Keyboard Oriented Improvisation Syllabus

Discussion Paper

Keyboard Oriented Improvisation Syllabus

This paper, proposing a structured, graded sequence for the development and assessment of improvisational skills, is offered for discussion only.

Our treatment of improvisation deals with music that is neither jazz nor jazz-related as well as with jazz itself.  The term 'community music' is used to cover all music genres that are not jazz-related and that are not dependent upon a written score (e.g Auld Lang Syne, folk songs, national songs and currently popular ditties of diverse kinds.)

Crucial to our discussion will be the acknowledgment by all colleagues that improvisation is NOT A JAZZ SPECIFIC SKILL. It is rather a valuable musical and practical skill which should be developed in all young musicians irrespective of whether they are following a ‘classical’ or ‘modern regime’ of study. Furthermore, since the essential musical grammars are common to both classical and modern streams, no special jazz-based knowledge is required to enable useful and responsible participation in this discussion and in the development of an improvisation syllabus. 

Where to Begin?

  An early emphasis in achieving  a practical acquaintance with the kinetic nature of harmonic patterns (progression to and recession from the tonic) is considered to be foundational to the acquisition of improvisational skills.  Accordingly, initial exercises in improvisation focus upon the spontaneous generation of accompaniments for known melodies using V7-I harmony, then ii/IV-V7-I and so on.

When a satisfactory degree of competence has been achieved in improvising simple accompaniments, melody will be incorporated.  Eventually, when the student is aurally, technically and fluently in command of V7-I, ii-V7-I and I-vi-ii-V7 patterns, a beginning can be made on improvising melodies. Readiness for this step may be displayed earlier and should be acted upon.

Supplementary Learning Outcomes

An important advantage of the  'hands-on' learning experiences essential to the acquisition of improvisational skills  is  a practical understanding of concepts traditionally treated as 'theory' . Voice-leading, rhythm patterning and essential formal structures are examples.

‘For skills to benefit a student they must be directly related to musical performance.’

Music Teaching and Learning.  Peters and Miller, 1972

Planning a Curriculum

The outline given below is a suggested, but incomplete, graded list of formulaic chord patterns together with some allusion to accompanying melodic, rhythmic and textural elements. It follows closely the organisation of the materials in my book on improvisation; "Improvisation in Concept and Practice."

Table III Edited

 Suggested Assessment Tasks 

The following assessment tasks are given as a means of identifying objectives.

Accompanying a known melody given:

  • melody and chord symbols (levels 1-8); or
  • melody only. All grades/.

Accompanying an unknown melody given melody and chord symbols. (Grades 2-8).

Accompanying a known jazz standard. (Grades 3-8).

Accompanying an unknown jazz standard given melody and chord symbols. (Grades 5-8).

Improvising a solo from the lead sheet of a known jazz standard. Grades (5-8).

Improvising a solo based on the harmonic structure of a known jazz standard. (Grades 5-8).

Improvising an counter melody to an instrumental or vocal melody. (Grades 4-8)

Improvising a piece from a given melodic motif. (Grades 6-8).

Free improvisation. (Grades 5-8).

If we are to take the art of improvisation really seriously we need to value the ability to improvise a piece at least as highly as the ability to play a composed piece. 

The improvisation of accompaniments is a good place to begin since it compels the systematic  establishment of a harmonic vocabulary and consciousness of differing textural treatments.

Jazz improvisation should be introduced as soon as confidence in dealing with ‘non-jazz-related’ musics is achieved - say level 4.

Instruments other than keyboard instruments.

It is possible to use the same content outline for melody instruments. Tests and exercises would have to be adapted.

David Urquhart-Jones