The first piano lesson of the year is a great time to do something different with your students.
And I don’t mean just choosing a new piece of music. I mean scrapping the music altogether and getting off the page.
It’s easier to do than you might think and kids love it.
Want to know exactly how to do this with your students this year?
This is the article for you.
Note: See videos, lesson plans, app and downloads below.
12 Bar Blues
My favourite activity for the start of the year (even if you’ve introduced it before or already had a few lessons with a student) is to explore the 12 bar blues.
The 12 bar blues is simply a chord progression consisting of the 1, 4 and 5 chords in whatever major key you’re working. The 12 bar blues is found in all sorts of music across all genres and is a form and style of music that all musicians should be 100% familiar with.
I tell my students that if they ever want to play in a band in the future, they better know the 12 bar blues (especially in E) as that’s one of THE most common things that a group of musicians will jam along to when they first get together. Why? Because everyone understands the form, it’s easy to play on just about any instrument, it sounds good and it’s fun!!
Remember too that every student will learn 12 bar blues reading pieces in their method books and probably many more over their lifetime of study. If they can understand the concepts of the structure, chords and improvising before ever reading the music, they will have a much better comprehension of the form when it’s time to read.
The most fun thing about the blues is that it’s a musical structure that’s really easy to improvise over if you know a couple of tricks (which I’ll share below). Students can quickly get lost in the magic of making up their own music while you can sit back and enjoy their journey into jazz.
What you’ll need
- Lesson plans – see below to download
- Something to write the chords on (eg. student assignment book)
- Piano or two
- iReal Pro app with 12 Bar Blues chart loaded on your choice of device + external speakers. Download my chord chart and WAV file for your students below.
Ready to get started?
The Two Roles of the Jazz Pianist
I teach the blues in two ways:
- First, I teach the chord progression with students’ RH playing chords and LH playing a bass line (this is known as “comping”)
- Then I show them how easy it is to improvise (RH only to start, higher on the piano, while the teacher “comps”)
Depending on the student’s ability, in one 30 minute lesson, you’ll probably be able to teach both the chords and the improv so the student can go home and explore both.
Let’s take a look at how to teach the chord progression first.
The Chord Progression
So what do I mean by 1, 4 and 5 chords?
Let’s look at an example in the key of C major. The notes of the C Major scale could be numbered:
- C = Note 1
- D = Note 2
- E = Note 3
- F = Note 4, etc.
So the chords built on “1, 4 and 5” are:
- 1 Chord = C major chord (CEG)
- 4 Chord = F major chord (FAC)
- 5 Chord = G major chord (GBD)
Note that at this stage, I don’t worry about teaching the students about the construction of chords or anything (that comes later). I just want to get them playing.
Now to create the 12 bar blues form, we just play these chords in the following order (I write this down for the student’s reference):
I encourage students to use fingers 1-3-5 to play triads in their RH, however if this is not comfortable, I’ll let them use 1-2-4 or even 1-2-3. Offer the student suggestions as to alternatives and ask them what feels the best.
Remember, this is a fun, creative activity designed to get the students exploring and making music as quickly as possible. While you might really want to fix issues with fingering now, I’d recommend leaving this for later and prioritising the music-making.
If your student isn’t able to play a 3-note triad in the RH, then just get them to play the 1st and middle note (eg. CE of a CEG triad) with fingers 1 and 3.
Adding Left Hand and Rhythm
Like with any chord-based playing, just playing these chords like that will sound pretty rubbish.
A simple way to add interest to the chord progression and make it sound more jazzy is to get the student to play a simple broken chord pattern in their LH instead of holding the bass note.
If they play a C major triad down low on the piano, it will sound muddy, however if students break up the notes of the chord, it will sound like a simple walking bass.
In order to get in the right hand positions, get the students to play the progression with just chords in both hands:
When they can do that easily, it’s time to break-up the LH chords to form a simple “walking bass”:
Watch as I demonstrate how easy it is to try this with your students:
Now that they can play the chord progression, it’s time to add some groove. The best way to do this is with a brilliant app that works on all devices (iPad, Samsung, iPhone, tablets, phones, etc.) called iReal Pro (click that link to download if you’re on your device).
This is a paid app which is well worth the expense. I use it daily with most of my students.
While you don’t have to use a backing track to teach the blues, I strongly encourage it as it really does bring the music and the experience to life for students. Jazz is, after all, predominantly a group performance style.
While you might be able to find a CD with a backing track that’s suitable, this app is far more functional as you can easily change the groove/style, key and tempo with a click of a button.
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NOTE: If you’d like to watch “over my shoulder” as I set up and use this app for teaching, I’ve recorded a series of Tech How-To videos in my Inner Circle members’ area, showing you exactly how to use all the apps I use in my studio.
To make things really easy for you, I’ve put together a few downloads that will help get you started (just click to open – yours free!):
- My iReal Pro 12 bar blues chord chart (just one click to load and start playing)
- A MIDI version of the same file that you can import into other software (eg. GarageBand)
- A WAV file of the backing track that you and your students can use without needing any apps
Whether or not you use my iReal Pro chart (trust me, it will save you the time of learning how to create these from scratch), here’s how the chord chart should look when you’re ready to play:
Notice down the bottom that you can choose the style (currently: Jazz – Medium Swing), the tempo (currently 100), the number of repeats (4) and the key (C Major).
Press play and get your student to play along with the backing track created by iReal Pro. They’ll feel like they are in a jazz band and I guarantee they’ll love it. Change the speed to match how fast they can change chords.
If you’ve got multiple pianos, you can play along too, or perhaps improvise to demonstrate what the student will be learning next.
NOTE: I encourage all teachers to invest in some external speakers for their studio as the iPad speaker is not designed for volume – especially if you have one or more pianos playing along. You can see what I use on my resources page.
Improvising over this chord progression is dead easy.
All you need to know is the C Blues Scale:
I like to stick to the standard C Chromatic Scale fingering of just 1 and 3 (thumb on white, 3 on black). If the student has already learnt the chromatic scale, this will be relatively easy. If they haven’t, then it may take a little more work.
Again, don’t get hung up on fingering. If it’s a bit of a mess, don’t worry. The jazz greats of the past won’t turn in their graves (they’ll probably be impressed!).
When the student plays a ‘wrong’ note (it’s bound to happen), tell them how cool it sounded and not to worry. Most jazz musicians will tell you there are no wrong notes in jazz (just some that sound better than others).
Watch me demonstrate Lesson 2 in this video:
‘Practising’ the Improv
A good way to practice this scale is to start the backing track and play the notes of the blues scale up and down over two octaves in time with the pulse. Depending on the skill of the student, this could be a new note of the scale every crotchet beat or every minim.
When the student is relatively comfortable doing that, then explain to the student that they don’t have to play all the notes in order. They can stop and start, repeat just a couple of notes (or even 1 note!), skip a note and they can break out of the steady rhythm (as long as they are still feeling the groove).
Hey Presto: they are improvising!
Students will tend to stick to the middle of the piano when they start improvising so, while the backing track is playing and you’re playing the chords on a second piano (or down low on their piano), ask them to trying improvising up an octave or two higher.
What does it sound like? Does it give more separation from the chords? What do the prefer?
Make sure your encouraging them to listen by asking them questions like this.
Putting it Together
Now that the student can play the chord progression and play the improvisation, it’s time to put a mini ensemble together with you, the backing track and your student.
If you have two pianos in your studio, then get on your other piano (or just share one piano like a duet) and explain the format:
- First time through: Teacher and student play the chords (if on one piano teacher plays bass note, student plays the chord)
- Second time: Student improvises, teacher plays chords
- Third time: Teacher improvises, student plays chords
- Final time: Student choice!
Start the backing track in iReal Pro and start grooving.
Give them lots of encouragement as they improvise.
Help them to listen for patterns or “licks” as jazz musicians would call them – ie. melodic fragments that sound good and that they can repeat and build upon. I talk about this more in Lesson 4.
Now that your student knows the basics of playing the blues, get them to keep exploring it at home. Here are suggestions:
- Record themselves playing the chord progression on their phone and listen back to their recording with headphones while they improvise on the piano
- If they have iReal Pro (I encourage all my students to download it), get them to play along to the backing track – either the chords or improvising
- If they don’t have iReal Pro, they can play along to the exported iReal Pro backing track (if you want a copy of mine you can use, see the optin above)
- If another member of the family/friend plays an instrument, get your student to teach the other person how to improvise on their instrument (great learning experience when it comes to transposing instruments!) and then they can play along with each other.
Do you like having written instructions when you teach something for the first time?
To help get you started, I’ve created two lesson plans for using this activity in lessons. It will be the perfect reference that you can use while you teach.
Lesson 1 and 2 can normally be completed as part of one 30 minute lesson, however this may change depending on your student’s age and ability.
The above videos and lesson plans come from modules 1 and 2 of my 10-part course on Teaching the Blues which is available free to Members of my Inner Circle.
As well as the two lessons you’ve experienced, the next course modules include:
- Exploring other common LH blues patterns
- New improvising ideas including triplet rhythms, licks and slides
- Playing the blues in other keys
- Adding 7ths and 9ths to the chords
- Off-beat comping
- The blues 3rds walkup pattern for RH
- Playing chords in LH while improvising in RH
- Playing with different styles, jazz standards, where to from here?
You can access my free online seminar on teaching the jazz and the blues by clicking here.
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