What is the secret that will make you a better improvisor?

A subscriber recently wrote a comment. He asked:

What do I need to do to get better at playing Jazz? Is It the scales and listening to good trombone players? Practice all of the scales and memory of melodies? What is the order if practicing Jazz, to be good on the instrument – The T Bone. Trombone.

My answer was:

That’s a BIG question Terry! Let me give you a couple thoughts. All the things you mentioned are tools that will improve your improvisation. The question is, which tools will help YOU best become the player you wish you were? Becoming a better musician/improvisor involves many skills: rhythm, time, pitch, melody, hearing harmonies, technical fluency on the trombone, melodic sense, and more I can’t think of at the moment. Are you clear on which skills you are very good at and those you aren’t?

One aspect of musicianship I hear missing from many players is a clear sense of their command of the skills I mentioned earlier. Many don’t know what their strengths and weaknesses are. You ask about the “order” of things to practice. Well, I don’t know of an exact order. In part it depends on what you need to work on and the pacing of your chops. For example, if you want to practice your loud playing, you may want to leave that until you’ve warmed up and played for a while, so you avoid blowing out your chops too early.

Here’s an example of a practicing routine:

  1. Warm up well. Listen to your tone opening up and pitch settling in.
  2. Play various intervals like fifths, fourths and thirds in order to tune your intonation.
  3. Play Happy Birthday on a comfortable note. Start on another note (maybe a fourth/fifth away) Play easy and soft. Try it on another tune you know well. Listen for pitch. Play it with a metronome to keep you honest. Hear progress being made. If progress isn’t being made, dial down the difficulty a bit. For example, if you keep struggling with playing Happy Birthday by ear starting on low E. Start on low A or G. Master those then go back to low E.
  4. Play scales with a metronome. Set the metronome on 60 or some comfortable tempo. Hear the clicks as two and four of the bar. Start with an easy scale or pattern. Maybe middle F, G, A, Bb, C, Bb, A, G, F. Up and down. Are you grooving? How’s your time? How’s your pitch on those five notes? Next, do the same starting on G and then on random notes. Try going up and down on the circle of fifths. Record this and listen back.
  5. Play one of my backing tracks from Soundcloud (see the forum post on the improv challenge for examples). Start by finding a note right in the harmony. Hold it. How’s your pitch? Can you tell which part of the harmony it is (The root, fifth, seventh, etc?) Improvise but do so nice and easy. You’re not trying to play lots of notes, just hear the notes your are playing and to create good melodies.
  6. Take a break by transcribing a solo – trombone or other instrument. When you’re finished, play with the recording. How well are you mirroring the player? If you have a rhythm track (Aebersold) of the tune, play the solo over the track.
  7. Go back and do the metronome scale/pattern exercise (#4). Longer scales and harder keys. As with any part of this practice routine, don’t play something too hard and just keep playing it poorly. You want to practice something attainable but challenging. Like I described in #3, don’t beat a dead horse. If you’re struggling with the B major scale, go to E or A. Master those then return to B.
  8. With everything you are doing, listen to yourself and be honest about what you hear. Record things and listen back. The weakest part of players’ routines is truly hearing what they are playing – the good and the bad. You will be surprised by how much improvement you will make if you record and listen. And then be clear on what you heard. Your clarity is the key. Record yourself and listen to it right after recording it and then a day later. Save some of them for 6 month later. Can you hear the improvement?

Answering your original question, to give you my opinion on how you can learn to improvise well, I would have to hear you. Feel free to post an MP3 as an attachment, of you improvising. What do you hear? Feel free to record this and post it.I know that’s scary but people on this forum are very respectful of other’s playing. If you really want to get good at anything, you must be willing to get out of your comfort zone.

Hope that helps!

1 Comment

  1. Dan Fusco on July 29, 2018 at 5:55 am

    Hi Mike, great video on JJ and transcribing. This was my first solo that I transcribed funny enough. . You sound great!!! Where is the backing track that you created. Perhaps you can email it to me if there is no download.



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