How to get started with jazz improvisation

I received an email this morning from an enthusiastic sax player struggling to get better at playing jazz. He has started working with my book Jazz Patterns for Ear and wrote, “After playing the exercises in the book, I played a standard tune and immediately felt closer to the things I was playing”. He said that ” my theoretical, analytical knowledge and the learning of finger movement is extremely highly developed while my ear is somewhere lost in the Stone Age.” He asked where he should start in order to improve his jazz playing.

His email, like many others I often get, described his lack of a developed jazz ear as some sort of affliction. He wonders if he will ever improve. “I am constantly feeling there is some sort of barrier I am not able to overcome.”

The feeling that improvisation is overwhelmingly hard
The feeling that improvisation is overwhelmingly hard

Music is an aural art form. It makes sense therefore that improving your skill at improvisation should start with developing your ear. Like any skill, however, improving your ear takes time and requires that you spend that time in the most effective way possible.

One way to improve your ear is to play jazz with others for hours each day for years as the masters did in their day. They didn’t have jazz education or books linked to audio files. They learned their craft by playing all day and night with their peers.

Playing with others is a critical part of your development, but you may not have that opportunity to do it on a regular basis and to play with players who are skilled enough to speed your development. Back in the day, Dave Liebman lived in the same New York building and therefore played every day for hours with Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and others.

So how else can you effectively work on your ear? I’ll give you three strategies.

  1. Absorb into your ear the playing of the masters. Listen to the recordings of the great jazz players.  But don’t simply passively listen. Sing their solos along with the recordings. Trane’s solos may be a challenge, so start with Miles, Paul Desmond, and Chet Baker. Learn them on your instrument by either memorizing straight from the recording or write them down. I’m a fan of writing them so that you can analyze what they played over the changes. This goes back to my earlier comment about knowing theory. THIS is a beneficial aspect of knowing theory-seeing and understanding what someone played over the A7 #9 chord.
  2. Sing then play. Singing is a reflection of the music within your imagination. Translating your imagined music through your instrument is the fundamental challenge for all improvisers. So how can you work on that? Start with a simple exercise: Play any random note on your instrument, then sing it. Listen to the pitch of your singing. How close can you get to the note you played on your instrument? Now sing a random note. Listen to the pitch. Do you hear it? Now find it on your instrument. If your first try is wrong, try another, and even another until you find that note.Your eventual objective is to find on your instrument any note within your instrument’s range that you sing, and find it with the first attempt on your instrument.
  3. Play melodies by ear starting on any note. Play Mary Had a Little Lamb. Can you play it with the ease of singing it including inflections and style? If not, chose a song you know well enough to play easily by ear. Next, play that same song starting on a different note. Sing a random note and start on that. Do not think about which notes go where and instead hear the song in your mind and let that lead your instrument. Listen to what you are playing and let that lead your focus and attention rather than thinking about notes and keys. Choose other songs to play by ear including Christmas Carols, folk songs, favorite pop songs, standards, and jazz tunes.

How will you know that this is working? You will start to sense your instrument going in the direction of your imagined music. You will sense what the musician I mentioned at the beginning said about feeling closer to the things he was playing.

Others who follow my method say that they feel a closer connection to their instrument. This is your objective: to feel a connection between your musical mind and your instrument.



It probably seems like an easier route to playing jazz if you simply play the scales associated with each chord, right? When you see G7, you’ll just run C major scale and like adding the box of potato flakes to water, Viola! you have instant mashed potatoes.

And if all you want is to ‘sound’ like a jazz player running flurries of notes, my way of getting to that is much too difficult. Just memorize some cool patterns and licks from other players between scale runs and you will sound like a jazz player.

But deep inside, you know that the instant mashed potatoes lack that real potato taste. It’s flat and is missing the goodness of the earth and the authentic taste of the potato root.

The art of improvisation is in the projection and amplification of your personal music through your instrument. As I mentioned earlier, you are projecting the music of your soul. Richie Beirach refers to the process as Heart-Ear-Hands. An emotion is felt and is translated into a sound in your inner musical ear which is played through your hands.

When you hear Richie or any other master improvise, you are hearing the music inside their soul, not the memorized scales, patterns, and licks that they quilt together to sound like they are playing jazz. They ARE playing jazz. They are composing deeply personal music in real-time.

If THAT is the jazz playing you wish for yourself, there is no box of instant improvisation you can add to water. Sorry.

Developing your ear takes time, but it is the only way to start improvising jazz well so that you can stand up and confidently play the music true to yourself.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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This is just a fake book example for the type of website I can build for you. Just trying to use a little humor here!