This is a playground for getting more comfortable at improvising.
I created this page to give you some tools for having some good clean fun learning to improvise more confidently than you do now. The lead sheets I provide are in bass clef since I originally created this page for trombone players, but anyone with any instrument can take advantage of these exervises and backing tracks. You’ll just need to find your instrument’s lead sheets if you need them.
If you are someone who has convinced yourself that you CANNOT improvise – I’m glad you found this page because I want to prove you wrong about your lack of ability to improvise really well. It is a skill that absolutely can be developed.
To the right is a video you should watch. It is what I would have told 20-year old ME that would have helped me improvise better much sooner.
To start off, you will get three simple exercises to accomplish and after that, you’ll play over a bunch of fun cool rhythm tracks.
Focus on the exercises before jumping to the rhythm tracks. These first few exercises are designed to open up your musical ear in order to hear more AND to connect that ear to your instrument. Those are the two critical skills you must elevate for improvising and the three exercises are very basic.
The skills you learn here and practice will be things you should focus on for the rest of your life. They are foundational and never-ending. Once you open up your ears more, you’ll see the magic start to happen!
Let’s warm up your ear. You warm up your body for playing your instrument but most musicians neglect to warm up their listening skills.
Play a note in the middle of your instrument range. Now, sing that note. Play another note and then sing that.
But now, sing a new note close by the note you just played, and this time, find that note on your instrument. You’re reversing the above process, Sing another note and find that. No matter how badly you sing, do this for 3 minutes.
Now that your signing is warmed up(!), sing the first two simple phrases of Three Blind Mice just enough to get it into your ear.
Now play those two phrases on your instrument. You do not have to start on the same pitch as you sang. Any pitch will do. Avoid thinking it out and instead just listen to the tune as you play.
Start on another note and play it. Pick 3 more different pitches to start those two phrases.
The question to ask yourself is, am I thinking my way through or simply hearing the tune and responding with my playing. Respond, don’t think.
Last, and now that your ear is waking up and hearing more, do this exercise while you play the audio track below.
Starting on concert G or B (or most any note within C major), listen to the chords in slow 4/4 time, and for each whole note move up or down by either a half or whole step. Can you anticipate the next note that falls within the chord? Start on different notes in order to continue this important exercise.
You are strengthening your ability to react with your instrument to the harmony you hear. Try singing this first.
Now that your ear is warmed up and exercised, let’s start improvising. The following play-along tracks are a variety of simple harmonies from standard tunes to static drones. For the first 5 tunes, I have included the lead sheet containing the melody and chords for bass clef and concert C. Click the orange button and the lead sheet will pop up. A very good starting point for improvising over tunes is to learn to play the melody by ear.
#1. F Blues
Let’s start out with F Blues. Try not to focus on thinking about the chords, but instead, play melodies that sound good over this simple classic harmony. Use your ear.
#2. Bye Bye Blackbird
This jazz standard is in F major. You can improvise most of this using the f major scale. When you get to bar 17 which is the bridge, instead of F major, start by adding the Eb instead of E natural. That will sound good over that F7 chord.
#3. Autumn Leaves
This is another very popular jazz standard which here is in G minor. This tune moves around through some different chords but centers around G minor.
#4. My Little Suede Shoes
This is a Latin treatment of this simple tune written by Charlie Parker. The first two and last 8-bar sections can be played with the Eb major scale. The bridge section is in Ab.Again, learn the melody by ear.
This is another classic tune. It does look intimidating when you see all those chords. But for the most part, just play in F major. The trickiest part starts in bar 14 where it goes into three sharps, or A major. It returns to F in bar 18. See how smoothly you can make the transition in and out.
#6. Groovy Jazzy
I created this very simply harmony for my book Trombone Improvisation Savvy. It simply goes from Bb7 for one bar to Ab7 in the next. Don’t focus on the chords. Instead, listen to the harmony and play melodies that connect the two chords back and forth.
#7. Island Mines
I won’t tell you the chords for this one. Listen to it and hear how well you can create melodies throughout the simple back and forth of the harmony. Think floating.
#8. Dreaming of Mars
Last, speaking of floating, try this one. There is not so much a chordal structure to this as there is a drone of notes and overtones. Sometimes, static sounds are more difficult to play over since you don’t have the motion of chords propelling you through the time.