8 Improvisation Improvement Projects That Will Change Your Playing

Practice is an essential part of your journey as a musician. We all do it every day…or at least we try our best to, however daily practice doesn’t always guarantee improvement. Why? Simply because not all practice is created equal.

If you look at the big picture there are two basic types of practice:

  • (1) maintenance practice in which you are doing the necessary work to maintain your current level and…
  • (2) improvement practice in which you are breaking new ground, isolating problem areas in your playing and working on skills that you have not yet developed.

Both types of practice are necessary for performing at your peak. There is a certain amount of instrumental maintenance to perform each day to ensure that you are staying at your current level of musicianship and there is also a need to acquire new information and skills if you wish to improve as a player.

However, the barrier that most musicians encounter when striving for improvement is that they get stuck on maintenance practice. Day after day they spend hours practicing what they already know: the same exercises, the same lines, the same patterns, the same tunes.

Hours are being logged in the practice room, but the time is not being spent on the type of practice that will elevate your skills to the next level. Left unchanged, this process can go on for years where you’re just maintaining the musical level that you’ve already achieved, not learning anything new.

If you don’t focus on “improvement practice” musical improvement will not magically arrive one day. You need to seek out improvement – set your sights on a goal and start working toward it. Below are 8 examples of “improvement practice” that every improviser should be incorporating into their daily practice routine.

1) Transcribing language

One area of your daily practice that can directly change your approach to improvisation is transcription. Transcribing a solo or simply learning a melody by ear today will have an impact your playing tomorrow.

Right now you may have a good grasp of music theory and solid instrumental technique, and you may even be getting by with these two skills alone, but for some reason when it comes to creating melodies over chord progressions a musical gap suddenly opens up. No matter how much you practice there is still an elusive missing link preventing you from improvising the way you envision.

If this sounds like you, you’re definitely not alone – this is the exact predicament many hopeful improvisers find themselves in. You seemingly have all the tools, but to your bewilderment the task of creating a melodic solo over a chord progression just doesn’t seem to be happening.

The missing link that everyone is searching for is transcribing – learning solos, melodies and chord progressions by ear.

If you haven’t been transcribing, you’re missing an essential component to developing as an improviser. Remember, this music is a language and the way that you learn this language is through your ears. To get started with transcription, check out these articles:

The process of transcription develops your time, your articulation, your sense of melody, and your understanding of the art of improvisation. When you get into a room with your instrument and a record and start transcribing you begin to learn all the things about this music that can’t be taught in a classroom or a book.

If you have unanswered questions about the creative or stylistic aspects of improvisation or you’re wondering why your practice is not giving you results, start transcribing today. Learning the language of this music by ear will enable you to bridge the gap between picking notes out of a scale and creating a solo that actually means something.

If you’re serious about improving your ability to improvise and you’re serious about building a musical language, transcribing should be your #1 improvement project.

2) Ear Training

When it comes to studying the fine details of improvisation, the majority of people go straight to music theory. This seems like a logical place to begin, however an understanding of theory will only take you so far.

Trying to study improvisation strictly with theory is like trying to study a distant culture without actually traveling there and setting foot on the soil or breathing the air. It’s like struggling to understand a people without eating their food or spending some time living with them. Sure, from a distance you can gather some sterile facts, but in reality you just don’t get it.

To truly understand something you need to take a completely different approach. Rather than studying descriptions and definitions, you’ll learn so much more by jumping in and physically experiencing the subject of your interest. The same is equally true for a foreign culture as it is for music.

If you want to get to the next level as an improviser you need to start focusing on sound, and this means using your ears. You can read about music theory all day, but until you start dealing with the physical sound of music, you’re that person that’s on the outside looking in. The only way to improve your ear is by specifically setting time aside and focusing on some ear training exercises. Here are a few ear training resources and exercises to implement in your daily practice:

Developing your ears will open up an entirely new side of improvisation that will enable you to improve quickly. Suddenly you won’t have to rely on thinking through scales, chord tones, or progressions – you’ll be able to hear them. You’ll start to hear intervals, melodies, bass lines, and chord progressions and as a result, learning tunes and transcribing solos will become much more natural and easy.

3) Blues (in all keys)

Knowing the blues is essential for every improviser.

However “knowing” the blues involves much more than being able to recite the chord changes to a 12 bar blues. The blues isn’t just a chord progression, it’s a musical language and a tradition. The blues is a form and a vehicle for musical expression that every serious improviser has studied and that every great improviser has mastered.

If you haven’t devoted time to learning this language from the records, then you don’t know the blues. And if you can’t play the blues, improvising over every other tune will be difficult.

The blues is like a mini-course in how to improvise in any key. It teaches you about musical phrasing and developing a solo. You’ll cover ii-V’s and turnarounds and if you want to go a little further you can even explore substitutions and alternate progressions.

Start with blues in one key.

Learn everything from the record. Get the melody by ear and get the progression in your ear (don’t just think about, actually hear it!). Next transcribe a chorus of one of your favorite players over the blues. Now you are learning the language of the blues.

If the blues is just a chord progression to you, you’re going to stay at the same level. However, if you start incorporating the above steps into your practice routine you’ll see immediate improvement. Every aspect of your improvising will benefit from “knowing” the blues.

4) Rhythm Changes (in all keys)

Like the Blues, Rhythm Changes is another rite of passage for improvisers and to play well over this progression there is a specific language that must be learned. If your goal is to bridge the gap between understanding how the changes work and actually improvising a melodic solo it takes some very focused practice.

You hear a lot of players fake it over Rhythm Changes. This is because playing chorus after chorus of I-VI-ii-V7 is not easy. You need a lot of language to play a great solo on Rhythm Changes. Look at it this way, if you only have one way to play over this progression then you’re pretty much done after the first two bars.

It takes a good amount of work transcribing, studying and working out your own language to be able to play multiple choruses over Rhythm Changes. Improvising with a play-along is not going to get you to your goal and neither is “faking it till you make it.” Playing over the progression I-VI-ii-V-I is a skill that requires specific language and this is language that you need to get from the records.

Start by learning a I-VI-ii-V7 line and take it through all 12 keys. Then learn another one and repeat the same process. Your goal should be to have 10 pieces of language that you can play over this progression.

5) Technique

Excellent technique on your instrument is essential for every serious musician. However, your technique is not going stay the same if you ignore it. As the saying goes “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” The practice of technique encompasses both types of practice: it’s one part maintenance practice and one part improvement practice. If you plan on getting to the next level as an improviser you need to be incorporating both types on a daily basis.

Technique usually falls into 4 categories:

  • Articulation
  • Time/Ryhthm
  • Finger Technique
  • Sound (Tone/Intonation)

To function as a musician you need review and reinforce these four basic areas on your instrument – this is where the maintenance part comes in. However to evolve as a musician, you need to be continuously exploring new information and developing new skills – this is the improvement part.

It’s easy enough to review the basics, but where does this new information come from? For improvisers it comes directly from your listening and transcribing.

Every time you learn a new harmonic device or transcribe some language you need to go back and bring your instrumental technique up to speed. For example, a few years ago I figured out a Woody Shaw line from the record, but it took weeks of practice before I could play it effortlessly. In order to play theses lines at the tempo on the record I had to overhaul my finger technique, learn how to play larger intervals, and improve my articulation through hours of slow methodical practice.

When your goal is to improve your technique, you can’t just run through the exercises that you’re good at, you must isolate and focus on those parts of your technique that are lacking. Sloppy finger technique, uncoordinated articulation, an unfocused sound. These are all aspects of our playing that we must revisit from time to time if we want to hear tangible improvement.

Your overall technique will stay at the same level from the last time you worked on it, whether it was last week or a year ago. To move forward you need to raise the bar. There is always another level of technique around the corner – just take a listen to Art Tatum, or Trane, or Freddie Hubbard…

6) Ballads

Faster, higher, louder! This is the mentality that many young improvisers adopt and the typical scene at many jam sessions. We start to practice so we can play on fast tempos and impress people with flashy licks and high notes. As a result a lot of players fall short when it comes to playing a lyrical melody or improvising over slower tempos.

To play over a ballad you need style, expression, control, and a great sound – all of the subtle aspects of musicality that get lost in fast tempos and loud dynamics. Simply put, there is nowhere to hide in a ballad. In a stark way, ballad playing exposes your true level of musicianship.

How much control do you have over your instrument? How well can you create phrases over a chord progression? How much of this music have you listened to? How well do you know this tune?

All of the answers to these questions are revealed immediately the second you start improvising over a ballad. To improve the expressive and lyrical side of your playing start by learning one ballad. Check out Clifford Brown with Strings or Bird with Strings.

7) Playing in odd meters

We usually forget about odd meters until that uncomfortable moment when we have to perform them in front of people.

Odd meters are like anything else that we practice, some focused time spent in the practice room will yield noticeable improvement.

Improvising in odd meters like 3 or 5 or 7 is another aspect of playing this music that takes a specific kind of practice. Start listening to tunes in 3, get used to feeling time in 5 and 7, and try your hand at playing standards in 4 in odd meters. It will take some time, but slowly you’ll start to feel comfortable with meters other than 4/4.

8) Tricky Chord Progressions

As you start expanding the repertoire of tunes you know, you’ll start to notice that there are certain tunes that just take good old-fashioned hard work. There aren’t any shortcuts or cheats – you simply have to put in the time if you want to be able to make it through the changes.

Giant Steps is one of these tunes. So is Moment’s Notice and Stablemates.

If you don’t spend some practice time working out these chord relationships you’re going to fall on your face every time you encounter these tunes. The more you work on these tunes you’ll realize that it’s not really the tune that is hard rather the tempos and the chord relationships…and ultimately that you lack of language over ii-V’s.

However all of these musical puzzles can be solved, with some slow practice you can start to sound good on these tricky chord progressions. In your practice, make sure you spend some time working out chromatic ii-V’s. Here’s a good place to start:

Next take the “Bird blues” through all 12 keys.

Then spend some time with the progression to Giant Steps. Don’t try to tackle the entire tune at once, start by focusing on those individual chord relationships. After a while you’ll start to notice that the tricky part is the harmonic tempo and the key – the rest is just V7-I and ii-V7-I.

What is your improvement project?

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”~Albert Einstein

Take a look at your daily practice routine. Are you practicing the same few exercises over and over again and expecting a different result? Or are you tackling problem areas in your playing and new concepts that will lead to improvement?

The truth is that you’re not going to improve by practicing the same exact thing every day – you can maintain your current level, but you won’t improve.

It’s easy to stick with what you’re used to and it’s comfortable to just go with the flow, but aiming for improvement is a different story. You have to confront your musical weaknesses and work on techniques that are just plain hard.

However after a relatively short amount of time, improvement will start to show itself in your improvising. You’ll be able to play over progressions that used to be impossible, you’ll be able to hear melodies and chord progressions by ear, and those aspects of improvisation that always seemed like a mystery will start to make sense.

You are the only one that knows the areas of your playing that need work and consequently, you’re the only one that can make the change in your practice that will lead to improvement.