How to Teach The Blues
Watch my 12-year-old student tear up a classic blues tune in this throwback video.
(He recently graduated and is now headed to college but I'll keep this in the present tense anyway.)
Notice how he throws in riffs, kicks, an improvised solo, and even a key change along the way without reading music (the music on the stand is a different piece). Now, some would assume this kid is exceptionally gifted or that his teacher is a miracle worker. As much as flattery is hard to deny, I insist that talent is overrated when it comes to playing or teaching creatively. My student is a well-rounded regular kid with normal musical aptitude and a lot of other interests as his uniform attests (soccer practice after the lesson).
What he does have is:
A genuine love for playing the piano.
A more or less regular practice routine.
An interest in a variety of musical styles.
A mom who embraces my teaching philosophy, which is equal parts reading and improvisation.
So if it is not some kind of far-out new age woo-woo talent thing that enables someone to play like this, what is it? The obvious answer is that musical creativity, like any other aspect of music, is learned step-by-step.
Here are the steps we took to learn this tune:
Listen first: To begin, I asked him absorb the structure and feel from several online videos including the famous Blues Brothers movie clip that was actually recorded by Eric Clapton and friends.
Read second: In the next lesson, I gave him a lead sheet (transposed from the original key of E to F to be more piano friendly) so he could see it written and asked him to apply a “stock” boogie accompaniment (previously learned from my That’s Jazz piano method, Book 1, p. 24).
Add details: We added an intro, brass kicks and riffs by imitating a famous band-based rendition of this tune also found on You Tube.
Integrate technique: To prepare for improvising, he practiced the major (aka “bright') blues scale in the key of this tune over several octaves and a variety of left-hand accompaniments.
Explore: For the next few lessons he improvised with this scale in his right hand while maintaining the left-hand boogie accompaniment. Did he just stick to these notes? Not really but they served as “safe notes” for his explorations. I also asked for a key change to dress up the ending and showed him how to modulate.
Set a goal: Because he responds to challenges, at the next lesson I upped the stakes by telling him I wanted it, “good enough to make a video that I will put online so other students and teachers can learn from it.”
Celebrate: After spending time discussing the form about which I was clear that he was free to choose since it was, “his piece,” his mom recorded it so I was free to accompany on drum set.
Can you do this? Of course you can.
Creative teachers move students gradually from “mechanical” to “artistic” by coaching in small, digestible increments… things like turning run-on notes into phrases, focusing on “less is more,” and considering more interesting rhythms and articulations. I encourage you to give it a try. “Fake it ‘til you make it” if you have to. Be willing to learn alongside your students. They’ll respect you for it and I can guarantee that it will increase your rapport with them.
Blues is a rich and varied musical style with deep roots in the American experience. As with any new musical challenge, it’s helpful for teachers to break down the various elements to make them more approachable for students. However, by doing so, we sometimes risk diminishing the very music we are teaching. For this reason, it’s important to point out to our students that there's a lot more to The Blues than meets the ear.
When I hear students describe improvisation as, “messing around with the Blues scale (as if there were only one) over three chords,” I realize their teacher and/or materials (including my own) failed to point out that The Blues is a musical style with many different regional and artistic sub-genres that evolved from the work songs and lamentations of enslaved African-Americans to become one of the most influential streams in American popular music. A genre unto itself, various elements of The Blues are also fundamental to jazz, rock, contemporary songwriting, and even some orchestral music.
To simplify all of that into “the Blues scale over three chords” is a bit like describing Mozart’s music as “noodling around with major scales over an Alberti bass.” If it were that easy, there'd be a lot more great blues artists and a lot more Mozarts. So, when teaching The Blues, break it down for sure, help your students gain a toehold in this fascinating style but along the way, be sure to point out that few genres have had such an enormous impact on the history of music.