'Once Upon My Cheek'

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Image of tree and keyboardImage licensed by Shutterstock


is the result of a collaboration between

composer Elizabeth Alexander

and Dr. Sera Smolen




“Off the Page” is a collection of songs allowing young players to read and improvise in different styles: from Blues to Funk, the collection includes a middle eastern Gypsy piece using the double harmonic minor scale.  It includes a "zen" piece using the Japanese hirajoshi scale. This music has been pedagogically tested by young musicians around the world.  These pieces support young string flute and piano players to begin modulating while improvising, using aural cues. While the first songs can be enjoyed by very young players and master musicians alike,  the collection culminates in some middle eastern music in 7/8 and a beautiful Jazz tune, with the ii/V/I chord progression, in A major, C major, and Eb major.

Off the Page Includes...

Sheet music for your instrument. with bowings, fingerings, and  breath-marks from master teachers.  

Practice strategies for each song, For example: "what to listen for" "what you will see on the page", and more.

Listening tracks for each song are played by master musicians specializing in each style.

Practicing tracks so you can play each song, putting yourself inside the band.


Using Off the Page

You can start by enjoying the song on the listening track as it is played by world class musicians

Next, You can play the “head” which is the written melody on your sheet music.

Next, using the practicing track, you can play that song, placing yourself inside this fabulous“band”.

You will hear aural cues so you can navigate through that song, keeping your place.  You will hear when it is time to take an improvised solo, when the chord progression ends, and more.

Using the ideas which are provided with each song, and the scale at the bottom of each page, you can take a solo of your own creation.


Off the Page: Table of Contents

1. Wiggy Dog Boy Blues
This song uses the B blues scale, which can be enjoyed by beginning players and master musicians. 
The blues are some of the most important music for us all to play.

2. Cracker Jack
This song is in C major, which has no sharps, no flats, and is all the white notes on the piano.
Start improvising with two or three notes from the scale. 
Let your rhythms be “jagged” like the Crackerjack tune is. Always steal ideas from people you hear, wherever you are!

3. Vermicelli
This is a Bossa Nova in D minor, with B-flat in the key signature.
You can improvise in the rhythm of the melody, imitating the rhythms using notes you choose.
Later you can continue to get inspiration from other Bossa Nova musicians you hear around you.

4. Play/Ground
This is a funk tune, with B-flat in the key signature.
While Vermicelli is in D minor, this tune uses the G blues scale.
When you are ready, add in the blue notes.
In Medieval music, the “ground bass” used to repeat over and over through the course of a piece. 
This tune contains a repeated bass line for you to play.

5. Felicia
This ballad uses the D minor scale, and the Bb major scale.
As you play, the drums and bass in the band will support your playing as you modulate between the two keys.

6. Train of Thought
This delicate and exquisite song alternates between two Dorian scales.

7. Inner Hallways
This Zen-inspired tune uses a beautiful Japanese Hirajoshi scale.

8. Maybe this is all a dream....
This song is in 7/8, a beautiful rhythmic pattern used in Ukranian, Bulgarian and Gypsy music arranged in a 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 pattern:
If you were to say “Maybe this is All a Dream”, you are automatically in 7/8!
It uses a Gypsy scale, also known as the double harmonic minor scale, incorporating both sharps and flats.

9. A Riff in the Family
This song features the famous ii-V-I chord progression, found throughout Jazz and other musical styles. 
Here we will begin in A major, modulating to C major and Eb major.

Students around the world have tried this. After working with each of the practice tracks, one at a time, they say “Oh! I CAN improvise over Riff in the Family!”
Your unique artistry develops as you simply make choices.  Your choices are perfect, and unlike anyone else's choices.
The title of the song is a hint of where you can go with your improvisation.
Listen to some of the Jazz greats as they play over the ii-V-I chord progression.
Really, the sky is the limit with your musicianship and your creativity.

Purchasing Off the Page

You will receive sheet music for all nine songs in this collection with bowings and fingerings for your instrument.  
You will receive the audio files with world class professionals performing each song.  
And you will receive a practice track so you can put yourself “into the band” on each song:

For Cello

For Viola

For Violin

For String Bass

For Flute and C instruments

For Piano Accompaniment

Thank you for your interest in "off the Page"

You can email me at serasmolen@gmail.com



International Society of Bassists Volume 41 No. 1 2018

Off the Page

Sera Smolen and Elizabeth Alexander http://www.serasmolen.com/off_the_page/ https://www.seafarerpress.com

Off The Page, a collaboration between educator Sera Smolen and composer Elizabeth Alexander, helps bridge the gap between the improvising and non-improvising worlds in a highly musical and intuitive way. Chock full of resources for the beginning improviser, Off The Page aims to make improvising an enjoyable and courageous experience for even the most beginning string player (“and other adventurous people” as the title states).

“Listen, Play, Improvise” serves as the mantra for the book, encouraging students to listen to the accompanying audio before digging in. Through rote learning of tunes and discussion of chord-scale relationships, students are guided through practical steps to begin improvising meaningfully. Following a linear progression of difficulty, accessible forms like the blues are first used before progressing to tunes with more difficult forms and harmonies. These include modal tunes, tunes with jazz chord changes, and tunes in less standard string keys. Off The Page offers valuable insight to the dimensions of improvising beyond just dealing with harmony.

Each tune comes with individualized tips to help the student best handle learning and improvising over that particular tune. As the book progresses, one thing I particularly favor is the use of common lingo from the improvising world. Words like “head”, “trading fours”, “stop time”, and “chart” in introduced early on to help acquaint the student with improvising traditions. Also included are procedural directions while improvising with a group: what to do when you get to the end of a form, how to interact with other musicians, etc. These are great insights!

I have to emphasize my appreciation for the accompanying audio. It is top-notch. The diverse instrumentation with high level improvising skills helps to break any notion of what a “classical” and “jazz” instrument is. If the authors produce more additions to the series, I would love to see transcriptions of the improvised solos, and even encouragement for curious students to play along with the recorded solos by ear. It’d be a way to capture an even wider audience who could benefit from this great resource. Off The Page is appropriate for students with or without a teacher. The pedagogy is clear, thoughtful, innovative, and accounts for many nuances dealing with the tradition of improvising. Though the aim is not to create jazz musicians per se, the authors found an extremely effective way to bridge the gap between the two worlds in a fun and resourceful way!

-review by Danny Zieman

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"'Off the Page' is a unique and much needed collection for a new era of education. It crosses the bridge between classical traditions and multiple styles, giving students the opportunity for self expression through improvisation, all while developing skills they will need in a new age of musicianship! Thoughtfully created and carefully tested, it will stand the test of time!"
     Alice Kanack-Composer and Author Creative Ability Development series, Director of the Kanack School of Musical Artistry, Rochester NY

"What a pleasure to be a part of “Off the Page”, an innovative and intuitive approach to learning music! With her experience working with musicians at all levels – young children, collegiate music majors, adult learners, and professionals seeking to unlock new expressive creative paths – Sera has given us all an opportunity to learn in our most natural way, the way we learned language: by rote, by ear, through imitation in a fun, groove oriented social-music atmosphere of jamming with friends and family."
     Nicholas Walker, DMA, Associate Professor of Music, Ithaca College School of Music, ISB President/Artistic Director  

"Off the Page is an excellent method for helping young students learn to improvise across many styles, modalities, and meters.  All students should have the opportunity to improvise, and this method provides clear strategies, examples, and exciting play-a-long tracks that will work for students of every instrument." 
     Matthew Clauhs, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Music Education, Ithaca College School of Music 

"Off the Page invites cellists to step easily into new musical experiences feeling comfortable and having fun. The tunes are interesting and memorable, and the instructions for diving into play with them are clear and straightforward.  Even if you think you don’t know what you’re doing as an improvisor in these styles you will quickly find yourself playing along and catching on. Teachers will discover in Off the Page a musically renewing resource for themselves that students will relish. The musical reward is immediate. This is a fresh breeze in instructional material, an exciting contribution toward today's renaissance in classical music pedagogy."
     Lisa Liske-Doorandish: Adjunct Faculty, Hollins University and Roanoke College


"I am very excited about “Off the Page”, and I am looking forward to using it with my flute and recorder students. It is a wonderfully well thought out collection. The variety of styles, the combination of playing by ear and reading music, and opportunities to  modulate into different keys give me as a teacher many opportunities to introduce improvisation into lessons at many different levels. And its fun! When I first starting playing with the backing tracks, I found it hard to stop, I was enjoying myself so much!”
     Kathleen Schoen-Performer, teacher, teacher trainer Edomonton, Alberta, Canada

"Sera's workshop at the New Directions Cello Festival was the perfect experience for players of different levels.  Using varied popular musical styles, familiar and natural patterns create the foundation for making something new.  Also, it was seriously fun! I recommend Off the Page to all musicians interested in improvisation and harmony.
     Elizabeth Simkin, Associate Professor of Cello, Ithaca College School of Music

“I really enjoy the variety of styles, the pieces, the excellent recordings and arrangements on Off the Page. This work provides a great treasure trove of opportunities to learn about many approaches to improvisation.” 
    Chris White, Founder and Director of the New Directions Cello Festival and author of the “Jazz Cello” book and CD method.

"I highly recommend this work. For those who are eager to learn to improvise, this method is very approachable and provides everything that you need to make improvising part of your regular practice. This fills a much needed void in the literature for teachers wanting to include improvising in their students' training."
     Laura Campbell, Colgate University, Wells College flute and ensembles

"The "Off the Page" collection is the essential step to get students comfortable improvising in non-classical styles of music. All the tracks are accessible to classically-trained students, while pushing them gently out of their comfort zone into engaging musical worlds. Each track comes pre-recorded and with a given "chart" or musical score, so students become adept at connecting their eyes, ears and inner ears, to come up with original improvisations. I wholeheartedly recommend this ingenious collection!"
     Laura Nerenberg, Multi-genre violinist, Suzuki violin teacher, teacher or Creative Ability Development


Off the Page Acknowledgements

World class artists, musicians, and teaching specialists have contributed to this collection:


Pedagogical Consultants

Our thanks to experienced teachers who integrate classical study with improvisation for excellent fingerings, bowings and breath marks in the music for beginning and intermediate students on each of these instruments.

Kathleen Schoen: Performer, teacher, teacher trainer, Edmonton Alberta, Canada
Matthew Clauhs: Asst. Professor, Ithaca College School of Music
Laura Campbell: Wells College, Colgate University

Laura Nerenberg: Jazz, Classical and Suzuki violinist, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Amy Merrill: Performer, studio musician, teacher: Olen, Belgium
Timothy Ball: Irish and American Fiddler; Kanack School of Music, Rochester, NY 

Max Buckholtz, Ithaca, NY
Aara Edwards, Ithaca, NY

Dr. Sera J Smolen, Opus Ithaca School of Music
Chris White, Director, New Directions Cello Festival
Lisa Liske Doorandish, Roanoke College, Roanoke VA
Elizabeth Simkin, Ithaca College, Ithaca NY
Marei Seuthe, Koln, Germany

Nicholas Walker, Ithaca College, Ithaca NY
Tracy Rowell, Oberlin College, Cleveland Institute, principle bass CityMusic, Cleveland, Ohio 

Elizabeth Alexander, Composer
Jessica Caporizzo, Opus Ithaca School of Music

Molly Macmillan, jazz pianist


Recording Artists

1. Wiggy Dog Boy Blues (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Wiggy Dog Boy Band:  Hank Roberts Cello; Michael Stark, Rhodes B3 organ; Bill King, drums;
Soloists: Violin, Eric Aceto; Cello, Sera Smolen; Piano, Molly MacMillan;
Flute, Matthew Clauhs

2. Crackerjack (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Molly MacMillan, piano; Dave Davies, guitar, Doug Robinson, Bass; Michael Wellen, drums
Soloists: Viola, Max Buckholtz; Bass, Nicholas Walker; Piano, Molly MacMillan; Flute, Matthew Clauhs

3. Vermicelli (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Molly MacMillan, piano; Dave Davies, guitar, Doug Robinson, Bass; Michael Wellen, drums
Soloists: Cello, Sera Smolen; Piano, Molly MacMillan; Flute, Matthew Clauhs;

4. Play/Ground (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Wiggy Dog Boy Band:  Hank Roberts Cello; Michael Stark, organ; Bill King, drums
Soloists: Violin, Eric Aceto; Cello, Malcolm Parson; Piano, Molly MacMillan;

5. Train of Thought (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Molly MacMillan, piano
Soloists:  Violin, Eric Aceto; Cello, Malcolm Parson; Bass, Nicholas Walker; Piano, Molly MacMillan; Flute, Matthew Clauhs;

6. Felicia (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Molly MacMillan, piano; Dave Davies, guitar, Doug Robinson, Bass; Michael Wellen, drums
Soloists:  Violin and Viola, Max Buckholtz; Bass, Nicholas Walker; flute, Matthew Clauhs

7. Inner Hallways (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Molly MacMillan, piano; Manuel Quintana, percussion
Soloists: Violin, Max Buckholtz; Piano, Molly MacMillan; Flute, Matthew Clauhs

8. Maybe this is all a dream….. (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
“Journey West”:  Max Buckholtz, violin; Dara Anissi, Oud; Nicolai Ruskin, percussion;
Soloists:   Violin, Max Buckholtz; Piano, Molly MacMillan; Flute, Matthew Clauhs

9. A Riff in the Family (composed by Elizabeth Alexander)
Molly MacMillan, piano; Dave Davies, guitar, Doug Robinson, Bass; Michael Wellen, drums
Soloists:  Violin, Eric Aceto; Viola, Max Buckholtz, Cello, Malcolm Parson, Bass, Nicholas Walker; Piano, Molly MacMillan; Flute, Matthew Clauhs


Schools and Programs

We would like to thank the programs and the students from around the world who have hosted us over the years.  We know the music in this collection works easily with players from around the US, Canada and Europe.  Young players have played and performed these songs successfully at workshops or institutes, studying them as little as one hour, one day or one week.  

The New Directions Cello Festival

Southwestern Ontario Suzuki Institute 

Alberta Summer Suzuki Institute

The Kanack School of Musical Artistry

Opus Ithaca School of Music, Ithaca, NY

Hochschule für Musik, Koln, Germany

Community Cello Works, Blacksburg, VA

Crane School of Music, The State University of New York at Potsdam

...and coutless other Universities, schools, studios, programs and institutes!


Recording Engineers

2005 recordings at Masterview Studio, Ithaca NY (2, 3, 6, and 9)

2007, and 2016 recordings at Wilburland, Newfield NY  (1, 4, 5, 8)

2016,“Train of Thought”, Recorded by Larry Helmeczy at the home of Syau Cheng Lai, Ithaca NY

2016, Manuel Quintana recorded by Julie Last at Cold Brook Studio, Bearsville NY

2005-2018  Tracks 1,4,7 & 8 and additional instruments on other tracks recorded by Will Russell @Electric Wilburland, Newfield NY