Asked to improvise, the first thing that comes to mind is, “What notes should I play?” if you are a teacher, be careful about offering an overly pedantic explanation. Launching into a discussion of scale structures, chord tones, and the like risks discouraging the student.
Here’s another approach: Eliminate the problem of pitch choices by improvising a solo using just one note.
Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim did just this with his popular song, “One Note Samba.” The title refers to a repeating passage of eight measures consisting only of the note D. Having set himself the challenge of writing for just one pitch, Jobim nevertheless creates a fascinating melody by utilizing inventive Bossa nova rhythms.
Keeping in mind the power of limitations to stimulate creativity, ask yourself or your student, “What besides pitch makes music sound interesting?” Now sit still. Let the question soak in. Think about the sorts of things included in written music beyond the notes. Perhaps your list is similar to this on that uses italics or everyday language and bold for music terms
Loud and soft = Dynamics
Accents and stuff = Articulations
Fast and slow = Rubato
Rhythms = Sub-divisions
Quiet parts = Rests
Sound = Tone
How musicians act = Intention
Next ask yourself or your student, “How many of these expressive devices can be brought to a solo improvisation using only the C above middle C?” Set up a groovy accompaniment such as the one below over which to improvise. If playing solo, just play the bass clef, left-hand part while improvising the right-hand part.
Teacher Tip: By accompanying your student, not only provides inspiration and a steady beat, but in the student’s mind, your playing along removes some of the judgmental pressure they may feel. They’ll figure you can’t be listening that closely if you are as busy as they are. (Shhh, don’t tell them you’ve developed the ability to play and listen at the same time.) If they seem reluctant, model some possibilities by improvising your own right hand one-note licks while maintaining the left hand bass line. Be patient and let them dig a little to find creative ways to express themselves. Avoid any criticism as they explore but don’t let them use more than one note.
Repeat this exercise several times. Let the frustration of having only one note stimulate discoveries. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Don’t judge. As you or your student becomes more comfortable, focus on any missing expressive devices from the previously generated list. Think or say, “I noticed a lot of different articulations that time. How would it sound this next time with lots of dynamic variations?” Try it and then move down the list freely mixing and combining possibilities.
When you or your student can play an interesting improvisation with just one note, begin adding additional notes from the pentatonic scale one or two at a time.
Caution: Don’t let the extra notes deter you from the other non-pitched musical elements you just explored!
Files for accompaniment.
One Note Improv Swing – MIDI
One Note Improv Rock – MIDI
One Note Improv – iRealPro
Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey!