering all the bases as a music teacher. Hadn’t all my ABRSM practical exam entries passed with high marks? What could possibly be wrong!????

What was causing me to feel frustrated? Why did I feel students needed more than to
just reproduce music instead of recreate music, embellish music and then go on to
create music. Perhaps it was because the improvisation track at the MTNA
pedagogy Saturday was so much FUN! [Editor’s note: Bradley Sowash chaired this track.]

Music is always enjoyable but the classes taught during the conference used some of those stale brain cells that have been crying out for equal time at the piano for years. It was an epiphany. If I was having such a great time improvising, would my students have an even better time?

Andrew Eales has been encouraging the use of improvisation in KEYBAND! for years. My problem was that I was not really sure how to approach the whole improvisation thing with young students which make up half of the studio. I am a concrete/sequential learner and needed to have some way of making the learning more sequential. In addition, most methods are written for a higher level of cognitive skill and most of the presenters who teach improvisation say they do not teach elementary aged students improvisation. That leaves quite a number of years void of creative skills in the Elementary and early intermediate pianist/keyboardists development. With the desire to improvise very alive in the Elementary level pianist it seemed to me that we were waiting too long to introduce the creative process. There are fewer inhibitions at this age. Elementary aged kids also have more time on their hands and less preconceived notions about how music must sound.

So begins my journey with the start of the 2014-2015 Academic Year. What have I placed in my tool box this year to facilitate this change?

  • Personal improvisation/melody harmonization and embellishment time during my
    daily practice sessions.
  • The following methods books; Keyquest Series by Andrew Eales, books 2 & 3.
    That’s Jazz Series by Bradley Sowash, book 1 Getting Into It
  • ABRSM Jazz Piano Series, complete method available through Hal Leonard in association
    with ABRSM Publishing.
  • Jazz materials received from the 88 Creative Keys workshop in Denver this past summer.
  • Two iPads with Octavian and iRealPro loaded.
  • Manipulatives to allow more gross motor involvement and class participation.
  • A GoPro and iPad video camera to record student progress
  • 8 digital instruments (2 Clavinova and 6 PSR digital keyboards)
  • Enrollment into the Berklee School of Music on-line theory program to freshen up
    my personal theory skills.
  • An e-mail to parents asking them to allow “Goof Time” at the piano. No more, “That does not sound like what your teacher asked you to play.”

As part of the journey, video documentation of progress has been essential. Since this is a studio based journey/study, I am using only my Elementary kids as the control group. Because improvisation is currently looked at as a “guy” kind of thing, I am using two girls and two boys, all within the same age range as my verification group. Currently, we have 9 in the Elementary age group who are part this study.

What we tried to accomplish during the past 6 weeks:

  1. Introduction into the following four major keys: C, G, D & F
  2. The ability to play scales, arpeggios, a I-IV-V chord progression in both root position
    and, what I call, common note progression. Students are asked to play the scales
    with hands together and using Keyquest Book 2 to facilitate this skill.
  3. The ability to play all chords build on a diatonic scale and identify if they are major or
    minor chords.Octavian is a great App to show all the chords that can be build on a
    diatonic scale. We identify each chord as major, minor or diminished, playing root
    position chords up the scale.
  4. The ability to harmonize a melody in all four keys. Students are asked to choose
    from a folk tune or a Keyquest book two piece for this skill. The piece must be
    played from memory and then transposed into one of the other four keys in the
  5. Learning a piece from the That’s Jazz book 1 as a group. Each student will learn
    the solo parts. Two students will take the teacher section and play along with the
    group after all have learned the solo sections of the piece. It is here we are learning
    how to embellish a piece. A student will play the chord structure while the entire
    group plays the head or repeat section then each member of the group will embellish
    the piece using skills such as: Fill Notes, Repeated Notes, Neighbor Notes.
  6. At the end of each quarter, we hold a small performance to share what we have

So begins a very personal journey with my students into the world of improvisation.
Want to join the journey. Visit the KEYBAND! USA website and click on Keynotes.
This is our KEYBAND! USA blog center. Our new topic will be about beginning that
improvisation journey with students. For those of you who are pros, your input is very
important. For those stepping out into a new world, your discussion points will be much
appreciated. – Jodie Jensen

2 thoughts on “A Personal Journey With Students Into The World Of Improvisation – Jodie Jensen

  1. What a great post, certainly struck a chord with me! I’m a relatively new teacher so still getting to grips with the basics. I wouldn’t say I’m an old dog but I am classically trained and nervous about improv yet I know it’s something I must cover with my students (and feeling a little inadequate about my own skills maybe?). Really helpful to read the 6 wk goals, will check out the other resources too and head over to Jodie’s website to follow. Thanks for a great post!

    • Alex,
      Thank you for your comment. It is so nice to be able to share this journey started by Bradley and Leila.
      It is, by no means a gild to the lily to say that the Bradley Sowash workshop was the real inspiration for the change in the studio. Bradley and Leila give clear direction in the workshop without making the classically trained teacher feel like we somehow missed the boat. Instead of walking away from a workshop on improvisation frustrated, I left ready to meet the challenge. I hope you are able to attend one of Leila and Bradleys workshops. It is certainly worth the time and expense.

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