Teaching The Basics of Beginning Improvisation
A few weeks ago, one of my ten-year-old guitar students successfully played a four measure solo to the changes of Becky G’s “Shower”, using quarter notes and the pentatonic minor scale. I was thrilled with her progress; she’d only just started learning guitar two months ago!
There are as many ways to teach beginning improvisation as there are ways to improvise, but I’ll take a page out of Eric Rasmussen’s book and share the steps I used.
How does one prepare a student for beginning improvisation?
While we began guitar chords during our first lesson, it wasn’t until our second lesson together that I introduced the pentatonic minor scale. We first played the scale beginning on low F, going through the full two octaves, and focused on the finger and step pattern.
After she became comfortable playing up and down the two octaves, I started each lesson with a quick improvisation exercise that I’ve actually written about before on Leading Notes. My student and I took turns improvising over the notes of the minor pentatonic scale, playing four quarter notes each. Though she began by just plucking four quarter notes on the same pitch, she eventually progressed to different pitches, different rhythms, and learning about octaves.
We would only work on this improvisation exercise briefly, for five to ten minutes; the rest of the lesson focused on playing through different progressions of her favorite songs. I introduced note names for frets and open strings then, too. After we played the progressions using the full chords, we would then play the roots of each chord to reinforce this concept.
Putting improvisation into context
After about two months, my student was feeling pretty comfortable with improvising on a single scale, reading chord charts, and her understanding of the fretboard. It was time to combine these three things and improvise over a familiar chord progression!
Not only was “Shower” the latest chord progression we’d learned together, it was a simple four measure pattern, with each chord receiving four beats. She was soon able to play the chords’ roots, following the progression, and integrated octaves soon after as well. I made sure to emphasize that she could play through the chord progressions starting on either the high or low octave, too, to counteract the tendency to always start with the low note.
She was doing a great job moving through the fretboard, ranging from the first to seventh fret depending on the chord progression! It was now time to introduce the concept of movable scale patterns. Surprise: the first octave of the pentatonic minor scale can be played on any starting note on the low E and A strings! We practiced playing through the whole scale on each of the different roots of the song’s chords.
From there, all we needed to do practice plucking four notes from each scale, just like we’d done in our first few lessons! The only real difference was that now, she needed to move from root to root to find each scale. After improvising on each measure and scale independently, she was able to play through all four measures without stopping! We even tested it by playing different parts together: she played lead, soloing over the changes, while I played rhythm. We had a lot of fun.
What are we doing now?
About a month after that first four measure improvisation, we’re now working on progressing the level of difficulty. She is now comfortable incorporating half notes and eighth notes into her improvising and we’ve been able to play duets together on several different songs.
I plan to introduce the major scale pattern to her at our next lesson, too, so we can begin expanding her repertoire and the tonalities available to her. Next on the list, of course, would be the minor scale to correspond with any minor chords she may encounter.
While we were able to accomplish all of this within a total span of three months, this will vary from student to student. She practiced regularly, caught on to the concepts quickly, and we agreed to devote a good amount of time of her forty-five minute lessons to this endeavor. However, I will continue to use this same progression to teach beginning improvisation with other students as well, modifying and learning as needed, to see how I can continue to get great results.
I’d love to hear about how you teach beginning improvisation in any setting — both private or classroom! Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
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