Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

The “One-Note Blues” Gets Students Started with Musical Improvisation

Posted by Pamela Szalay on May 31, 2011

Below are videos of two different students improvising a melody to go along with a 12-bar blues progression in the key of Eb.  This is a great key for learning to improvise over a 12-bar blues pattern:  not only does it sound great,  but even novice players can easily pick out the right notes to play along. Since the black-keys form a pentatonic scale, which works well in the blues, students of all levels of ability can play confidently just by playing any black key. For non-musicians or anyone new to improvisation, this can be a liberating experience!

Regardless of previous experience, I like begin this activity by allowing players to improvise only with a single note,  E-flat. For newcomers, I will often mark the note on the piano keyboard with a sticker or post-it note. I encourage players to experiment with all the ways they can perform that single note: slow, fast, with a swing, with different articulations, or whatever. I call this activity the “One-Note Blues”. It is amazing how many ideas can come from playing that one-note!

Once players have spent time exploring the possibilities of the “One-Note Blues”, I tell them they are ready to add one more black key. In some cases, we quickly move to using all the black keys. Usually, new players are pretty surprised at how good their improvisation sounds. I am glad to say that this activity always brings a lot of smiles, regardless of age!

The two videos below feature this activity. The students’ ages are 10 and 16, and both have been playing the piano for a few years. However, neither student regularly improvises in this genre, and neither was given an opportunity to rehearse before I hit the “record” button on the video recorder. They are truly creating their music in real time.


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