Learning to improvise can be an extremely liberating, musically eye - and ear! - opening experience. Through improvisation, musicians can gain valuable insights into the ways in which melody, harmony and rhythm can work together, which can enable them as composers. For the Special Needs students, there are even greater benefits to be had in addition to these that can improve their lives in invaluable ways outside of the music classroom. Those include building confidence and enabling independence.
In teaching improvisation to the beginner, the trick is to limit the choices of notes, harmonies, and rhythms so that they are not overwhelmed with options that they are not ready to handle or understand. I found this very difficult to do with my students, until introducing Logic Pro and the iPad to my classes.
In a previous article, I described the basics of using the Chord Memorizer. Following the procedures outlined in that article, an improvisation friendly instrument can be created simply by activating or de-activating the desired notes in the Chord Memorizer. In doing so, any scale, or portion thereof, can be played on a MIDI keyboard or device routed to the Chord Memorizer. Certain notes on the keyboard can be made not to sound, because they do not trigger anything in the output, or ‘Results In’ section of the Chord Memorizer. Students will learn not to play those notes, thereby developing a greater sense of what notes ‘work’, or sound good, in any given musical context.
In this article, several apps are mentioned that can be modified to suit the students’ various levels of ability. Any app that allows the user to choose or customize modes and scales can serve as a great tool for teaching improvisation as well.
The synthmate app, programmed to play only the root, 5th and root in a one octave range, in C.
Start off by limiting the range and scale so that the student only has a few notes to choose from. This is a great way to allow the student to experience success, thereby encouraging them to want to try more. I should also note that it is important to set rhythmic parameters as well. Assign specific basic rhythms for each student - based on ability - to use for his/her improvisation. That way, the rhythm becomes a guideline to help the students play the right notes at the right time. Remember, structure is the key, even when improvising.
Animoog, with a C major Pentatonic scale, programmed over a tenth.
ThumbJam, displaying a G major pentatonic scale selected over two octaves.
So, with the young improviser’s new found ability to make the right choices for themselves in a musical context, we as music educators start to build confidence in the student. This confidence will eventually carry over into other areas of their lives, enabling them to be confident enough to make the right choices on a daily basis, which is a main component in making them independent, productive members of society.
In the below audio example, seven of my students recorded an excerpt of a little jam they performed live at the Upper West Side Apple Store, in NYC. The student improvising on ThumbJam is only eleven years old.