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An Easy Way To Start To Teach Improvisation

Teaching improvisation is not something new or exclusive to modern generations and we actually see evidence of improvisation (in western music) as far back as the renaissance and perhaps even farther back.  Though we’re dealing with a tradition many centuries old at least, it seems as though the transmission of the tradition was halted in the years leading up to the crystallization of jazz teaching methods. For this reason, we tend to think of improvising as a jazz induced phenomenon, when actually it is present in nearly all styles of music.

A few styles where improvisation plays or played an important role:

  • Classical (cadenzas in a concerto or other solo work)
  • Jazz
  • Country/Blues
  • Hip-hop/Rap
  • Latin Music

We see right away that setting out to learn to improvise is far too broad of a task. If rap, classical and country are being used in the same sentence, we know we need to narrow it down further. Well…we’ll do that later. But for now, I’m going to offer you some steps you can take to get you started.

Learn to Use Your Ears

This improvisation exercise will help you synchronize your inner ear with your motor movement and sense of musical narrative.


  • Timer (egg timer, stop watch, phone)
  • Piano
  • Your voice/lips (for whistling)

Whistle, Hum or Sing to help You Start Improvising

Almost everyone can whistle a tune. So first you’re going to set your watch for one minute and whistle a simple melodic tune. If you prefer, you may hum or sing (use a syllable like “La” or “Do”) follow these guidelines:

  • Keep the melody and rhythm simple
  • Let your ear guide you
    • to the right place to end a musical phrase
    • to the best notes to start on and end on
    • most natural rhythms
You should record this exercise and repeat it several times. What you are listening for while you are playing and while listening back to the recording, is that your melody is what you intended it to be, the phrasing and rhythm sounds natural and un-strained and that the notes you use, sound melodic and unforced with a good balance of tension an release. Also, aim to have some musical direction; tell a story, rather than just repeating notes in varying orders.
Often times when listening to the recordings, you will not be sure if you’ve met the guidelines. One of my favorite teacher would instruct his students to “listen to your heart of hearts”. If you’re not sure if the rhythm sounds natural, it probably doesn’t. If you’re not sure if there is a strong narrative, there probably isn’t. Think these things through and try again. Be aware, you won’t get it right away…That’s just how these things go and you’ll need to practice to improve.

Try Improvising on Piano

Your next move will be to repeat the same exercise on the piano. Use only the white keys to start. Try to keep the music simple so that you don’t run into any technical issues like poor fingering or sloppy rhythm. Use the timer so you can easily loose yourself in the music, well controlling the length of time of the exercise. Keeping it to 1-2 minutes allows you to become engaged, then listen back and repeat without taking all day!


How long should I do this for?  The simple answer is, it depends how good you want to get. You can stick with this exercise for 30-45 minutes per day, every day for 1 week, and then add on it to it slightly and continue for another 2-4 weeks.


The Best way to Practice Your Scales Part 2-Understanding the Major Scale


This article us a continuation of The Best Way to Practice Your Scales Part 1. You may want to begin with that one, as this is a continuation of it and some parts may be confusing otherwise.

5. Improvement of passage playing-Whether playing Chopin’s nocturnes, a Mozart piano sonata, or improvising a long improvised musical line a la Bill Evans, we want to be able to execute the music with ease, prowess and musicality.

6. Improvising Skills-Let’s now watch another video. As you watch think about how they improvise new ideas and melodies in real time, with fluidity, ease, and spontaneity. Many people look to scale practice to build improvisation skills.

Once you’ve spent some time thinking about this, let’s examine how we can use scale practice to improve on your desired skill or area.

The Best way to Practice Your Scales

notes on a piano

Piano Keys

Though teachers and players would almost all agree that knowing your scales is important, 10 different players might have 10 different views on the “right way” to practice scales. For me, the first question is what do we intend to glean from the practice and study of scales?

In no particular order, we probably hope to achieve all or some of the following:

  1. Manual Dexterity.
  2. Familiarity with tonal centers (keys) and modalities.
  3. Manual and Aural fluidity (within keys).
  4. An understanding of harmony.
  5. Improvement of passage playing.
  6. Improvement of or foundation for improvising skills.
  7. Probably other things!

We can also think of what we are going to be playing and how scale practice might help:

  1. Classical Music (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven)
  2. Jazz
  3. Rock
  4. Blues
  5. Improvising in any of the above styles
  6. Boogie

Whether you’re a teacher, a student or a parent, you should spend a little bit of time thinking about this before going on.

Let’s revisit the first list and try to define the terms on it. As we go through it, watch some footage of piano players (or whatever your instrument is) and think about how the idea applies to what your seeing.  Youtube or any other video page may be your best source.

1. Manual Dexterity-The fine muscle movement of your fingers, hands, wrists, and arms, specifically with regards to playing your instrument. Think of the arch in the fingers as they strike and leave the keys. Be aware of the movement up and down the keyboard, fretboard or what-have-you.

2. Familiarity with tonal centers-What sharps or flats do you find in the key of F major? B major? D minor? E lydian dominant? Knowing the keys that you’re playing in and what accidentals they consists of is crucial for your conception, if you are to learn the piece deeper than by rote.

3. Manual and Aural Fluidity-Being able to hear, play, improvise and compose within a given key without hesitation.

4. An Understanding of Harmony-Harmony refers to two notes or more sounded together musically. In other words, chords! Since chords and scales are closely related you would need to know your scales well, before you can really learn your chords. Watch Bill Evans playing Autumn Leaves. Right from the beginning, you can hear how he must have a deep understanding of harmony:

After you watch this video, please go on to The Best way to Practice Your Scales-Part 2.

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