Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Improvisation is Scary

For some, improvisation is a little scary. It doesn’t have to be with a clever back pocket pattern guaranteed to sound black-cat cool.

As I was planning for the fall, I wanted to include an improvisation activity that would introduce beginners to the idea of creating their own music as well as something to please seasoned improvisers. Thanks to an inspiration while attending a lesson with Bradley Sowash, I came up with a pattern that I call Black Cat Strut.

It’s an accessible improvisation jumpstart that offers tasks for both hands. While the left-hand stays pretty simple it still sounds hip. With the suggested tips, the right hand will get the opportunity to strut its stuff.

Check out this video that shows snippets of improvisers of all levels and ages strutting their chops.

Black Cat Strut is guaranteed to sound pleasing because both hands play something appealing and it’s in minor–always a popular choice for this time of year.

The patterns are suited for anyone at any level because both hands play separately–at least at the first level. In fact, there’s no need to play hands together at all and that’s the beauty of this jumpstart. However, it has just enough sophistication to build on it–suitable for those who are comfortable with improvising.

Here are some tips to help your students CATch on quickly:

  • When introducing the pattern, divide and conquer each part by playing one hand yourself, while your student plays the other.
  • Better yet, divide and conquer in a group lesson. Ask one or more to play the left-hand part and assign others to create right-hand patterns. You’ll have all kinds of cool cats improvising together!
  • Teach the pattern by ear. Provide few visuals for them and repeatedly model snippets for them to echo.
  • Give step by step instructions, adding more ideas as they became more confident with the patterns.
  • Play a pattern on white keys (CDE GA) and ask students to learn and copy it by ear.
  • You’ll notice in the video that fingering is a personal choice for the sake of building a safety net for young improvisers. If given too many things to think about, students might give up.

You (try it yourself!) and your students will have even more opportunity to sound like a pro as I’ve created a chart in iReal Proa must-have app that generates lead sheets and provides an instant backup band.

Detailed instructions for Black Cat Strut can be found here. They include:

  • A colorful, black kitty-cat visual of the keys required for the right hand.
  • The pattern broken down into three skill levels with sequential steps on how to teach them.
  • Grand staff notation of all parts.
  • A link to the video and the iReal Pro chart.

At any level, this improvisation jumpstart is guaranteed to sound purrfect. There’s no need to be scared!

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  1. Miriam Williams

    Sounds like a lot of fun – I use Pumpkin Boogie (Faber series) to get kids jump-started on improve. If the student is able, I ask them to transpose it a step down and introduce the Bb blues scale, as this is a key they’d be using if they want to join the jazz combo at school. It could be learned in C, and re-introduced again (using key of Bb) when you think the student is ready.

  2. Leila J Viss

    Great idea, Miriam! Terrific tip to transpoe to Bb to prepare for the future.

  3. Mary Jane Zimmerman

    Remember playing HEART AND SOUL, with one person doing the bass part, and the other person doing the melody in the upper register? Normally it could be done by someone who really didn’t “play the piano.” Same thing with CHOPSTICKS. This is very similar, and great fun. Congratulations!

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