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2 Easy Exercises for Improving Your Jazz Improvisation

As a jazz musician always trying to improve, I’m constantly looking for different ways to practice. While the most classic tips for becoming a better jazz improviser include, learning solos by ear, licks, and learning jazz standards, all of those things can be lots of work and time.

Sometimes I just want to practice something that won’t require me to start a strenuous project of digesting large chunks of musical information. I don’t feel like battling it out on my instrument. Sometimes I just want to be a lazy practicer.

While I wouldn’t suggest lazy practicing is ever going to get you serious results, I do think there are things we can practice that don’t require a lot of heavy lifting. The good news is, these activities are not inferior to some of the others I have mentioned. These are great exercises that can have a significant impact on your jazz improvisation, without all the sweat.

So if you ever find yourself ready to practice, but not especially motivated to learn a Charlie Parker solo, here are a few helpful exercises to consider:

1. Jam along to a recording.

One great way to practice is to turn on one of your favorite jazz albums and just jam along. Solo along with the musicians, work on some voice leading parts, comp, do whatever you like, just pretend you are part of the band.

I often like to turn on an album and try to mimic the lines of each soloist or pretend that we are improvising together. It may feel like a one-sided relationship, but the benefit is you are trying to get inside of the essence of what the soloist is playing.

This is different than playing with a backing track or even a friend. The idea here is you are trying to learn jazz language and transfer it to your instrument in the moment. It’s kind of like when you hang out with someone a lot who has an infectious personality. Sometimes you notice that you are stealing certain things they say or the way they act. That is what you are hoping will happen when you jam along with your jazz heroes.

You can also just jam along to one song you know; it doesn’t have to be an entire album. The more you practice along with these amazing jazz musicians, the easier it will be to pick up on some of their improvisational personalities.

2. Melodic Dictation.

This exercise is all about training your ear. As jazz improvisers, we need to have a strong ear. In addition to recognizing sounds, we need to have the ability to translate that information to our instruments.

This is where melodic dictation comes in. Melodic dictation is where you listen to a short musical phrase and try to mimic it. The idea is not to memorize it or adapt it into your vocabulary, but to train your ear to hear something and move it onto your instrument.

It’s a lot like sight reading. When you practice sight reading to become a better music reader, you don’t play the same piece of music over and over again. No, you play through a piece once and move on to the next. You don’t want muscle memory or memorization to kick in; you just want to get your ear and your instrument to react faster.

An excellent way to practice melodic dictation is to start playing a song off of an album. Play a phrase and then stop the recording. Try to play it on your instrument. It’s okay if you listen to it a few times and give yourself multiple attempts, but then move on to the next phrase and do it again. You can work through entire albums if you’d like. This is just a simple exercise you can do that will help improve your most powerful musical asset.

So next time you’re feeling slightly lazy, but still want something solid to practice your jazz improvisation, sit back, relax, and turn on some recordings. Jam along or try your hand at some melodic dictation.

Do you have any simple exercises that you like to practice? Share in the comments below.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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