What I want to talk about is where band directors tend to lack in their teaching of improvisation and how maybe they can improve on their method a bit. So let's get to it. Ask yourself "what is the first thing that I think about when i stand up to take a solo?" 99% of you will answer notes, scales or chord progression. This many times becomes the sole focus for many people who are both teaching and learning improv. Notes, notes, notes. The problem with this is that we tend to forget that there's a bunch more to do than just play notes. Classical and jazz both use the same 12 notes and they are entirely different. So while notes can be important, I am not going to talk much about them here and I'm even going to suggest that notes take a back seat to many other things when improvising.
I think this is the absolute most important thing for any musician to do. Students and performers alike have to know what they want to sound like before the horn touches their face if they are ever going to play at a high level. Most kids get sat down in a jazz band never having listened to much jazz before. Yeah, they heard "Sing, Sing, Sing" on the Chips Ahoy commercial but they never really have listened intently. So when the director explains swing rhythm to the class, they are at best guessing at a playing style that they may have heard their band director demonstrate for 10 seconds. It's like shooting at a target with a blindfold on. Now if the director can carve out a little time in rehersals maybe once a week to listen to great jazz, the students at least have a chance of developing a feel for the style and feel of the music. If they go home and listen to more, the results will be coming out of the bell of their horn soon enough. The horn is simply a tool that reflects the mind that is holding it just like a paint brush or a pen... keyboard.
Also, when listening a player picks up ideas from soloists on the album. Great improvisors are not just "making it up on the spot" so to speak. They are expressing the culmination of an entire lifes worth of musical experience. Our playing is a sum of our influences mixed with our own personal taste. Great players are always absorbing what others are doing, taking those outside ideas and practicing them in all 12 keys and personalizing them. Simply put, I do not think someone can learn to improvise in jazz well without spending some considerable and constant time listening to great players.
After doing some listening and establishing a good sense of swing, a bad soloist can immediately become an ok soloist by swinging hard and phrasing well. Someone can stand up and play all the right notes all day and still be terrible and boring to listen to. That same person though can stand up and swing their tail off playing maybe half the right notes and people will still want to listen. Also, someone can stand up and play 2 notes and swing like mad and people will love it (*cough* *cough* Louis Armstrong) A good sense of style and phrasing is rarely taught, becuase it's almost impossible to teach. It still should be stressed heavily to students that style and groove will take a solo alot further than notes will. It should also be stressed that listening is the prime way to learn those things. Some things just aren't effectively taught through words in a book or from a podium.
This tends to get ignored too. Good phrasing can be the difference between sounding like an amateur or a pro. Young improvisors tend to do two things. First they will play lots of half notes and whole notes because they are still trying to figure out what to play next. They sound like a person who doesn't know what to order at McDonalds and just stands there saying "uuuuuummmmmmmmm...... uuummmmmmm". The other thing typically done when a player gets a little better is that they will throw at you every note they have ever learned without breathing. The entire solo is a run on sentence. Students tend not to think in musical phrases when they solo because they are in panic mode. Slow down and put some SPACE in there. Silence can be scary at first, but the realization will come that silence can make the played notes more powerful and meaningful. The best way to demonstrate this is by talking about people conversing. Sentences have natural phrases and stopping points and so should your music. This brings me to the next one...
Rhythm kind of fits inside of what I have already been talking about, but it should be discussed in the classroom by itself. With good style and phrasing comes good rhythm too. Students should be encouraged to experiment with different rhythms all of the time. It's easy to get caught up in playing the same couple of rhythms over and over, so always be trying to think of new rhythmic ideas even if it means using less notes. Rhythm is one of the most powerful driving forces behind jazz and should not be forgotten.
Some other things that should be talked about that don't require small speeches from me are:
-Tempo/keeping time (you don't have to be a drummer to keep time)
-Using the entire range of the instrument
-Confidence and accepting the possibility of failure.
I should touch on that last one. When we start doing something new, we aren't going to be very good at it. That is the nature of the beast. Everyone was terrible at first when they started improvising, even people like Charlie Parker or Chick Corea. We all start from the same place and grow from there, so students should expect to musically fall on their faces... often. The fear of failure or sounding bad scares away so many people from improvisation but it's the thing that thye fear that they should embrace. Fail, get back up and do it again. That's how we learn these things. There is no magic in learning to play music, it takes time and practice. That's the trick. When players say "I'm no good at technique X like Steve is." I always ask "how much to you practice that thing?" Of course you are no good, you never do it! I leave you with a quote from story teller Ira Glass on this very same thing.
It's a video, worth showing to your students.