Example Classroom Use of Impro-Visor


Bob Keller

19 December 2011


I use Impro-Visor in teaching a class on jazz improvisation (Music 84 at Harvey Mudd College). A sample syllabus is found here. Harvey Mudd College does not offer a music major, but some students minor in music. The students generally excel in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences, and music seems to go along with these skills to a great degree.


I give students assignments of writing out solos for one or two choruses of a tune that we happen to be studying that semester. For reasons I state elsewhere, I think this a better exercise than transcribing another personŐs solo, regardless of how famous. Here are the steps:


1.     I give a demonstration of how to use Impro-Visor during the class.


2.    The assignment is issued, usually a week before it is due. Normally I email, or let the students download, a leadsheet with chords, but no melody. I typically provide versions for concert treble clef, bass clef, Bb, and Eb transpositions.


3.    Students email their assignments to me prior to class (by attaching Impro-Visor leadsheets, which are just text files). Ideally each student can also play his/her solo, although I have tended to be not so strict on this. It is easy to write beyond oneŐs means.


4.    Off-line, I create a composite leadsheet with each studentŐs solo being one chorus. I label the choruses with their first names, so that I can find any studentŐs solo easily in Impro-Visor, as those names show up as chorus tabs in the leadsheet window. This is pretty easy to do. I open two windows, one with an individualŐs leadsheet and the other with the composite, to which I add chorus tabs as I go. The trickiest part is when students write their solos for transposing instruments. Then I have to use Impro-VisorŐs transposition facility to bring the solo back to concert pitch, which takes a half-minute or so extra.


5.    During class, we play the composite and watch it being played in Impro-Visor using an LCD projector.


6.    During class, I ask the students to critique each otherŐs work, and I add my remarks. Sometimes we stop the playback at a specific point for discussion, or return that point later.


It is not possible to provide a control, as if this were a scientific experiment, to objectively test the validity of my approach. The class makeup is different each time and I canŐt have the same student both do the assignments and not do them. However, I have found subjectively over the years that students learn to play jazz better having gone through these exercises than they did before I started using them.


My class features a final performance, in which each student improvises in at least one small combo. We are usually studying tunes from a single composer, using with music selected from an Aebersold or Hal Leonard play-along book. Often the student has no prior jazz experience. In some cases, a more advanced student may play in three or four combos. The combos are decided toward the end of the course, after everyone has had a chance to work on some tunes and decide which are most suitable for their respective levels.


Below, I give examples of composites from various assignments. You can compare the variety of artistry, creativity, proficiency and jazz knowledge of the students. In the cases where more than one assignment appears in a given semester, hopefully you can detect improvement, although the second solo is usually on a more difficult piece. Each page consist of images of the solos, a MIDI file so that you can hear them, and the Impro-Visor leadsheet file, in case you want to experiment with that.


It takes quite a bit of work to create one of these composite web pages, so I will be adding to them as I get time.


Impro-Visor uses optional note head coloration to give visual feedback: Black = chord tone; Green = color tone (sonorous with chord); Blue = approach tone (chromatic step away from chord or color tone); Red = none of the above (may be a scale tone, or just totally outside). As you listen to the solos, see if the inharmonious sounds correspond to ones with red color.


Composites of Student Solos

á      Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues Are (by Thelonious Monk, Spring 2007)


á      Nutty (by Thelonious Monk, Spring 2007)

á      Manteca (bridge section only, by Dizzy Gillespie, Fall 2007)


á      MomentŐs Notice (by John Coltrane, Fall 2008)


á      Song for Strayhorn (by Gerry Mulligan, contrafacts rather than solos, Spring 2010)

á      Blues in the Closet (by Oscar Pettiford, Fall 2010)


Critiques of Student Solos


Some of the issues that I, or other students, often bring out in critiques are:


á      Reference or quoting the melody (generally good).

á      Quoting another tune (good, but rarely happens, because the studentsŐ knowledge of standard jazz repertoire is usually pretty limited).

á      Good swing feel. (Note that Impro-Visor provides the swing to eighth-notes for swing styles. But it is still possible for the solo not to ŇswingÓ by awkward placement of notes.)

á      Long-held fourths over major chords and unresolving fourths over dominants. I try to get the students to hear this mistake, before the assignment is issued, but it doesnŐt always sink in.

á      Long-held notes that are outside the harmony (which show up as red on the leadsheet), particularly wrong thirds and sevenths.

á      Too much tendency to start everything on the beat.

á      Not leaving enough breathing space.

á      Not a good sense of sections.

á      Complexity occurs in abrupt bursts.

á      Parts are too busy or difficult to play. Too much virtuosity.

á      Parts have awkward or extreme range jumps.


Sometimes a solo might just be boring, although this tends to be less frequent than one might expect. Sometimes it is a result of waiting until the last minute to do the assignment. More often the solo is downright pretty.