As musicians, we find ourselves in an interesting time. No concerts, no gigs, no rehearsals, and no one else to play with. However, there is one thing we all have more than enough of – practice time.
As musicians, we find ourselves in an interesting time. No concerts, no gigs, no rehearsals, and no one else to play with. However, there is one thing we all have more than enough of – practice time.
On one hand, this can be a great opportunity to focus on the areas of your playing that have been ignored, that need improvement, and that you haven’t had time to address.
However, facing that empty practice room day after day can quickly become a burden, especially if you’re tackling a big project or trying to completely revamp every aspect of your playing.
The truth is, this solve-everything-at-once approach is not exactly realistic…in fact, it can be downright frustrating and discouraging.
You see, we all want to become better improvisers – to play the music we’re hearing in our heads. But too often we forget that these big goals are composed of many small pieces & important steps along the way.
You can’t just jump into the practice room and practice “becoming a better improviser” for hours at a time!
Every big goal that you have is actually comprised of small pieces that are surprisingly feasible in the practice room. When you look at it like this, things instantly become more manageable and easier to do on a consistent basis.
And that’s exactly what today’s lesson is all about. Rather than the massive long-term projects that can take months or years to complete, today is all about the small things you can do in an hour, a day, or even a few practice sessions.
Daily or weekly tasks that will refocus, inspire, and raise your level of musicianship – and that will contribute to that big musical goal you’re ultimately working for.
Here are 15 Improvement Projects to tackle in the practice room…
1) Get Language for Major Chords
One musical skill that is deceptively tricky is improvising melodically over Major chords.
Sure you can play a scale or some arpeggios, but actually improvising melodies over static major sounds can be a challenge…
So how do you create melodic ideas instead of simply inserting scales??
This was a problem that I encountered in my playing for years. But here’s the thing, it didn’t improve until I made a conscious decision to fix it. Rather than guessing and hoping for a miracle, I needed to focus on solving the problem.
This meant finding major language from great improvisers and figuring out exactly which techniques they were using to sound good.
The great thing is you can transcribe and learn language from any player you like, over any tune you choose – there are no rules! For instance, let’s check out the great Sonny Rollins on The Way You Look Tonight:
There are dozens of examples of Major language to choose from on this track, below we’ll highlight three. The first happens at [1:52] in the recording over an Ab Major chord:
Rather than a scale, you hear a complete melodic idea with shape, direction, and rhythmic clarity – this is what we’re looking for.
Remember, the benefit doesn’t come from simply stealing a lick, but in understanding the musical techniques and harmonic concepts behind each piece of language.
With each piece of language look at which chord tones are being used, where they are placed in the measure, and any chromaticism, enclosure, or other musical tactics being used:
This step is the key to mastering the line, transferring it to other keys, and eventually using it in your solos. The process is the same with each piece of language that you transcribe and learn.
Let’s take another Major line from Sonny’s solo. This one happens at [1:49] in the recording…
You could simply learn the line as is, as a piece of major language or you could extract the harmonic concept at work.
Over a static major chord you don’t have to think “F Major” the entire time. You can imply a related progression to create harmonic and melodic motion. For instance over an FMaj7 chord you could imply C7 or a ii-V (G- C7)…
This will give your lines direction and shape and give you more melodic options to improvise with. The third example we’ll look at is a longer line from the beginning of Sonny’s solo, [1:17] in the recording:
Again, you can learn the entire line or extract individual pieces of language and techniques that you want to study and develop in the practice room…
Acquiring Major language can be as simple as picking one player and finding one line. It could your favorite improviser or a player you love to listen to.
Remember, these pieces of language are just a starting point. Rather than a memorized lick, you need to understand the concept behind each line. This is your start to growing a conception of what it is to play melodically over Major 7 chords
Get creative with these pieces of language, with the rhythm you use, and where you apply them to a progression. As a starting point, aim to find and transcribe 3 pieces of Major language.
Want to explore the concept of language more?? Check out our Melodic Power course!
2) Practice with a Drone Tone
One trap that many players fall into the more they study improvisation is that soloing becomes more and more a mental exercise…
You think about the chords, think about scales, and think about how to play them on your instrument.
However, to get to the next level as an improviser and to truly be creative you need to find a way to reignite your aural/physical connection to sound and strengthen it.
A great exercise for strengthening these skills (focusing on sound, connecting your ear to your instrument, locking in on your inner voice, and fostering your creativity) is working with a drone tone.
*A drone tone is simply a sustained pitch or pitches.
At the start of your practice session take 10 minutes and put on a drone tone. It’s a great way to open up your ears, to focus on the sound of music, and get creative.
You can find a drone tone online, use a drone machine, or simply create your own. You can even record your own using a tool like Garage Band…
Once you have your drone tone it’s time to get started. Here are some ideas for your practice session:
- Start the drone and simply listen to the pitch. Focus on it without worrying about music theory. Close your eyes and get absorbed into the sound.
- Sing the note. Connect the sound in your ear with the sound of your voice. Now the pitch is internal, instead of an external sound that you react to or think about.
- Play the note on your instrument. Follow the flow of ear-sing-play without letting your analytical mind get in the way.
- Sing and play different intervals with the drone. A major 3rd, a perfect fourth above the drone, a Major 7th, etc.
- Begin singing and improvising melodic ideas, shapes, intervals, patterns. Follow what you’re hearing and feeling, explore and develop melodic motifs.
- Use this as an exercise to work out patterns, fingerings, melodic cells. Center your intonation, work on your sound, and try to remove the physical barrier between you and the sound of the drone.
The nice thing about a drone tone, or single sustained pitch, is that you can apply any type of harmony to it: Major, minor, V7, augmented, diminished, Maj7 #11…
Experiment with different drone sounds or instruments and even drones with multiple tone/intervals (ex. 5th). These will all elicit different reactions or ideas from you.
Working with a drone is a great exercise to start your day with – lock in your ear and begin with creativity and possibility. Connect with your creative voice and start improvising without fear or restrictions!
3) Visualize Tritone Subs in all keys
A powerful technique for adding more complexity and harmonic sophistication to your solos is tritone substitution on dominant chords.
It’s the “thing” that so many great improvisers use to add harmonic tension and interest to their solos…
But here’s the catch, relying on a music theory definition isn’t going to cut it if you want to create improvised melodic ideas in your solos. You need to understand this tritone relationship on a deeper level.
A great way to ingrain this harmonic relationship in your mind is through the use of visualization. Simply start with a dominant chord and visualize the dominant chord a tritone away…
Keep in mind that this relationship is symmetrical. Db7 is the tritone sub for G7 and G7 is the tritone sub for Db7:
Visualize this relationship around the cycle of fourths:
Because of the symmetrical relationship, by visualizing the tritone subs of six chords you’ve already touched on every key. *You can also visualize the enharmonic relationships (ex. C#7 to G7 instead of Db7). By doing this exercise, you’re laying the groundwork for incorporating tritone substitution into your playing.
Along with visualizing, you can play these chords at the piano, adding the sound of this tritone relationship to the mental connection.
But it doesn’t stop there…
Once you have the basic chord relationship ingrained, it’s time to start visualizing the basic chord tones along with the chord symbol. For instance, start by visualizing the triad for each dominant chord:
Also play these on your instrument and explore different inversions and intervallic combinations. Next visualize and play 7th arpeggios, starting on different chord tones and extending up to the 9th:
Once that is comfortable, try visualizing and playing various melodic patterns:
And finally, apply language that you know to these chords. For example, you might use a piece of language like the one below:
The goal is to start visualizing (and hearing) that tritone sub language over the original chord…(Db7 language over G7):
Now instead of only having a flimsy theory definition for tritone substitution, you’ve explored the relationship between these two sound on a harmonic and melodic level – with your mind and your ears.
4) Learn one new tune
“You should know this tune! Which tune do you wanna play? How many tunes do you know? You know ‘Just One of Those Things’ right?”
These are things that musicians hear all the time, and to be honest it can add a lot of pressure and stress to the idea of learning tunes…
As a result we end up rushing through the learning process with multiple tunes, quickly memorizing melodies and chord symbols and moving on to the next. Yet, we never truly ingraining the information.
It’s time for a different approach! Take all of the pressure off and slowly learn one tune. Take your time, there’s no rush to the finish line. The goal is to ingrain each aspect of this tune, to hear it, to understand why it works.
The process of learning a tune is far more important than which tune you learn or the number that you memorize.
The truth is, it takes time for a tune to be ingrained, time for the form to make sense, time for it to get locked in your ear, and time for you to start being creative with it.
Now is a great time to slow down and do it the right way!
The first step is to select a tune. It could be something completely new or a jazz standard that you’ve memorized in the past, but actually want to learn the right way. For example you might want to learn Joy Spring…
Once you select the tune you want to learn, do this…
- Listen to it – find multiple recordings and learn from the ones that speak to you.
- Sing along with the recording – the melody isn’t just a sequence of notes with chords, it has meaning, shape, emotion.
- Find out the history of the tune – who composed the tune, are there lyrics, was it part of a musical, what’s the story behind it?
- Try to hear the chord quality and chord movement – take your time and slowly figure it out by ear, use a piano, keyboard as a reference.
- Figure out the melody on your instrument – play it slowly and hear each note.
- Transcribe phrases or solos from great players over the tune – figure out how these players are approaching the progression and which tactics they are using.
Completely learning a tune is one of the most beneficial things you can do as an improviser, and it will make learning any other tune that much easier.
*Check out this lesson for a closer look at each step of the process – Breaking Down the Jazz Repertoire: It Could Happen To You.
5) Learn a Charlie Parker ii-V line
As a jazz musician there is a looming pressure to learn the musical language of Charlie Parker. However, tackling Bird’s music can be a daunting task. Where do you even begin??
Here’s the thing…you don’t have to jump right into a long and complex solo. You can approach Bird’s music on a smaller scale.
As we hinted at above, you can study his approach by transcribing language over singular chords or small progressions. One way to do this is by focusing on his approach to the ii-V-I progression.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of Parker’s approach to ii-V’s, from simple to more complex, starting with the ii-V below from Bird’s solo on Star Eyes:
Now what do you do with this information? Like any line you transcribe and learn, Sing it, play it, and analyze why it works.
On this particular line you might note how the 3rd of the Ab7 chord is enclosed, the 13th is emphasized on the V7 chord or how the line end on the 6th of the I chord.
You can isolate the ii to V resolution and practice that in all keys or simply steal the Major language over Db – it all depends on what grabs your ear. Once you have line or pieces that you want, define the musical concepts and work and learn them in every key.
Next, check out this ii-V from Bird’s solo on Confirmation that includes b9 on V7:
Along with the line in its entirety, here are a few take-aways from this ii-V to learn and apply to other keys…
- Encloses the 3rd of the V7 chord (F7)
- Diminished arpeggio from 3rd of V7 chord up to b9
- Major language that encloses root and 3rd of sound
Study and practice these concepts and then learn them in all keys. Finally, let’s check out a more advanced ii-V from his solo on Chi Chi…
On this ii-V you, along with practicing the original line, you might focus on…
- The minor language in the first measure
- Harmonic tension on V7 (#9, b9, #5)
- Delayed resolution on the I chord, using enclosure, emphasizing the 4th, using blues language
Remember to absorb the time, sound, and style of these lines along with the harmonic approach. As you begin to feel comfortable with these smaller lines, move on to choruses or even entire solos, using the same process.
Need more ii-V-I language and ideas? Check out this lesson – How to Master the ii-V-I Progression: 25 Lines You Need to Know.
6) Practice Major scales in 4ths
We’re accustomed to approaching chords or harmony in 3rds. From scales to arpeggios to chords:
In fact, it’s how the entire harmonic system we use is built. But what if you approached this familiar structure in a new way? What new melodic possibilities could you come up with?
Taking the same sound and approaching it in a new way, from a different perspective. For instance, take that Major sound built on tertian harmony and approach it in fourths…
Start on different chord tones or scale degrees and vary the intervallic direction (up/down – down/down – down/up):
Try practicing two 4th intervals stacked on top of each other, staying within the diatonic harmony:
Keep in mind that these are just exercises, the goal is to build techniques that you can utilize in your solos. To get out of the mindset that a chord or sound can only be played with a scale or an arpeggio based on thirds.
Along with a different approach to Major chords you can also use this exercise to ingrain different intervallic combinations (like the 4th) into your technique with other sounds and scales.
Try it with major and minor pentatonic scales, the altered scale, minor scales and chords, V7 #11, etc. And follow the same process for exploring other intervals beyond the perfect 4th – 5ths, 6ths, Maj.7ths, and so on.
7) Master the ‘A’ Section of Rhythm Changes
For this next project we’ll take the theme of focusing on smaller tasks & mastering them and apply it to the framework of a tune – Rhythm Changes.
Rather than trying to work on the entire tune or form at once, isolate small sections and ingrain them. For example, you can focus exclusively on the A section of Rhythm Changes.
For starters, it’s useful to have the progression in your ear, so find a recording that you like. For starters, check out Oleo from Miles Davis…
Start with the first four measures, figure out and analyze the progression:
Break down the individual chords of the progression and the relationship from one chord to the next. What tools do you have right now to navigate these sounds?
As you start to work on the progression, it’s useful to think of it in the simplest terms. What is the core movement of the progression?:
Move from most fundamental to more complex, shaping your melodic approach off of these basic underlying progressions…
- What language or techniques do I have for I, V7 to I, or ii-V-I?
- What about for I-VI-ii-V7 or turnarounds?
You need to have language and melodic tactices for these basic chords & progressions before jumping into the tune at full speed. The next step is learning some phrases from your favorite players…
Isolate one piece of the puzzle at a time until you are thinking in larger phrases. Then follow the same process for the following 8 bars:
There are multiple ways to approach this progression and multiple chords you can use. Remember, one way is not set in stone!
8) Sing a Louis Armstrong solo
Singing is an essential exercise for creating a physical connection to sound, for locking in your ears, and for absorbing the musical qualities of the players you listen to.
And it’s an easy thing that you can do every day to improve your musical skills. Simply choose a solo or melody played by one of your favorite players and focus on singing every phrase with accuracy.
In fact this is an exercise that Lennie Tristano had his students do and something that the late great Lee Konitz passed on to his students. You’ll find this connection to singing in many of the greatest musicians and improvisers.
“The more I improvise, the closer it comes to singing. I try to play as if I were singing. Lennie said he could sing every note he had ever played.” ~Warne Marsh
A great place to start is with the solos of Louis Armstrong. Check out his solo on Savoy Blues…
Close your eyes, listen, and ingrain the sound in your ear. Then simply sing along with the solo.
Singing connects you directly to the music, the time, the phrasing, the sound, and most importantly the feeling. Get right to the idea of creating musical ideas without all the baggage of music theory attached.
This is a useful exercise to do with any great improviser you choose, from Lester Young and Charlie Parker to the players of today.
Looking for a place to start? Check out this lesson on Louis Armstrong’s solo techniques on Basin St. Blues.
9) Learn Giant Steps
Giant Steps is a tune that pops up from time to time in jam sessions and rehearsals, and it can catch you off guard…even if you know it!
So, it’s useful to brush up on this tune when you have the chance and some spare practice time. Start by taking a listen to the original recording…
Like any tune you learn, it’s beneficial to sing the melody along with the recording, to figure out the progression, and to visualize it in your mind before you try to improvise your own solo.
With Giant Steps it’s particulary useful to break down the tune to understand what is actually going on…
Surprisingly, the tune has only 3 key centers (B, G, and Eb major):
And even though it sounds complex at first, this tune is made up of the same building blocks we find in any other tune: Major, minor, and dominant chords.
The tricky part is the tempo, the minor 3rd movement, and the rate at which the chords change. So slow it down and apply the language and techniques that you already know for these basic chords.
Then figure out what great improvisers are doing over this progression. Start with John Coltrane’s solo, breaking it down phrase by phrase.
For more take a look at this lesson: 4 Simple Steps to a Stellar Solo on Giant Steps.
10) Transcribe one chorus of a blues solo
One thing you’ll always come back to as an improvising musician is the Blues…
As you progress as a player, you’ll continually bring something new to the blues. New techniques, new harmonic tactics, and new language to improvise with over this familiar form.
But the process starts with learning and ingraining the basic form of the blues. Instead of trying to learn a big solo or jumping right into theory analysis and scales, simply focus on one chorus of the blues from one of your favorite players.
The truth is a chorus from a great player can teach you a lot – phrasing, language over individual chords, how to create and develop melodic statements, blues language, implying progressions…
For instance, take a listen to one chorus of Wynton Kelly’s solo on Freddie Freeloader:
You don’t need to transcribe dozens of blues solos before you start improving the way you play the blues – start with one chorus and master it!
Need some ideas for where to begin? Check out this lesson: 8 Awesome Blues Solos for Beginners to Transcribe.
And check out this lesson where we analyze Wynton Kelly’s solo.
11) Use a Jazz Standard to Improve your technique
You probably have daily exercises that you play. Etude books, warm-ups, and other exercises to polish your technique each day…
The only problem is that these can get repetitive and boring, especially when all you have to do is practice. Instead, try using the tunes in the jazz repertoire as your new musical etudes!
Kill two birds with one stone – learn more tunes and improve your technique. For example, take a tune like Room 608…
Approach the first 8 bars of the melody as if you were practicing a technical etude…
It’s essentially a melodic Rhythm Changes exercise that you can practice in every key. Not only will your technique, time, and ear get better, at the same time you’ll be learning a melodic approach to common jazz standards.
Do the same on the bridge…
A great technical pattern to get together on your instrument, but also ideas and tactics for altering V7 chords and an approach to ii-V-I.
It all goes back to the idea of functional technique – technique that you use to play music instead of running exercises just for the sake of it.
Give this a shot with some tunes that you’ve been meaning to learn. Here are some tunes to get started with:
- 8 Jazz Standards That Should Be Your New Practice Etudes
- 9 Jazz Standards That’ll Boost Your Melodic Skills
12) Check out this Woody Shaw Blues chorus
It’s easy to get into a rut when you are practicing the same exercises and tunes everyday…
You unconsciously carry around the same mindset and approach everything from the same comfortable perspective. But every now and then, it’s good to step away from your routine and your ingrained musical approach.
To see things from a completely different perspective and to confront ideas and possibilities that you never considered. A great way to do this is to immerse yourself in the playing of a completely original improviser.
For example, take the musical approach of the great innovator Woody Shaw. Check out the opening of his solo on the tune If from the album Unity…
His solo begins at [2:10] in the recording:
Take this one chorus over the blues and figure out what he’s thinking and hearing…
- How is he approaching each chord?
- What melodic content is he using?
- How does he begin and end the chorus?
- Where is he applying tension or playing inside?
The answers to these questions will set you on a path of discovery that you probably wouldn’t have found on your own!
Get deeper into his approach with this lesson: 10 Modern Improvisation Techniques from Woody Shaw.
13) Try this ‘Imitation’ exercise
Most of the time when we study a solo or an improviser, we get sucked into thinking about notes, chord progressions, and music theory…
However, one of the most important things you can get from a player isn’t the notes on the page, it’s their conception of sound, their approach to time, and the way they create their phrases.
…and this is something that you can’t write down.
Instead of the usual routine of thinking about notes right away, simply focus on imitating the “intangible” aspects of the player you’re listening to.
For example, pick a player that you’d love to sound like. You might choose a trumpet player like Clark Terry…
Rather than worrying about the notes and chords, make your priority imitating his musical style. Focus on and try to recreate his:
- Approach to rhythm & swinging
Play the recording for a few seconds, stop it, and then try to reproduce that “effect” on your own instrument. Try to slip on that player’s musical personality for a few moments.
Use the same process with any player that you like. Spend time listening and imitating, then try to create a solo in their style – borrowing their approach to time, articulation, sound, and melodic invention.
Remember, anyone can figure out the notes and write them on a piece of paper with a chord progression. But the secret isn’t just in the notes themselves, it’s how they are played!
14) Master the 4 alterations for V7 chords
When it comes to the chords you’ll encounter in any jazz standard, the dominant 7 chord offers the most opportunity for harmonic tensions and alteration.
However, a quick look at it can seem like there are endless options for altering dominant chords…
But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, you’ll see that there are actually only 4 possible alterations that you can apply to any V7 chord:
… the b9, the #9, the #11, and the b13/#5.
Starting here is the essential to accessing all of the complex options that follow!
Visualize and play these four alterations over dominant chords in every key. Check out this lesson for more on How to Master Dominant Alterations.
The key is ingraining the sound of these altered notes in your ear along with the mental and technical aspects in every key!
If you ingrain these both mentally and aurally over V7 chords in every key, you’ll have a good foundation for expanding your options over dominant chords in your solos.
15) Isolate the Rhythm & Phrasing of a Solo
For many melodic players, a integral piece of improvisation that often gets forgotten is rhythm.
Along with the notes you play, you should be thinking about where you place them within the measure, which part of the beat you’re starting or ending your lines on, and the overall rhythmic content of your lines.
Sure it’s good to sharpen your awareness of time and to practice with a metronome, but there are some other useful exercises you can do as an improviser too.
Like we did with imitation in the exercise above, in this exercise you’ll take a solo from a great improviser and focus exclusively on the rhythmic content.
Take a record like Kind of Blue…
Write out the rhythm to Miles’ solo. Don’t worry about the notes, just notate the rhythm:
Or take Blue in Green and focus on Coltrane’s phrasing…
- Which beat he starts his phrases on
- Where he ends his phrases and how this relates to the bar lines
- How he creates forward motion
Check out this lesson for a closer look at Coltrane’s phrasing secrets on Blue in Green!
There is a whole other world in each solo when you start thinking about the rhythm of your favorite solos and the rhythmic possibilities in your own!
What are you going to practice today?
These 15 improvisation projects we covered above are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are countless other things you could incorporate into your practice routine in the same manner. You might focus on:
- Composing a tune
- Recording yourself
- Transcribing your first solo
- Practicing with a metronome
- Working on Ear Training
The point is to pick one project to start with!
Incorporate one thing into your routine or musical approach. One piece of the puzzle that fits into your larger goal. One part of your playing that you wish was better. It starts with what you choose to practice today…