Lesson video

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Hello, my name is Ms Charatan and I'm a Head of Music at a school in North London.

Really excited to be teaching you all about blues improvisation today.

So we're going to begin by having a bit of improvisation ourselves, just for some rhythm.

So I'm going to clap a rhythm as a question, and you're going to clap me a rhythm as a response.

You clap a rhythm as a response now.

Lovely, I hope you did some interesting responses.

Let's get started with the lesson.

In this lesson, you will need the following items. You need a piece of paper, a pencil, as well as a voice, instrument or app.

I really like the app virtual piano, which is a really good alternative to a real keyboard.

It looks like this.

Pause the video, go and get what you need and come back when you're ready.


So in today's lesson, we're going to first learn how improvisers communicate in a band.

We'll recap improvisation and the 12 bar blues.

We'll practise our listening with the 12 bar blues and identify where we are in it, we'll explore different improvisation structures, and then we'll finally learn how to improvise within a structure.

So, how do improvisers communicate? So there are four questions on the page.

I'm going to play the video to you.

You will then pause it, write down the answers to these questions, and resume when you're ready to check your answers.


Pause the video, and take more time to answer these questions.


Let's now check our answers.

So, how did they communicate with each other? Well, honestly, they looked, they did move their bodies a bit, particularly the guitarist and the pianist were looking at each other quite a lot and they were clearly listening so they're playing in time.

How do they tell each other it was their turn to improvise? So this wasn't so much with where they were looking, they actually knew when in the structure, so then the flautist came up at the right time and they obviously looked to each other to encourage them to do that.

Why are they standing and sitting in these positions? So they could see/hear each other clearly, I think also it, it was for balance, so you'd be able to hear all the parts.

And do you think they were positioned in a useful way? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that? I thought they were kind of in a fairly good way, but they maybe could have been in a more curved formation, they were in a line and they couldn't really see each other, all that clearly.

So, maybe that would have been better to have changed the way they were standing.


how do improvisers communicate? And what are the key skills needed to play in a band? What do you think? So here are my ideas and my clues.

So, improvisers need to be looking and making eye contact with others.

They need to be able to listen and they also need to memorise, not what they're necessarily playing, but a lot of other things about the piece of music.

Out of these three, what do you think your strengths are as a musician? Pause the video briefly, and reflect on what you think.

How do you think other musicians communicate? So here's a picture of a more classical ensemble.

How are they communicating? And here is the world famous Beatles.

How do you think they're communicating? We can't hear them, but we can certainly see what they're doing.

So we can see really clearly with both these photos.

They have got eye contact with one another, so particularly the Beatle on the left, he's looking at his, at his band.

And over here, they still need to be able to be watching 'cause they're watching the conductor, so eye contact is so important when playing in an ensemble, as well as some of the things.

So, what are the three main skills you need to improvise or play successfully in a band? Recap those now.


So you should have got your ears, your eyes and your memory.

So listening, eye contact, and remembering various things.

So we've learned how improvisers communicate.

We're now going to recap a bit more about improvisation and the 12 bar blues.

So improvisation is making music up on the spot.

And from the very beginning, the blues has been largely improvised after the abolition of slavery, poor African American farmers would often gather together on each of those porches and in churches and their homes to jam for hours.

Can you remember what jamming is? So jamming is where musicians would get together quite spontaneously and play music kind of in a social gathering, and people still jam today.

I go and jam sometimes, and it's really, really fun to be playing music quite spontaneously.

So improvisation is so important for blues, but actually it can be done in so many other contexts.

Improvisation is really the most natural thing in the world, because it's a chance for you to just show your creativity, to take yourself away from the page where the music is written.

And actually you don't need to have the structures that we're going to give you in order to improvise, but they might be a useful starting point for you.

Everyone improvises differently.

Some people find it more of a natural thing than others.

And that's absolutely okay.

So, I'm going to really encourage you today to be free, to enjoy it and to be open and brave, to what is going to come next.

So what do you think you need to know in order to improvise, do you think you need sheet music to improvise? The answer is, not necessarily.

It might be a useful prompt if you're used to playing with sheet music.

Certainly for me, it was at the very beginning, but actually you don't need sheet music and many blues musicians actually made up tunes and lyrics on the spot.

The earliest blues musicians, sort of back in the day when it was the banjo and the harmonica and this, the more traditional instruments, they developed amazing listening skills by learning the songs from other people, and that's very much the case in folk music today.

What else do we think we need to know in order to improvise? Have a pause and think about that now.

So, here was my improvising head.

What do I need to know? I need to know the pitches, that I'm going to be playing on 'cause I can't just make them up completely randomly.

I need to know when I'm going to play, I need to know how long I'm playing for, and therefore, when I need to finish and how I'm going to pass on to the next person.

I also need to know the overall structure and where I fit in to that structure.

So a really safe way to start improvising is to be quite confident on the pitch set, so the selection of pitches you're going to be playing.

And in this case, we're going to be using one of the most commonly found in blues, which is the blues scale.

You may have done this in previous lessons in this unit, or it may be new to you.

If it's new to you, do not worry.

We're not going to go over this in much detail now.

If you need to recap the blues scale, take a moment, and pause, and recap it on this page, on this page.

And on this page.

Otherwise, let's move on to our next section, all about the 12 bar blues.

So in order to improvise, we also need to know many of the things.

We need to know when you play, we need to know how long you're playing for, and you definitely need to know the overall structure of the piece, otherwise you're going to really struggle.

And that is where the 12 bar blues comes in.

So what is the 12 bar blues? Can you remember? The 12 bar blues is a chord structure using blues music, but it's also in many other styles of music that uses the chords one, four and five, and that's the most basic chords.

Pause the video, fill in the gaps, the blanks in the table of the 12 bar blues, and resume when you're ready to check your answers.

Lovely, let's check.

So we have four lots of chord one, four bars of chord one, and we have chord four, two bars of chord four, and then two bars of one, and five, four, one, one.

And at the end, why are there two chords at the end? Can you remember? That is a turnaround.

So if it's a chord five again, we know to go back to the beginning, so that helps them the 12 bar blues to kind of loop around into a continuous structure.

So, you're now going to recap the 12 bar blues, 'cause it's going to be really important that you know it well in order to do the next task.

So you can recap this on an instrument or an app, just by playing that bass note, have four beats per chord.

You can even practise with a blues rhythm or a blues baseline.

I'm going to demonstrate to you now, the 12 bar blues on C.

This is what it should sound like.

So that's what you could do with your left hand.

I'm now going to just make it really simple and just play only with the right hand.

One, two, three, four.

Now it's F.

F, two.

Now, C.


C, two, three.

Now it's G.

And to make it a turnaround at the end, what would I need to change the C to? Yes, I'll change it to a G to go back to C at the very beginning.

Pause the video, take about five minutes to recap this on an instrument or an app, and resume when you're ready to move on.

Excellent work, so hope you're all recapped.

Now, so we're now going to practise our listening with the 12 bar blues.

For an improviser, it's really important to know where you are in a 12 bar blues because this informs what pitchers you're going to choose to match with the chord, and it also informs when you start and when you need to finish.

So, we're going to practise this now.

And we are going to keep track of where I am when I'm playing the 12 bar blues.

When we count the blues, it's easiest to count it in four, and to actually rather than going one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, every time, one, two, three, four, two, two, three, four, three, two, three, four.

Let's do a practise one together and count with me.

Are we ready? One, two, three, four.

Where did I get to? I counted three, one, two, three.

So I'm here.


So let's now do one on your own.

Where did I get to? You should have counted that to five.

So I was here.

Let's try another one, one, two, three, four.

Where did I get to? That was quite fast.

Well done if you kept up.

Yeah, I was here.

So one, two, three, four five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10.

So you should have counted that to 10.

Well done if you got that one correct.

Let's now try.

I'm going to make it harder for you.

To do it with your ears only.

So just please ignore the other letters on the screen.

So ears only, you are going to keep track of the 12 bar blues, and you need to tell me what bar have I got to, so what number? Let's go, ready? We'll do it a little bit more slowly.

One, two, three, four.

When did I get to? So you might have heard, it was when I returned back to one.

So it would have been here.

Well done if you got that one correct.

Let's try one more, so I'm going to remove it.

Here we go, so I'm not going to give it away.

Let's try, so remember that one, two, three, four, two, two, three, four, counting, and.

Where did I get to? Yeah, so if you heard that it was that first five, you were absolutely correct, so I was actually.

There we are, I was actually here.

So, so much about blues is counting, but also using your ears to identify, okay I'm now at chord five, now at chord one.

So, we're now going to have a little practise at you coming in at the right time.

So I'm going to play my 12 bar blues, when I complete it, you need to come in on a tonic, so you're just going to press, play a C when I've completed it.

So, listen, count, and come in at the right time.

We ready? One, two, three, four.

You should have come in then.

Well done if you got that one correct, so I did a turnaround at the end with a chord five.

So that's why we need to practise this, so we can come in at the right time to improvise.

And we've done a great job, we've practised our listening and we're now going to explore some different improvisation structures in the blues.

So, here is a blues band, and it's heavy on guitar, electric guitar.

We're going to look, watch now, particularly at this guitarist, so when does he improvise and how does he know when? And how are the guitarist and singer communicating with each other? Great, so what did you notice about when the guitarist improvising? So yeah, if you said that he is improvising after the singer has finished his phrase, the singer was singing, and then the guitarist took over the end of the phrase.

So they were working in partnership with each other and it's a bit like a question and answer.

So they weren't using that 12 bar blues structure for their improvisation because the guitarist role, was just very short answering phrases.

They were communicating by listening and also you could see they were giving each other a really good eye contact as well.

So really good example of great musicianship there.

So this is a blues head.

This leads us to a blues head.

So all blues music really has a head arrangement of this 12 bar structure.

So what does the head arrangement mean? You might've covered that before.

So this is literally the 12 bar blues structure.

So that is the head arrangement.

And within that, you've got the head melody.

What do we think the head melody is? Head melody is the main melody that will probably repeat throughout the blues song.

You might have done a blue song called Bags' Groove before.

So, Bags' Groove has a improvisation structure around a question and answer.

So the head melody sounds like this.

And then the improvisation would come after.

So what is an answer? The head is the question, the answer is an improvised phrase based around the blues scale.

So, the improvisation in Bags' Groove is not all over the 12 bar blues structure because it's this nice question and answer framework, which we maybe practised before in a previous lesson.

Let's now practise that question and answer now.

So I'm going to improvise a question, which is the head melody.

So that's my answer, and that was my question.

I'm obviously doing two, both parts at once, so now you're going to have a go at doing an answer to my question.

So on your instrument, get the notes G and B flat, ready? You might need to pause the video to sort this out now.

And I'm going to improvise, play the Bags' Groove head, and you're going to provide the answer to my Bags' Groove head.

One, two, three, my turn.

One, two, three, my turn.

Excellent, great work.

So, if you found that difficult, don't worry too much, because we're not going to be practising this in, in much more depth, it's just important to know that somebody's improvisation is around the question and answer, and some is based across the whole 12 bar blues, where we have quite a long solo.

We're now going to look a bit more at that now.

So let's return to our video we watched earlier in the lesson and I'd like you to look at the following things.

What order do the instruments improvise in? How do they know when to improvise? And do you think this was a 12 bar blues structure? And how do you know? Okay, so let's go over the answers to these questions.

What order did they improvise in? So we had saxophone, and we had the flute, and then we had the guitar, and obviously there were way more after that.

How did they know when to improvise? So they obviously need a structure.

They didn't necessarily nudge each other and say, it's your turn.

They knew, they stood up, they went up and then they improvised.

So they knew it from the structure.

Do you think this was a 12 bar blues structure? It actually wasn't, it was actually 16 bars, and you would have known that by counting the chords, and actually there's one extra line of chords.

So 12 bar blues is the most popular blues structure, but 16 bar blues is also available to be used.

So the band we just saw knew when to improvise, because the improvisations were based around the head arrangement, which is that repeated structure of the 12 bar blues, so let's start with the head.

And that's when they would all play the head melody followed by some choruses and in a chorus, they would be improvising over that 12 bar blues or 16 bar blues in the case we just saw.

At the end, they'd probably have another head melody where everyone plays and then they would have maybe the intro and a coda, which is like an outro.

So we can see here, this is a really typical structure, improvisation structure in jazz, but we have a head melody, everyone playing, so in some Bags' Groove arrangements, everyone would play Bags' Groove head melody together.

Then we'd have three choruses of 12 bar blues, where people would improvise, we'd end up with another head that went together and then we'd have an outro, which would maybe just be the chords.

So what do you need to know when you're performing this type of head arrangement? Because bear in mind, you might not be having music.

So you would need to know when it's your turn.

So you're not going to be told when to come up, you'll need to actually know that automatically.

You'd also need to know that 12 bar blues really, really well in order to be able to count when it is your turn.

So we're now going to learn how to improvise within this head arrangement structure.

We're going to be learning a jazz standard called C Jam Blues, which was written by Duke Ellington, 'King of swing'.

Listen to the music, and answer three questions below.


If you need to listen to it again, you can just rewind the video.

So what chord progression and structure did it use? The 12 bar blues and that head arrangement structure.

What was the bass playing? It was playing a walking baseline.

And how many pitches were in the vocal melody? Only two, C and G that's all they had.

So, look at the blues chord sequence of C Jam Blues, on the left hand side is the normal blues chord progression.

And on the right hand side, we've got the C Jam one.

Can you spot any differences between the two? Pause the video if you need any more time.

Yeah, so you can see.

Here, we've got two extra chords, and it was quite common to alter the chords in the blues chord sequence to make them more interesting.

So in this case, we've got slight alteration here and of course you've got that turnaround at the end.

You don't need to worry about that in terms of improvisation, but it's just something to be aware of, in case it sounded a bit different to you.

So when we improvise on the C Jam Blues, we need to be thinking about what pitches we need to start with.

So look at the chords and look at our blues scale.

What pitches would be a good idea to start with? Your hint is already there, so a C and a G, just like in the head melody.

That's what we had.

So we're going to perform the C Jam Blue arrangement in the following structure, we'll start with an intro, which would just be a clicking.

And then I go to play their head.

After the head, you're going to play the chorus, which is an improvisation, so you're going to improvise for 12 bars over the 12 bar blues, remember the notes that you need to choose are just C and G, so you don't need to be worried about it.

Then I'm going to do a 12 bar chorus.

Then you're going to do another one.

I'm going to play the head, you can play it with me, if you'd like, very quick to pick up.

And then the coda, which is just going to be an outro So you need to know when it's your turn and you also need to be able to count that 12 bar blues, just in your head and at the same time improvising.

So I'm going to play it to you now, so you know what it's going to be like.

So I'm going to play from the intro, which is a clicking.

Then I'm going to play the head and then that's going to be the bit where you're going to come in.

Don't worry about coming in now, this is just so you can practise.


So that's going to be your chance to improvise, for that 12 bars.

Don't worry if you don't get it right straight away, that's absolutely fine.

Also remember, how many times did I play there? Did you hear that? Three times.

So actually you don't need to worry about counting with 12 bars, you can just listen to that head melody.

So, I'm now going to give you some time to get your head around this.

Practise and prepare your improvisation, so that's not going to be taking ages and ages and doing it perfectly, it's about just experimenting.

Okay, I can do C and G like this.

I can maybe think about doing some different rhythms with it, I can add in some other pitches as well.

From the 12th, from the blues scale, and then practise doing that improvisation over this 12 bar, one, two, three, four.

You can always rewind the video and then practise again with that little bit of backing track, then take five minutes, come back and then we can improvise together for our finale.

Okay, let's now check where you are at.

So go through this checklist, make sure that you are ready to go.

If you need to spend a bit more time, that's absolutely fine.

Okay, so you should definitely know, You only need to do two choruses and I'm in the middle of your choruses.

How do you know when to come in? You need to count that 12 bar blues.

How many times do I hear the head, the total melody? Three times.

Okay, so we're now going to perform together.

You might want to perform with somebody else at home as well.

The structure is at the bottom of the screen.

So look at me, look at the structure and that's going to help you.

I'm going to make me a bit bigger.

Oh, here we go.

Great, so I'm going to make me bigger so you can hear, see me more clearly.

I'll be ready for our big performance.

Pause the video if you need any more time.

Let's go, good luck.

Excellent work.

If you'd like to try that again, just because you had so much fun, or 'cause you think you could do it better this time, now you've heard me do it.

Then please rewind the video, and do it again.

You can do it as many times as you'd like, this track is also going to be on the worksheet for you.


So, to finish up our lesson today, you're going to answer these two questions on a piece of paper, pause the video, answer the questions and resume when you're ready.

Great, so can we remember the three main things that you need to do to play in the band successfully are, watching or having eye contact, listening, and memorising structure, the pitches that you're going to be using, when you're going to play and how long for.

And how do improvisers communicate when performing in a band? Should be eye contact, all of those things about eye contact and listening.

You have done a great job today.

If you'd like to share your work with Oak National, please ask your parents or carers to share it on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, tagging Oak National and using the #LearnwithOak.

Well done for your hard work, take care, enjoy the rest of your day and see you soon.