Look the demons of jazz improvisation straight in the eyes and say, "I'm going to improvise - deal with it!" That's the attitude I try to instill in adult jazz improvisation students as we investigate total musical discipline and total musical chaos to find the magic middle ground where the best music is created.
Stepping into the unknown
In early 1989, the City of Espoo Adult Education Center, located west of Helsinki, Finland, asked me to teach their new Jazz Studio adult-education evening class. Adult education is highly developed in Finland; the institute in question currently boasts 47,500 students and 700 part-time or full-time teachers.
At that time adult amateur musicians thirsting for knowledge about jazz improvisation had virtually no opportunities to attend institutions like Berklee or even local musical conservatories, with their limited enrollments and emphasis on younger or career-oriented players.
I was given complete freedom to develop my own methodology. Right from the start, because there appeared to be no precedent for teaching jazz improvisation to adult amateur musicians, particularly in Scandinavia, it was obvious that a conventional approach was out of the question. Finnish social norms posed their own special challenges; modesty is a virtue (an admirable quality but antithetical to the personalized self-expression required to play jazz) and the ability to improvise syncopated music is not an inborn trait.
I also made several initial policy decisions. Although I set the maximum number of students at 30, I decided not to limit the instrumentation. This has led to some comical situations, such as the time we had 13 electric guitars at one session. Generally however, the weekly sessions' average attendance has been 20-25 and a certain surplus enrollment is tolerated because not all students attend every week.
It would always remain a "workshop" and I would resist the temptation to make it into a band or orchestra (sorely tested over the last few years because the overall level and instrumental diversity has improved significantly). It would be "action-oriented", with an approximately 5%-95% ratio of "lecturing" to singing and playing. As a native New Yorker I would focus on the jazz genres I know best and not try to please everyone all of the time. Because job or family commitments often affect attendance, it would also be "discontinuous"; every week would be an independent entity and no one would "fall behind" if they missed a session. The focus would be on each student's personal development, not the refinement (except when the group performs publicly) of an overall ensemble sound.
Discipline, Chaos, Synthesis
The early years were characterized by incomplete rhythm sections, a dense, turgid ensemble sound caused by a preponderance of electric guitars and saxophones that I dubbed the "Pea Soup Sound" and the need to "spoon feed" harmonic chord progressions. But the students' enthusiasm was always there. As I ventured further into this virgin wilderness - teaching jazz improvisation to people with day jobs - it soon became apparent that the major obstacles to learning were psychological, not musical.
The next step, to focus my thinking as well, was to formulate the "Jazz Studio Philosophy" shown in the accompanying diagram. This concept simply states that the best and most enduring music, be it a Mozart symphony, classic Sousa march or Beatles chart-buster must contain elements of discipline and spontaneity roughly midway along the Total Discipline/Total Chaos spectrum. This diagram also forms the conceptual basis for almost all of the special exercises developed for the course.
To demystify the concept of jazz improvisation and supplement the systematic study of intervals, chords, and scales, I conceived a series of simple yet effective group exercises designed to help amateur musicians overcome psychological inhibitions as they attempted to develop as improvising jazz soloists. This never pretended to be an organized method; most of my "lesson planning" takes place in the shower an hour before the session (once before a critical final session I slipped in the tub, painfully cracking a few ribs in the process. I however did the 3-hour session, after which one of the students drove me to the hospital). Band directors can also use the techniques I employ to sharpen soloing skills in their big bands or combo ensembles.
Enjoyable as they are, the exercises are intended to accompany, not replace, the systematic study of intervals, scales, and chords in all keys; the underlying psychological principles may also be applied to non-musical disciplines.
"Don't bother to bring your instruments next week."
One radical change took place 4-5 years ago; if I went around to each player with an electronic tuner at the beginning of the session, their instruments' pitches were suspiciously "right on" if they had been singing, compared to the wildly oscillating needles you would get otherwise. So it appeared that I had stumbled onto some kind of "inner tuning" mechanism that affects instrumentalists' intonation. I cannot prove any of this scientifically but every session now starts with our 5-10-minute "choir practice". Chords or clusters are sung pyramid-style upwards with each voice or section cued in from the piano. The clean intonation usually sounds "heavenly", especially the complex altered chords, so my standard quip is "this sounds so good that don't bother to bring your instruments next week".
Fame if not fortune
In 1998, by which time the course had functioned for 10 years without any "reality checks" other than the school's loyal support and a sizeable cadre of enthusiastic students (these courses simply fold if enrollments fall below a certain level), I outlined several of my specific techniques in the article "Psyching Out Improv Demons", published in the June, 1998 issue of Down Beat Magazine (Woodshed/Pro Session, p. 62). The positive response to this piece, as well as a similar feature in a local newspaper, helped earn me a national award of recognition for teaching in Finnish adult education and confirmed the validity of this approach. The article, with specific examples of my classroom techniques, can be found as a featured article at Sax on the Web.
Source: EMEA Journal, Official Publication of the European Music Educators Association, Spring 2002. Thomas C. Donaldson, Editor. Reproduced with permission.