My improvisation method in Jazz Ear Savvy

I was recently asked to write out my methodology for improving one’s improvisation. I have certain assumptions and beliefs on the tools and exercises that will improve the improvisational skill of a musician. They’ve worked for me and for others with whom this has been shared.


The major difference between struggling amateur improvisors and fluent confident ones is the proximity between their inner musical ear (mind) and their instrument. The closer that proximity leading to a fluid and accurate reflection of the music, the more musically satisfying and accomplished will be the resulting improvisation.


  1. Every musician has a greater or lessor degree of innate musical ideas within their imagination, or mind’s ear.
  2. The greater the degree of a musician’s facility with their instrument, the less resistance that instrument posses to the performance of those innate musical ideas.
  3. Musical and muscle memory must be exercised in order to build the connections in the brain and body that connect the innate musical ideas to the instrument. Many technically proficient players lack improvisational skill because they have not build those mind/body connections.

Methodology for building the mind/body connection:

  1. A clear focus of existing music within the mind’s ear. Hold that focus, play that specific musical phrase through the instrument. Start easy and slow with the objective being a clear reflection of the imagined music. Simple melodic phrases heard since childhood serve as effective phrases to start this exercise.
  2. Holding the focus of a particular melodic phrase, choose a note that is different from an instinctive starting note (one not held in muscle memory). Play the phrase. Choose another note. Examine how instinctive your performance is. How fast can you easily play it? What keys are most difficult?
  3. Listen to a note or short phrase from an external source. Perform that note or phrase on the instrument. Perfect pitch ability will help, but reflecting the pitch or phrase from relative pitch ability is more beneficial to developing this improvisational skill. Monitor the accuracy and speed in performing those notes or phrases as an indication of ability and progress.
  4. Perform these exercises in increasing degrees of difficulty. Examples include:performing these melodies over more advanced harmonic content, performing known melodies in adjacent keys to the melody being played, modulating the keys of the melody randomly mid-melody.
  5. Improvise over static/simple harmonies with the intent of projecting fresh musical ideas rather than memorized licks or rote scales/patterns.
  6. Record and listen back to these exercises in order to objectively evaluate the accuracy of the performance and improvement.
  7. Vary the melodic content of the exercises to keep things fresh and fun, but do not progress beyond the ability to accomplish at least a 50% proficiency.
  8. Listen to your routine improvisation and evaluate your improvement. Ask questions such as: am I playing new notes and phrases over familiar tunes, is the length of my phrases increasing, is my instrument finding its own way without as much thinking on my part, is my improvisation feeling more intuitive and personal?

As I refine this methodology, I’l continue to create new tools. The latest exploration of this methodology is my book, Jazz Ear Savvy.

Jazz Ear Savvy contains

  • beginning phrases for the most familiar melodies
  • sequences of notes within various keys omitting increasingly longer sections to encourage the ear to find its way
  • backing tracks with simple and/or static harmonies with which to play known melodies or written exercises
  • a basic analysis of the circle of fifths along with implications for ingraining its harmonic movement in the mind’s ear
  • transcribed solos performed by Michael Lake along with generous amounts of blank manuscript for extending transcriptions or creating one’s own sequences and patterns


  1. Rodney Brim on January 11, 2018 at 11:02 pm

    This is a clear laid out path to improvisation, including both the ability to listen and express what’s in one’s inner ear, as well as understand and replay what other’s are doing when improvising. And then, starting slowly, increase the challenges.

    A couple of questions.
    1. At a beginner level, what should improvisation competency look like. e.g. be able to play 5 common phrases one things of across 3 different keys, or ??? Or are there common licks from other professionals that one should have memorized before leaving the beginner level?

    2. I understood the value of all the points except for number 2. #2 wasn’t immediately apparent as to how it build on #1, could you explain why #2 is important and how it connects to #1 or maybe its a stand-alone…

    • Michael Lake on January 12, 2018 at 12:03 pm

      Good questions… I think that good improvisation sounds like the ability to hear and play chord notes and anchor notes. Not that they form the basis of a complete solo, but rather the start of musical phrases. By hearing important notes of the harmony, your ear is guided to musical phrases and melodies that conform to the harmony. Beginning improvisors just start playing notes on the horn – what I refer to as leading with the horn rather than the ear.

      I would much more recommend a simple solo that paraphrases the tune’s melody than a flurry of notes unrelated to the harmony that are meant to imitate a more advanced jazz player’s note fluency. Work your way up to a higher volume of notes AFTER you have gained fluency with the tune’s melody and chords. I think there’s as video in the making on this!

      I may not have been very clear in distinguishing #1 from #2. #1 meant to play a simple known melody in the key with which you are familiar. #2 says to play that melody in different keys. Start on a note that isn’t instinctive or in muscle memory. When you go to play Happy Birthday on trombone, you may instinctually start on middle F. Point #2 says now start on A or G. Can you play it quickly without thinking? Move around the various keys and find those with which you have trouble.

Leave a Comment