In his book, Music Learning Today, William Bauer discusses the importance of improvisation and learning how to do this for a well-rounded music education. Though I studied in high school with a well known jazz educator, I was always reticent to join the jazz band and delve into this world, preferring to spend my time honing my classical skills on the clarinet and developing my singing, dancing and acting in the theatre. Of course, as a teacher, I regret not taking advantage of the wonderful opportunities I had, but I have worked to remedy this by asking for help from local professionals, and really working hard on helping my students to have a great experience and learn a lot about improvisation. Many of the skills that Bauer mentions, and the methods he talks about, were taught to me by a retired colleague, and I have found them very effective for getting kids over the fear of improvisation. We work in every rehearsal on learning the skills and just jumping in and trying it, and even students who were very resistant at first become fairly comfortable with improv and lose their fear of doing it before too long. Some of my proudest moments have been when these kids ask if they can take a solo in front of the entire school at the yearly awards ceremony.
Bauer (2014) also suggests ways to incorporate technology in the teaching of improv and audiation needed for effective improvisation. "When an improvisation has a clear musical structure it becomes more meaningful for an audience, and young improvisers become familiar with musical structures through listening and performing." (Bauer, p. 57) As teachers, we have limited time and resources to teach the structure of music to our students, among the myriad other things we are seeking to impart. Perhaps technology can be a way to help make it possible.
In my school, a big part of their grade is their practice time at home. Many teachers don't use this as a graded thing, saying it just encourages kids to lie. I agree this does happen, but on the other hand, I always said I felt bad as a kid because, due to my talent, I always earned an A while less gifted kids got lower grades. Had I been graded on my output, I would have worked a lot harder and probably had even more success than I did. I realize some kids do lie, but most don't lie every week, and eventually they do put some time in practicing. Using technology to structure their practice sessions could be a good way to ensure that the time isn't wasted and they are able to enhance what they've learned in the classroom when they are at home.
Our district is known for excellent jazz, and the jazz bands at the high school have a great reputation so competition to get in is fierce. Students who are bit by the jazz bug in middle school are often looking for more ways to develop as improvisers and to understand the chords and changes and how to play a great solo, because they know that getting into the jazz program at the high school is not guaranteed. Some students have the financial resources to study privately with many of the great jazz professionals we have in town, but many do not, so providing them ways to learn without the expense is important.
Bauer suggests posting harmonic and rhythmic accompaniments the students can improvise to and record their own playing for evaluation. He offers Smart Music, Band in a Box and iRealB as programs that can be used for this (Bauer, p. 57) and there also may be ways to embed accompaniments on Google Classroom for kids to use for practice and self evaluation. A simple 12-bar blues is a great structure to start with, and kids could record themselves playing along and send it to the teacher through this platform to evaluate and begin a portfolio. This will allow some permanence to the improvisation, and will benefit the kids by allowing them to witness their own progress in a truly meaningful way.
I am excited by the new possibilities given through technology. The future is bright!
Bauer, W.I. (2014) Music learning today: Digital pedagogy for creating, performing, and responding to music. New York: Oxford University Press.
Image from W. I. Bauer's website: http://wibauer.fatcow.com/digitalmusicking/