Starting Off Improvisers With Pentatonics
Here is an approach to getting people (adults as well as children) into jazz improvisation that I have been using for awhile. Perhaps you will find it useful. It is based in pentatonic scales. The first step is to have the student understand the relationship of a pentatonic scale - the most commonly used one, with no half steps - to a major scale. I explain that it uses the same notes as a major scale with the omission of the fourth and seventh notes (ex. 1). I then have the student go through the major scales he or she knows, and find the related pentatonics. I advise students to practice these, extending them throughout the range of their instruments, until they are "under the fingers."

The pentatonic scale has two useful properties for helping the novice improviser. 1) The respective scales for each of the primary chords, I, IV, and V, are contained in the major scale of the tonic (ex. 2). 2) Even a random arrangement of the notes will have a pleasing sound. This makes it easy for the student to find the scales that will fit best with each of the three primary chords, and it allows to the student to focus on rhythm and phrase, without worrying about "wrong" notes.
It is my opinion that an understanding of phrasing and form are primary in teaching improvisation. One has to have a good sense of where the music is going before he or she can make any sensible use of more sophisticated resources. The pentatonic scales are easy to use, and once the student has mastered the three found in just one key, I can work on helping him or her to learn how to "tell a story" in a simple 12-bar blues form.
From here we can go in a couple of directions. We can use other forms with only three-chords, perhaps derived from folk songs or modified blues forms, like the form of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." We could also add a note to our pentatonic scale.
This direction takes us to something I call "blues scale #2." If we think of the "blues scale" that is usually taught as having a minor key character, then the #2 scale could be thought of as its relative major, and it is every bit as much a blues scale its relative minor. It also relates directly to the major pentatonic that the student has been using up to this point. This scale is made by adding the half step between the second and third notes of the pentatonic (ex 3). This relates closely to a typical blues bass line (ex 4).
The major pentatonic has another useful property that can come in handy when moving on to forms other than the blues: it will fit with either Ma7, or 7 chords. It can be used over chord progressions that essentially express essentially a particular tonic or dominant state. For instance one could play the C pentatonic scale over the C Ami7 Dmi7 G7 turnaround formula that is the backbone of the A sections of a tune such as "Blue Moon." In other words there are tunes that could be improvised on simply by employing a relatively small set of pentatonic scales. This would, of course be an exercise for the advancing student.
When I hear the student creating coherent improvisations over the form of the 12-bar blues and a few other forms, I know that they are ready to learn more about harmony and its relation to the notes they choose to use. However, I have found over many years of teaching improvisation that teaching a bunch of chord scales first is putting the cart before the horse. One has to be able to work with rhythm first, not only the rhythm of meter and melodic patterns, but the larger rhythm of the phrase and the song form.
I hope you find these ideas useful, and invite you to discuss them further with me. I also invite you to share methods and strategies for teaching jazz with all of us by writing for this column yourself.
© Paul Combs, 2012