Creating Successful Solos with Beginning Improvisers

Improvising can be an intimidating task for students, especially when they’re new to the process. The idea of having unlimited options of what to play can be overwhelming. It’s like going to a restaurant and being handed a large menu in a language you don’t speak. How do you even begin to choose? By placing purposefully chosen limits and guidelines on students, teachers can make the process more approachable and give students the direction they need to start building successful improvised solos.

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Museum Music

In the US, jazz is revered for its rich past and its great early innovators and personalities. These iconic musicians, mostly active from the 1920s-60s, are still the face of jazz today. Our jazz education system devotes great effort to teaching the music of these greats, but in doing so often neglects the music and contributions of the musicians, composers, and innovators of the more recent past and today. Combine this with jazz radio’s similar focus on the music’s early greats and the songbook of jazz standards, and jazz unsurprisingly declines in popularity with younger demographics. By overfocusing on the music’s early years and neglecting the present, educators are failing students by presenting jazz as museum music, something curious from the past to admire but which has little relevance to our lives today.

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What to Do When It’s Not Working

As a teacher and musician, one of my beliefs is that there should be a balance between developing technique and finding joy in playing. I had a recent experience in which my teaching failed to align with this philosophy, necessitating a change in my current trajectory with a student. Upon this realization, I knew it was important to realign my teaching practice with my teaching values.

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Overcoming Performance Anxiety, Pt. 2: Developing Growth Mindset

Performance anxiety in students isn’t simply restricted to recitals and other performances, but shows itself in lessons, too. If you’re a private teacher, think of how many times you’ve heard students claim they play better in their practice than they do in lessons. Students feel the pressure to “perform” for their teachers. If we can foster a growth mindset in our studios, we can create an environment where students understand their performance at that moment isn’t a judgement on their abilities, but a step in the process of improving their musicianship.

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Overcoming Performance Anxiety, Pt. 1: The True Purpose of Performing

It was late 2018 and I was driving to go teach a piano lesson. On the radio was On Being with Krista Tippett, and she was interviewing the great cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. At the time, I was helping my students prepare for a recital, which was just a week or so away. In the interview, Ma said something that really hit home and was so relevant to the mental preparations my students were making heading into their recital. In regards to performing, Ma stated:

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6 Simple Tips for Teaching Effective Online Music Lessons

With the spread of COVID-19, many private music teachers are turning to teaching online lessons for the first time. Teaching online presents new challenges and forces us to adapt some of our methods in order to maintain effective teaching. The good news is that it’s really not that much different than teaching in person. Good teaching is still good teaching no matter where it takes place. By thinking ahead and making minor adjustments, we can continue to provide high quality lessons online. Read More »

Stage Presence Is a Teachable Skill

When preparing students for a performance, the emphasis is understandably on playing the music to the highest level achievable. Our job is to teach music, so if our students are playing with proficiency and musicality, then we’ve checked all the boxes, right? Not so fast.

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How Free Improvisation Benefits Playing Over Changes

When teaching improvisation, so much of the focus goes into harmony. Which chord tones sound best? How can we connect one chord to the next? How many ii-V-I licks can you come up with? Can you learn those licks in all twelve keys? We can spend so much time and effort addressing harmonic approaches that we sometimes lose sight of other very important aspects of improvising, notably playing melodically and expressively.

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Beyond Harmony: The Many Benefits of Transcriptions

One common practice for both working jazz musicians and jazz students alike is to transcribe solos. Transcriptions can be very beneficial. Most commonly, students are told that transcriptions are helpful in that they help develop harmonic knowledge. To be sure, learning how great soloists negotiate harmony is very important and beneficial to our students’ improvising. If we think about transcription simply as a means to develop harmonic language, though, we’re really selling the process short.

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