20 Things Every Improviser Should Know

Being successful as a jazz musician isn’t all about practice routines, ii-V licks, or memorizing tunes. Sometimes getting to the next level as a player is all about having the right perspective. Here are 20 things every improviser should know…

1. Nobody’s checking for your music degree

Just because you graduated with a degree in jazz studies and minored in Coltrane licks doesn’t mean that you know how to play. Music school has its benefits, but it’s not the end of the road for your musical education – in fact, if you picked up the right skills, it’s just the beginning.

On the flip side, if you never went to music school it doesn’t mean that you can’t play. Becoming a great improviser takes the same type of work, whether you’re enrolled in a music school or learning on your own with the records. In the end, here’s what matters: Can you play?

2. Keep going back to the fundamentals

When it comes to improvisation, your improvement stems from the basic building blocks of musicianship. Still can’t hear a ii-V progression and rusty on your major scales, but continually trying to improvise over difficult tunes? That’s like trying to be a world-class olympic swimmer and not knowing how to do the back-stroke. Stop setting yourself up for frustration or failure. Start by building a solid foundation of technique, ear training, and language and go from there.

3. Talent is great, but skill and perseverance win every time

Not every person has the same kinds of talents, so you discover what yours are and work with them.~Frank Gehry

A natural affinity or ability for something is great, but to succeed at improvisation you need to tirelessly develop your skills day in and day out.

You’ve probably met a musician that seemed to be able to play everything that they encountered. However, when you take a close look, this “talent” turns out to be a deep passion for the music and a willingness to spend hours each day pursuing their craft. This is what it takes to succeed as an improviser, you truly have to want it.

4. You are one of many

There are a ton of musicians out there to compete with that are very good. Think about it, you’re just one of many, competing to have your voice heard. But before you get discouraged, take a second to look at the big picture. This is actually a good thing!

You don’t have to struggle at this pursuit in isolation. We all hit the same roadblocks and follow a similar path to improving. If something is giving you a problem, chances are that a fellow musician has the exact answers that you are searching for.

5. Becoming a great improviser takes time

In fact, a lot of time. Remember, this is not a mindless hobby that you can conquer in a few weekends, it is something that will take years of dedicated practice. Ultimately, you get out of the music what you put into it. Don’t give up after a few weeks of difficult practice. Trust the process and know that the work you’re doing now will come out in your playing soon enough.

6. There is no set formula to becoming a jazz musician

No path leads from a knowledge of that which is to that which should be.~Albert Einstein

Everyone takes their own path to success and develops their own voice along the way. Trying to copy someone’s method or biography to the tee just doesn’t work. Follow the groups you like and study the musicians that move you. You have your own life and it’s shaping the way you sound. You can’t help it, you’re already on the path to sounding like yourself.

7. The process of improvisation seems like magic

It looks like divine inspiration when people are on stage creating these amazing improvised solos out of thin air. The truth is, this is all just an illusion to the untrained eye (and ear).

All of this took hard work, fundamentals. When you hear a great solo, you’re really hearing the result of hours upon hours in the practice room. Don’t get trapped in the belief that the masters of this music didn’t have to work to achieve their abilities. Anyone that sounds great has definitely put in the time.

8. Improvisation can be as serious or fun as you want it to be

Take a look at your musical goals. If you want to be a great improviser then practicing, transcribing, and listening to music should be at the top of your daily priorities.

However, if you just want to get enjoyment out of being creative every now and then, practicing on weekends may satisfy you. It can be whatever you want it to be! Just make sure that your practice time and commitment reflects the goals you’re setting for yourself.

9. You can only blame yourself for the way you sound

This might sound harsh, but at the end of the day it’s the one thing you can count on. It’s easy to look outside of yourself for excuses. “That other trumpet player has been playing a lot longer than me,” or “I didn’t sound good because I got stuck playing over a tune I didn’t know,”…the excuses can go on forever. If you’re not happy with the way you sound, you can only look to one person to fix that: yourself.  Whether you like it or not, you are your own worst enemy.

10. Practicing is about notes and rhythms, improvising is about life

The things you do in the practice room are important for your playing. These practice habits and acquired skills will give you technique and knowledge, but you still need to have something personal to say when you improvise. To do this, get out of the practice room and live. Experience everything that you can and then bring this into your playing, communicate this with your audience.

11. Stick with your goals until you complete them

If you want to stand out from the masses of aspiring improvisers out there, finish the projects that you start. Get through an entire transcription. Learn the entire chord progression and melody to that tune you’re working on. Take that line through all keys. Stop abandoning things half-way! The sooner you do this, the sooner you’ll see major improvements in your playing.

12. Too much ambition?

We always want to play at a better level than we’re currently at. However, we all have a sneaky tendency to think we’re better than we are. Strive to be honest with yourself in the practice room. Should you really be trying to play that bebop head at quarter note = 400? Is playing over that tune in 7 benefiting you? Or, should you be working on something that will actually allow you to improve?

13. There’s always room for improvement

I’m only in competition with my last level.~Erykah Badu

The musicians that we love to listen to were always looking for ways to improve and evolve. It’s as if they were never quite satisfied with themselves musically.

Try to emulate this mindset in your own practice and find a way to improve your playing on a daily basis. This becomes hard once you’ve made some progress and begin to feel confident in your abilities; you become complacent and lose your drive, but don’t stop there. Everyday, strive to get to that next level.

14. Start by learning one thing

The path to knowing 100 tunes starts with learning one tune. The road to mastering the jazz language starts with one transcription. It’s easy to get discouraged about the number of tunes you know and the prospect of trying to learn hundreds of solos by ear. Believe me, it feels like an impossible task when you’re first getting started and it’s all to easy to give up. Remember, get through one and the rest will become easier.

15. Quality over quantity is the name of the game

Everything hinges on the quality of one’s working.~Siddhartha Gautama

Don’t rush through the elements of your practice routine. When it comes to tunes and the jazz language, everything is related. There are only so many chord qualities and progressions. That line or progression that you’re working on now will be useful in the next tune you learn, so give it time and really master it. Rushing through your practice will only leave you in the same place when you began.

16. Focus on the hard stuff

One thing that will continually hold you back is skipping over the difficult areas of your playing and taking the easy route. It may seem easy in the short run, but eventually you are going to have a closet full of skeletons that are going to come back to haunt you at the worst possible moment.

Skills like ear training, learning tunes by ear, and transcription are hard at first and take a lot of time. Sure it’s hard to confront these areas of your playing at first, but if you continue to ignore them, they’ll eventually catch up with you and hold you back from becoming the player you truly want to be.

17. Take some advice

There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.~Louis Armstrong

Learn to listen to the words of the great musicians that you encounter. It’s easy to get trapped in our own little world, trying to find our own solutions to our own problems, but eventually you’re going to get stuck. Not every word may be applicable to your current situation or ability, but keep them in mind. Someday it may be the key to unlocking a difficult problem you are struggling to overcome.

18. Keep an open mind

Your perspective can change in an instant, your ears are continually evolving, and your goals in music will inevitably shift. That player that you couldn’t make sense of may become your new favorite improviser after a little study. You never know what can happen so be open to new experiences and keep the door open to new musical possibilities.

19. Seek out musical opportunities

Counting on luck won’t get you very far in improvisation, but there’s something to be said for being at the right place at the right time. Special things happen when great musicians are gathered in one place. Go to every concert with the best musicians in your area. If a jazz master is coming to town, go see if you can hang out after the show and ask a few questions.

…Who knows, you may get a chance to sit in, you might get an impromptu lesson, or you might even get some words of wisdom that will alter your musical approach. Simply by being in these situations, you’re upping the odds that lightning will strike.

20. You gotta love it

Improvising is hard. Making a living as a jazz musician is even harder. If you’re in this because someone else is pushing you or you’re going through the motions, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. If you don’t love this music, you’re not going to be successful – plain and simple. Every time you hear your favorite records you should be reminded of why you do this. The sound should excite you, the swing should give you hope, and it all should give you determination to continue pursuing the music you love.