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.


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