The Hypothesis

Have you ever felt like your progress in learning jazz improvisation is stagnant, rambling, directionless or going nowhere?  It’s easy to feel that way because there is so much to learn in this art form and too many possible directions to go at once.  Looking at a blank page and writing, or blank canvas and painting, without an objective is sometimes too unstructured for a young artist.  If you approach your learning in a more structured “scientific” fashion, I believe you will achieve better results, faster.

The Control

The serious student of jazz should be studying theory, jazz history, jazz styles, scales, memorizing tunes, composition, patterns, licks, common chord structures…  Have I forgotten anything?  Let’s call this the academic approach to learning jazz improvisation.

The Variable

Another approach to learning how to improvise is to just improvise.  We’ll call this free association.  Don’t worry about the above-mentioned list of tasks and basically just close your eyes and play whatever comes to mind and train your ear to guide you (and train your technique to be able to play what you hear; ear/hand coordination*.)

The Problem

The problem with the academic approach is that one can quickly feel overwhelmed with the enormous amount of information to process.  The problem with free association is that it is difficult to assess your progress concretely and can get to feel like you’re spinning your wheels.

The Experiment

I feel like I get the best results when I combine my practice with elements from both approaches; academic and free association.

Try thinking of your improvising practice session like a science experiment.  Set up a control and a variable.  Let’s say you are all set up with a play along recording.  (I highly recommend the Jamey Aebersold series and Band-In-The-Box software.)  Pick a tune with a theoretical concept you are working on and set it up to play multiple choruses; say minor ii-V7-i’s in Autumn Leaves.  Then set up parameters (objectives/goals) for yourself for each chorus before you begin.  For examble:

Chorus 1 – play along with Miles’ transcribed solo to learn style and phrasing.

Chorus 2 – free associate.  Play whatever comes to mind hopefully reflecting on Miles’ solo.

Chorus 3 – play the major scale starting on the flat 2 of all minor ii-Vs.  (Bb major on A-7(b5))

Chorus 4 – free associate.

Chorus 5 – play the melodic minor ascending scale on the 3rd of all minor ii-Vs.  (C mel min on A-7(b5))

Chorus 6 – free associate but only play triplet rhythms.

Etcetera, etcetera…

The Outcome

The structured choruses should give you something specific to focus on and (hopefully) a sense of accomplishment.  Plus, you will strengthen your theoretical understanding and technical execution.  The free association choruses will not only relax you during this “experiment” but it will keep those creative, spontaneous juices flowing and strengthen your ear/hand coordination*.

Hopefully alternating between completely choreographed, structured choruses and open-ended, truly improvisatory choruses will work out both your “right brain” and your “left brain” and make things interesting and challenging enough to keep you engaged for a longer more productive practice session.

Please let me know how this works out for you!

*Ear/hand coordination is the ability to play what you hear in your mind.  Chet Baker was one of our masters at this.

Jazz Improvisation-related links


Jazz/Classical Practicing

Improvisation Practice idea

Recycling in Improvisation

Juggling Versatility


The Phone Book Method