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Jazz Improvisation: 10 Tips for Beginners or Intermediate Students

By Edited Nov 29, 2015 1 1

Image Courtesy of State Library Archives of Florida (20686)
To the beginner, the idea of learning the vast language of jazz improvisation can seem daunting and downright scary. It is a skill that can take many years of hard work to master, but as you delve deeper and deeper into it you quickly begin to realize just how simple and natural it is. Below are some tips for anyone interested in learning to improvise, regardless of what instrument you play. Whether you play guitar, piano, sax, or trumpet; banjo, spoons, accordion, or kazoo; there's useful information here for everyone. While this article is primarily aimed at beginners, there are plenty of tips in here that could be useful to more advanced musicians as well. Enjoy!

1. Listen!

You're never going to speak a new language fluently if you never hear native speakers speaking it. Learning jazz is exactly like learning a foreign tongue, and the number one most important thing you can do is listen to other players. The best way to listen to jazz is live. Find out where you can hear live jazz in your hometown. If you can't find professional players, most high schools have a jazz band, and most universities with a music program have jazz ensembles. You can also look for recordings by major jazz artists, both live and studio. Soak up as much music as you possibly can, and you will never lack motivation and inspiration. Besides your instrument, your most important tools as a musician are your ears. Use them!

2. Don't Get Discouraged by Theory

If you ever want to be a great improviser in the jazz idiom, you're going to have to learn a lot of scales and theory. The amount of stuff you have to know seems daunting, and this is one of the main reasons why many students give up early. But in reality, it only seems complicated at the beginning. The more you learn, the more everything starts to fall into place and make sense. And really, as a beginner, you don't even have to worry about any of it. Just focus on making music and training your ears; don't get too far ahead of yourself. One day, it will all just "click," but until then don't be discouraged when it doesn't.

3. Get Some Books

Many great books have been published as a result of the boom in jazz education over the last couple of decades. Books by Jamey Aebersold, Mark Levine, Jerry Coker, and others are great starting places for the budding improviser. In addition to instruction books, there are many books of transcriptions, such as the Charlie Parker Omnibook for saxophonists, that are an excellent source of licks and ideas for improvisation. While these books are not a substitute for doing your own transcriptions, they are a great resource for students who are still developing good ears.

4. Ear Training

A good ear is absolutely essential for all musicians, especially improvisers in genres such as jazz, blues, and rock. Many people think that you have to be born with good ears. While it is true that many people are born with particularly good ears or even perfect pitch, it is quite possible to train your ears. If you are a student, find out if your school offers courses in ear training or aural skills. Most colleges and universities with music programs offer such classes. If you're not a student, you still may be able to enroll in or audit a course at a university or community college. There are also home ear training programs such the audio courses from David Lucas Burge and Jamey Aebersold, and others, as well as ear training software that can easily be found with a Google search. Some are even available to download for free. While it's nice to have a guide, there is a lot you can do on your own to improve your ears. Devote some practice time to picking out melodies by ear. If you don't know your intervals, learn them and sing them out loud, checking yourself with an instrument or tuner. Eventually you can start transcribing entire recordings by ear, including chords, melody, and solos. While this may be a long way off, keep it in mind as a long-term goal.

5. Transcribe, Transcribe, Transcribe!

Even if you ear is not developed to the point that you can transcribe entire solos or songs, you should still be transcribing daily. Hear a lick that you like on a recording? Play it back a few times and figure it out on your instrument. Even if its just one or two bars, every little bit improves your ear by that much. Many players keep a notebook of transcribed licks and phrases that they like. Transcribing is difficult at first. Start slowly and don't get ahead of yourself. It's easy to get discouraged, but, like any skill, it will come in time. There are a few software programs that can make the task of transcribing a lot less time consuming. My two favorites are TwelveKeys and Transcribe!, both of which let you speed up, slow down, and loop individual sections of a recording and offer tools to help you figure out which notes and chords are being played. However, no program can do the work for you; you still need a good pair of ears!

6. Learn From Other Instruments

There's no law that says that trumpet players can only listen to Miles and Clifford, or that guitarists can only lift their licks from Joe Pass or Grant Green. Many musicians end up listening only to music for their own instrument and never move on. These people are denying themselves a whole world of great, inspiring, music. It's easy to fall into the trap of only playing what feels comfortable on your particular instrument, but you can open new doors and create a unique, innovative style by starting to imitate other instruments. For example, it is highly typical of saxophonists to play tons and tons of notes, because the design of the instrument lends itself well to fast technical passages. A sax player could learn a lot by imitating a trumpet player like Chet Baker, who makes great use of space and smooth, melodic playing.

7. Learn From Other Genres

You can even take the previous tip a step further by breaking out of jazz altogether. There's no reason why a jazz musician can't be influenced by blues, funk, rock, or hip-hop. Jazz has always been influenced by other styles, perhaps most obviously in the fusion of the 1960s and 1970s. You can be influenced by other genres without playing fusion, though. Feel free to experiment. This is how you keep the music fresh and avoid becoming cliché.

8. Embrace Modern Jazz

Too many jazz players live in the past. It is important to appreciate the work of past jazz masters, but how can you expect to be relevant today if you don't appreciate the vibrant jazz scene that is out there right now? Pick up a copy of Downbeat magazine and look through the reviews section at some of the jazz that's being released right now. If you see something you like, go and get the album. Not only will you be soaking up new influences, you'll be supporting the modern jazz scene that you, yourself are a part of!

9. Practice!

Ok, here it is, the number one rule of all time for any musician, anywhere, in any genre. You have to practice. There is absolutely no way around this one. Come up with a realistic practice schedule and stick to it consistently. Set goals for yourself and work towards achieving them, one at a time. Start small and work your way up. In jazz lingo, practicing is called "woodshedding," because back in the day, when they weren't happy with a particular aspect of their playing, cats would lock themselves in the woodshed and refuse to come out until it was perfect, sometimes for days. While this may be a bit extreme, that shows you what kind of dedication the jazz greats are said to have had to their craft. Of course, I don't know for sure whether Bird ever actually locked himself in a woodshed for three days to perfect his whole-tone scales. But what I do know for sure is that if you want to sound like he did, the only way to do it is to practice!

(note: "cats" is another little bit of jazz slang. Keep practicing and maybe someday you'll get to use all of this cool hipster lingo, too, ya'dig?)

10. Find a Teacher

Many of the jazz greats in years past had to learn their craft with nothing but two ears, an instrument, and a stack of records. Jazz education did not become widespread until fairly recently. Luckily, things are different now. Jazz music has become more or less accepted in the world of music academia and there are a ton of great teachers out there. Try and find good players in your area and ask if they give private lessons. Some won't, but many are more than glad to help pass the torch to a new generation of musicians. If you're unable to find anyone, don't give up just yet. All you need is a webcam and microphone and you've got the whole world at your fingertips. More and more teachers these days are offering lessons over Skype or other web-based services, often at a lower price than in-person lessons. While there is no substitute for having a live teacher there in the room, this can be a great option for people on a tight budget or those in areas where good teachers are scarce.

Improvisation is the simplest and most organic form of musical expression there is. Think about it; music notation has only been developed within the past few-hundred years, yet musical instruments have been with us for millenia. Improvisation is an artform as old as music itself! Everyone has the potential to be a great improviser if they're willing to work for it. Some may have to work harder than others, but anyone can do it. If you are interested in learning this great artform, I hope that my article has helped to give you some ideas on where to begin. Good luck with your musical endeavors!



Jul 28, 2011 11:38pm
Great to see jazz content here! Awesome post....
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