Ackerman Music, a UK music dealer with a number of stores in the south of England, bravely decided to run a day called “Play with the Pros”. This involved bringing 5 well-known educational music writers, myself included, to a school in Chichester for a day, with students and teachers offered the chance to have individual tuition or work in group situations.
The other “Pros” were John Kimber, James Rae, Pete Cooper and Mike Cornick, whose names and compositions are well-known to examination candidates and teachers around the world. I was stationed in the school hall:
and my brief was to do improvisation work with a miscellaneous group of instrumentalists. Flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and trombone were represented, as well as some piano players and both electric and acoustic guitar. I used methodology developed during the writing of American Popular Piano, to good effect I think! We all began by learning a melody – Green Onions initially, then The Girl on the Beach (APP Level 1) and playing each piece as a group, always with backing track. Then, having established the key of the piece, I got the most confident improviser to come up with a catchy one-note (the key note) rhythmic idea (a riff) that all the group could play back. Once everyone felt comfortable playing this riff right through the chord progression, I suggested that the same idea could be played using two notes – typically the first note of the scale and the second. At this point each student was free to choose when to play either note 1 or note 2.
We got as far as using five notes, which happened to be a pentatonic minor or major scale, much to the satisfaction of the electric guitarist, whose hand naturally fell into a pentatonic scale shape.
Then the improvisation started – students were able to invent their own idea, using their own rhythms. But, and it was a big but, they had to be able to play their own idea back again! This is never easy, but it is an important step towards “believing” in your own idea.
We gradually added other techniques – an idea answered by a slight variation of itself, a question and answer idea (two ideas, one different from the other) use of arpeggios, use of repeated notes etc etc. Some of the more confident players stepped up to a microphone and played with the band in a more extended way, using various techniques that we had all tried out.
I also got the chance to show some of the piano players some useful voicings and improvisation tips:It was a very enjoyable day and I think the students liked playing together as well as having the chance to start improvising in a very step-by-step way. I hope Ackerman Music are encouraged to do it again soon!