How to Transform Your Improvisation Over Your Summer Vacation

It’s already May and before you know it those lazy months of summer are going to sneak up on you. And just as quickly they’ll be gone, leaving you wishing you had more hours in the day to devote to your music. Before you find yourself in this all too familiar situation, here’s a quick question to ponder: What exactly do you want to accomplish musically this summer?

If you’re not sure and you have yet to give it any thought, chances are you aren’t going to get as much accomplished as you could as an improviser.

For many musicians the summer months are a time when we lose our drive and end up getting rusty. I mean it makes sense, why stay inside a dreary practice room working on ii-V’s all day when you can be outside enjoying the sun and warm weather. However, chucking your practice routine out the window for the entire summer can leave you musically stagnant or worse by the time the fall rolls around.

The encouraging news is that you don’t have to lock yourself up like a prisoner in a dark practice room to see improvement. With a little planning, the summer months are a time when you can take advantage of some extra practice time and still get out and be a normal human being.

You might be a student looking to transform your playing for the next school year, a player looking to capitalize on a few extra hours of daylight, or an aspiring improviser looking to set some meaningful musical goals. Whatever your motivation, the summer is a great time to beef up your repertoire, to expand your technique, to improve your ears, and to fortify your harmonic understanding.

If approached correctly, your summer practice can transform the way you improvise.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

The first thing a lot of players do when they see an extended period of summer practice time is to think of as many goals to accomplish as humanly possible. “I’m going to learn 100 tunes! I’m going to transcribe 50 solos! I’m going to memorize every bebop head in all 12 keys! I’m going to learn every scale, in every key, in every possible inversion and variation…”

This enthusiasm is great. At one time or another we’ve all gotten inspired and made declarations like this. We want to improve and we have visions of making great leaps ahead. The only problem is that this little thing called reality gets in the way. We jump right into these huge projects and after a week or two we lose momentum or get sidetracked, trying to accomplish everything at once as fast as we can.

Even more disruptive than our naive enthusiasm however, is the fact that these common “jazz practice goals” rarely lead us to our main objective: becoming a better improviser. If you’re truly looking to transform the way you improvise, to actually make a noticeable improvement in soloing over chord progressions, one question you have to ask yourself is: “How effective are my short term goals in achieving my main objective?”

Are you making these goals because they seem like the right thing to do? Are you jumping on the bandwagon and practicing the same stuff everyone else is? How exactly are those typical goals of learning a bunch of tunes and transcribing dozens of solos going to change your level of improvisation in the space of a few months?

“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”~Friedrich Nietzsche

Think about it. After spending a few months learning a ton of melodies and memorizing dozens of chord progressions, are you going to improvise over these tunes any differently than you are today or will you just know more tunes that you have trouble playing over?

Week after week, you can transcribe solo after solo after solo, rushing to get the next one done in order to meet your lofty goal, but will you have time to absorb and develop that language that you’re taking from the records?

You can even spend hours of your time on scales, arpeggios, and patterns in the hopes of finding the secret to improvisation, but will this new technique help you to play logically and musically over chord progressions?

In each of these scenarios you’re getting some sort of improvement, but it is not significant overall. It’s not creating the game changing type of transformation we’re looking for. But wait, transcribing solos and learning tunes has to make you a better improviser right??

Well yes, if it is done in the correct way, but figuring out the notes to a solo and leaving it at that is not going to automatically make you a great improviser. In the same fashion, spending a few minutes to learn a melody and a chord progression will not magically make you sound better as you solo over that tune. Learning tunes and transcribing are beneficial to the improviser, but these two simple tasks won’t add up to a great improviser in themselves.

Learn more with less

One of the main factors that is working against you when you attempt a huge project is the volume of information. It’s not that you’re not trying or you’re incapable of attempting these tasks, it’s simply just too much information to absorb in a beneficial way.

We’ve covered the idea of information overload before. If you don’t think you have access to too much information, just take a look at your record or mp3 collection. For most of us, we’ve collected thousands of songs, hundreds of albums, recordings that we didn’t even know we had. This is both a blessing and a curse, we have access to a plethora of music, but the pure volume of information is so great that we get overwhelmed.

A quick scroll through the average jazz collection yields something like 10 Coltrane albums, 20 Miles Davis albums, dozens each of Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Garret, Brad Mehldau, Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel…the list could go on and on. It would take months just to listen to everything, let alone actually getting down to business and learning some individual tunes and solos.

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”~Gertrude Stein

Instead of making enormous and vague goals this summer, try something different: pick 5 tunes to work on for the next three months. Yes, you heard me right, five tunes. This summer, one improviser, three months, 5 tunes…

With these 5 tunes, you’re not just going to learn the melody and chords (you can do this very quickly), instead you’re going to actually improve your entire level of improvisation. Conquering the chord progressions, transcribing language, taking melodies through all 12 keys, analyzing language, altering it, applying it in new ways, expanding your technique through transcription, identifying melodic intervals and chord progressions, expanding your ears…

These are the skills and the type of focused practice that will make you a better improviser.

Make a plan right now

The key lies in planning ahead and setting achievable goals. If you just kind of glide through the summer with no plan you’re going to end up in the same place you are right now – wishing you were a better improviser. Relying on the quirks of random practice, you might hit on a few tunes or concepts by chance (or you might not), but without continued and focused study, that jump to the next level of playing will continually elude you.

Make a plan for your practice schedule, right now, before the summer even begins. Take advantage of the time during these next few weeks and pick out the tunes you want to focus on and single out the players and albums that you really love. Write down your goals as a musician and think about the areas of your playing that you wish were better.

Physically take out a sheet of paper and make a list of the tunes, players, goals, and weak spots in your playing. All of these factors will contribute to the plan that you’ll make for yourself. Your goal is to have a concrete plan with the specific tunes and the specific solos that you’re going to work on.

The place where a lot of improvisers go wrong is carelessly scribbling down a huge list of tunes to learn. You may have your five tunes in mind, but don’t let your entire practice plan be the titles of five tunes scratched on a piece of paper:

  • Blues
  • Rhythm Changes
  • It Could Happen to You
  • On Green Dolphin St.
  • Stablemates

Get specific…start naming names

The reason that most players don’t get much out of their long lists of tunes or follow through with learning them is that they are incredibly vague. In order to make progress musically, you need to know exactly what you’re going to work on. For each of those tunes on your list have a specific recording, a specific player, and a specific solo that you want to work on.

For example you may really love Clifford Brown’s playing, and you feel that you need work on blues, and you want to expand the range on your instrument, and you need some ii-V language – make a plan that includes these areas and a schedule that will facilitate these goals.

Simply saying: “I’m going to work on a blues” won’t get you very far. To see what I mean, let’s take another look at the first two tunes from the list above and determine exactly what areas we’re going to practice to improve:


Specific tune: Sandu from the Clifford Brown album Study in Brown

List of specific goals:

  • Learn the melody by ear
  • Figure out the chord progression by ear
  • Work out the melody in all 12 keys
  • Transcribe  Clifford’s solo or learn a few choruses by ear
  • Isolate language and lines that you like, analyze them, and learn them in all 12 keys

Rhythm Changes

Specific tune: Oleo from the album Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

List of goals:

  • Learn the melody by ear
  • Figure out the chord progression by ear
  • Work out the melody in all 12 keys
  • Transcribe Miles’ first chorus and Coltrane’s first chorus
  • Analyze this language and isolate ii-V’s and iii-VI-ii-V’s to learn in all 12 keys

You get the idea. Do the same for the other three tunes on your list. Instead of just having the name of a tune or a form on a piece of paper, you have a specific recording, a specific solo, and a list of specific goals to practice. When you see the specific goals on the page, instead of just the song title, you’re much more likely to practice and accomplish them.

The nice thing about tackling less information is that you have more time to absorb everything. You can take a week or more to learn the melody and chord progression by ear. You can spend a few week transcribing a chorus or even an entire solo. Don’t move on until you’ve mastered the information that you’re working on.

When you spend the time and do things the right way, that is when you’ll see big results. And, things will get easier in no time. Learning that first tune by ear may feel like pulling teeth, but the second one will be significantly easier because you’ve developed important skills (skills that you miss when you rush through things or cheat by looking at sheet music).

When you break things down like this, it looks like you could spend the entire summer on blues or rhythm changes, and you know what? That’s perfectly OK.

Quality improvement not quantity

You will improve more spending months on a few tunes than the alternative of trying to cram dozens of tunes into your head each week. Every standard pretty much has the same elements (Major, minor, and V7 chords, ii-V’s, minor ii-V’s, turnarounds) and requires the same skills from you as an improviser (hearing melodies and chord progressions, applying language over chord progressions, etc.).

When you narrow down the amount of information that you’re working on and you master it, you’re gaining skills and knowledge that can be applied to any tune that you play. Every tune is a window into learning and improving at this music, it really doesn’t matter which one you pick.

You may only be focusing on a 5 tunes, however you’ll cover every aspect of your playing within these 5 tunes. Ear training, technique, time, rhythm, language, repertoire, theory. When you’re trying to grow as an improviser, these are the musical skills you need to focus on and improve upon. More information won’t solve this problem, however quality time and practice will make all the difference.

There is room for improvement no matter what your skill level as an improviser. Maybe you’re trying to navigate a ii-V for the first time or trying to sound good over the blues (no small task!!). Maybe you’re looking for a new way to play over those same old tunes and progressions or maybe you’re eager to integrate some new language and harmonic concepts that you’ve stolen from your favorite player.

All of these goals can be accomplished with just a few tunes. You don’t need to learn 100 tunes to start improving as an improviser, you can do it right now with just five tunes…and the best part is, choosing those five tunes is completely up to you.

So take this next week or so and pick out the tunes, players, solos, and concepts that you want to focus on this summer. Picking out records is the fun part and when you do it correctly, so is learning by ear from the records. Feel free to try memorizing 100 tunes on your path to improvement this summer, hell, make it 200!, but if you actually want to transform yourself as an improviser, focused practice on 5 tunes is where it’s at.