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Improvisation notes

8 years ago

  ABRSM Jazz examiner Tim Richards looks at ways to interpret the suggested notes boxes found in the Jazz syllabus pieces. All ABRSM jazz exams feature improvisation as an integral part of each piece, which can be an unfamiliar task for those not used to providing creative input of this nature. To help with this process, the improvisation sections in the pieces feature a selection of notes in a box, implying that the player can choose from these notes for as many bars as necessary, until another box comes along, or the written material reappears. One of the first things to bear in mind is that the suggested notes, or scale, are not compulsory, and the examiner will not be marking candidates on whether they use them or not. As long as the result is coherent and musical, you are free to play any note you like. In the Jazz Piano exams, the same goes for the left-hand accompaniment given in these sections. As it states on the inside front cover of every graded ABRSM Jazz Tunes book: ‘these are given solely as a starting point, or to indicate the style.’

Identifying the scale

An important aspect of the improvisation boxes is that they often contain scales, arpeggios or pentatonic scales. The teacher should always make sure these are identified, and if possible tie them in with the scale section of the syllabus. On occasions it may not be obvious which scale is being suggested, as it might be incomplete or start on a note other than the root. Take a look at the example (Figure 1) from the solo section of Bag’s Groove (Jazz Piano Grade 1). While the scale may at first look like a kind of pentatonic scale on D, closer inspection will reveal that it is in fact a ‘flat 3’ pentatonic on G, as found in the Grade 1 Jazz Piano scales. In root position this scale has the notes G, A, Bb, D, E, but it is given here with the notes in a different order, starting on D. Why has the scale been disguised in this way? It’s not to deliberately confuse teachers and students, but to encourage you to avoid always starting these scales on their root. Because the scale is to be played over three chords (the last four bars of a blues in G), not all the notes will sound equally good in every bar. Playing a G on the first beat of the D7 bar can sound like quite a clash if the left hand plays a D7 chord at the same time! This brings home the desirability of getting to know the pentatonic scales starting on any note, perhaps by practising hand positions, such as the four-note groups shown in Figure 2. For younger students, or those with smaller hands, similar three-note groups can be played, starting on each note of the scale in turn. Each hand position provides a viable choice of notes for building your own phrases. Being fluent with all five positions allows you to choose a different group of notes each time you perform the improvisation, thereby giving your solos more spontaneity.

Thinking about modes

The concept of starting a scale on a note other than the root is akin to generating modes of the major scale by going up the white notes on the keyboard, for example: the Dorian scale on D is like a C major scale starting on D, the Mixolydian scale on G is like a C major scale starting on G, and so on. However, it is usually more helpful to think of the Mixolydian on G as a scale in its own right, instead of relating it to C major. The important thing to remember about Mixolydian scales is that they fit dominant 7th chords and can be formed by flattening the 7th note of the major scale on the same root. Figure 3 shows an example of the Mixolydian scale on C, with four simple phrases generated from it, following the same rhythmic template as the previous example. Note how none of the examples start on C. In fact, the notes they finish on are more important than where they start – from left to right the last notes are Bb(7th of the chord), C (root), E (3rd), Bb(7th again) – all notes of the chord itself, as defined by the chord symbol.

Top tips

Although we are using a scale to generate our phrases, it is not necessary to always play consecutive notes. The last thing you need is for your improvisation to sound like a scale exercise! Here are a few other general points which may be useful to implement with your students.

  • Play the notes in any register, an octave higher will often sound even better.
  • Start on any note (not necessarily the first one given) and play the notes in any order.
  • Go outside the box.
  • Omit some of the notes, even if a whole scale is given, you don’t have to use all of it.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat notes, simple ideas are often good ones.
  • Play the same group of notes with different rhythms.
  • Don’t always start on the first beat of the bar, try starting on ‘one and’ or ‘two’.
  • In a swing piece try to play some swing quavers – a few triplets will sound good too.
  • Try singing the notes in the box before playing.

The value of singing

Singing is important, no matter how good or bad your voice is. If you’re not hearing phrases in your head, then even if you follow the notes in the box it can sound like you’re just moving your fingers randomly. Singing the notes with your students is an important step to help them create phrases built on those notes. This is particularly true with pentatonic scales – because they only have five notes they have a distinctive sound which is easy to remember.

Look out for alternatives

Finally, as the teacher, use your knowledge to point out alternatives, particularly if the suggested notes don’t seem to be working. For a minor 7th chord, for instance, any of the suggestions shown in Figure 4 could be possible. Try each of these over the left hand from Eddie Harvey’s popular Blue Autumn from the Grade 1 Jazz Piano syllabus. The last example, featuring an arpeggio, reminds me of a basic tenet of jazz improvisation that is often overlooked in the face of the scale-based methods given in so many books, and that is: the most foolproof way to improvise over any chord sequence is to play the notes of each chord as it comes by. Always be aware of the chord symbols!


Tim Richards is a jazz pianist, composer, ABRSM examiner and author of several books on jazz, blues and Latin piano.

This article was originally featured in the September 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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