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Learning to Improvise: Schools of Thought

Learning to improvise can be a mysterious thing for people trying to learn how to do it well.  Jazz pedagogy is a relatively new thing, and it’s not nearly as developed as classical pedagogy, which has been developing for over three centuries.  Consequently, you sometimes hear jazz musicians talking about how jazz “can’t be taught.”  Some people think that you have to “teach yourself to improvise,” undermining existing pedagogy and fostering an elitist mentality that you either “have it” or “you don’t.” I personally think that with the right training, opportunities, and persistence, most musicians can “get it.”  Talent is the ability to learn quickly, but I think most people with a reasonable amount of musical ability can excel at improvisation with LOTS of persistence and the right opportunities.

In reality, most won’t put in the necessary time or seek out the right opportunities to become a truly great improviser.  Maybe it just wasn’t important enough to them, or they didn’t believe they could do it, and so they didn’t put in the time.  If they believe in themselves enough to do whatever it takes, they’ll get there.

Jazz improvisation is not as straight forward as classical music, for instance, where all the notes are written out.  There is creativity in classical music, but the creativity is exercised within narrower parameters than an improvised art form like jazz.  Teaching classical music is much more straight forward than teaching jazz.

And yet, improvisation can be taught.

There are several different Schools of Thought.

Before we begin, let’s just get this out of the way: ALL of these Schools of Thought involve practicing! Sorry, there aren’t any shortcuts!  The Schools of Thought include:

Transcribe, Transcribe, Transcribe

The “Transcribing” school of thought teaches that improvisational excellence can be attained through transcribing the solos of the Jazz Greats.  This is a very prevalent school of thought, and some people act as if this is the only way to learn jazz.

Listen to a solo, learn to sing along, and then learn to play the solo.  Or just learn it one phrase at a time.  This can take a very long time, but this school of thought teaches that it’s worth the time investment.  Absorbing the language through transcribing will help you to improvise better.  It can work wonders for some people, but the time investment can be quite intense!

Do you write the solo down?  Do you just learn to play it by ear without notation?  Do you learn a phrase at a time on your instrument or do you learn to sing the whole thing first?  It depends on who you ask!  Try different approaches and see what works for you.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Another school of thought emphasizes the transcribing less and the listening more.  By listening to a staggering amount of jazz, you’ll learn to play and improvise better.  The time investment is still high, but the effort is less strenuous, and it’s more fun than transcribing.   More music can be heard in less time, just not to the same level of depth.

Practice Licks in All 12 Keys

Practicing licks seems to be very different than transcribing on the surface.  However, learning to play a lick in all 12 keys (and then learning to apply the lick over tunes) is like taking a micro-transcription and digesting it thoroughly until it belongs to you.  Ultimately you want to move past just playing licks, but I think learning licks can really help people to absorb jazz language, one phrase at a time!

Learn Written Solos or Etudes

You can find plenty of jazz transcriptions online or in books.  These become like etudes where you read someone else’s improvised solo over a standard or original tune.  Some say reading a transcribed solo completely misses the point.  However, I think this approach has merit, just as the others do.  All things being equal, reading a transcribed solo is faster than transcribing a solo by ear for most people.   I think there is definitely merit, though some vehemently disagree with the idea than reading a transcription has value.

It works less on your ear, granted, but there are other benefits not seen in transcribing.  For one thing, it helps your reading.  It also helps you to analyze the solo more easily when it is written down.  Transcribing by ear may help you to internalize a solo better than simply reading it, although that may depend on individual learning styles.

The one thing I would say is that you shouldn’t learn a notated, transcribed solo without listening to the original solo!

Take Lessons from a Jazz Musician

Taking lessons from a great instructor is of inestimable benefit.  Ideally, the teacher is an excellent jazz musician and an excellent teacher.  A more experienced musician shows shortcuts, inspires you to practice, and shows you what you should be doing.  Not all teachers are created equal. Find the best teacher you can afford!

Just Play, Man!

There’s something to be said for just playing music.  A lot.  Learn tunes.  Play with many different groups and in many different musical situations.  There are things you can learn on the bandstand that you just won’t learn any other way.  Sometimes experience is the best teacher.

Jazz is an apprenticeship.  Lessons are great, but ultimately you learn the most on the bandstand from people who are more experienced.

Jazz pedagogy is still quite new, and people still argue about which of these different methodologies produce the best results.  In particular, the “Transcribing” school of thought is very prevalent.  Some feel that transcribing is the only true way to learn jazz vocabulary.  However, I think a balanced approach is good.  All of the approaches can be very helpful.

I personally think that of these approaches, listening and playing are the two most important.  The good news is that listening and playing are the most fun of all the approaches!  No amount of transcribing will overcome a complete lack of stage time, but there are professional jazz musicians who improvise just fine who haven’t transcribed much, if at all.

Jazz is a language, and you learn by imitating (transcribing, playing etudes and licks, and taking lessons), listening, and by doing (playing music). Spending some time with all of the different approaches will help you mature in your playing.  Good luck!

-Camden Hughes

Camden Hughes
Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


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