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Five tips for playing jazz and learning to improvise

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Do you want to start playing jazz and to learn how to improvise? You don’t need exceptional talent or complicated harmony studies to do this. You just need to practice the right way, patiently and neatly. In this lesson I offer some tips to make this work less tiring and more effective. So here are my five tips for playing jazz and learning to improvise.

To prepare yourself for the study of improvisation, you should try to improve on several areas: the knowledge of harmony, the repertoire and different styles of music, instrumental technique, and finally-most important of all-imagination and creativity. To learn to improvise, the starting point should always be music, not exercises. That is why the study of repertoire is important.

N.1 Studying the repertoire

Before you venture into the study of scales, harmony, complicated theories and extremely difficult patterns, the first important thing is to study the repertoire. Choose a few pieces that you particularly like and begin to memorize the theme and the harmonic progression.

To begin with, don’t choose a tune that is too difficult. Some time ago I wrote a list for learning 100 jazz standards, in progressive order of difficulty. You can start by choosing one or more tunes from the first or second group on this list.

Studying jazz themes remains an essential exercise even for those who have been studying improvisation for some time. Personally, I devote more than half of my study time to repertoire learning. Besides being useful, it is fun and exciting.

Along with repertoire, another key aspect for those who want to improvise is knowledge of musical harmony.

N.2 How to study Jazz Harmony

To learn how to improvise a melody on a piece of music, you must have a deep understanding of how the basic mechanisms of music work. Studying harmony is therefore essential. You should start with the concepts that you are able to understand and put into practice right away, and not start with topics that are too advanced.

Here are some topics you should study and know about, follow the links to see free lessons on each topic.

If you have never studied harmony, it will take some time to become familiar with it all. However, there is no rush; the important thing is to grow smoothly, in practice and theory.

On this site you will find a video course on functional harmony that will take you step by step through the discovery of this subject. Now let’s move on to tip number 3: how to go from theory to practice.

No.3 Turning theory into practical exercises from the very beginning

From the very beginning you should strive to put theory into practice on your instrument. Here is a series of exercises to go through systematically. Practice and pass each exercise before continuing to the next.

  • Play the Major Scale in all twelve keys
  • Play the arpeggio of the major, minor and diminished triad in all keys
  • Play four-part chords (seventh chords) built on the various degrees of the major scale, in all keys
  • Play natural, harmonic and melodic minor scales in all keys
  • Play the four-voice chords derived from the harmonic minor scale, in all keys: Maj7#5, mMaj7, and dim7 chords
  • Play the remaining four-part chords: 6, m6, 7#5, 7sus4
  • Play the Dorian, Mixolydian, Lydian, Phrygian modal scales (I suggest this order) in all keys

Now to the fourth piece of advice: what are the right exercises to put your technical and harmony studies to good use.

No. 4 Exercises for improvisation: easy, easy and easy again

Before venturing to improvise on difficult tunes and daring chord changes, two generations of jazz musicians played simple songs. This is true of both early jazz (1920s) and the swing period (1930s).

Learning to improvise on complicated piece by Wayne Shorter or Lennie Tristano is like deciding to take up boxing and start by challenging the world champion. Does that sound like a good idea?

Start improvising on a chord, then move to the simple II V I cadence and be sure to study it for a long time! When you start moving easily on a major scale and its chords, you can tackle a few simple pieces.

Pieces in minor keys are more difficult, so study them later. Next are a series of simple exercises for improvisation, in progressive order of difficulty. Remember to perform each exercise in all keys.

  • Improvise on a single major chord, using the major scale
  • Improvise on the cadence II V I (e.g. Dm7 G7 C) thus always using only one scale but giving special emphasis to the different notes of the chords
  • Improvise on the sequence I VI II V (e.g. Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7)
  • Improvise on simple pieces in the major mode (e.g. Take The “A” Train)
  • Improvise on the minor cadence (e.g. Dm7(b5) G7 Cm)
  • Improvise on simple pieces in minor mode (e.g. Beautiful Love)

This program cannot be done in a few days; try to be patient and proceed in order. If your head always controls what your hands play, you won’t run the risk of randomly playing things you don’t understand.

Finally, the fifth and last piece of advice: when it is time to begin playing along with others.

No.5 Play with others, study with others

Jazz is music to be performed together with others. As soon as you can, play with someone, or better yet: study with someone. Many beginners study the wrong things, too difficult, and try to play tunes that are too difficult even when playing with others. Even if two of you face him, the heavyweight champion of the world will knock you both out in the first round.

If you have one or more friends who are studying at your level, decide together on exercises that will benefit everyone. Even just playing on cadences or a single chord can be more fun and useful if done in a group, in fact you will get used to getting in time and playing together.

Backing Tracks

So-called backing tracks are an indispensable tool for playing jazz and learning to improvise.

You can find some of them on YouTube, there are collections for sale such as the Aebersolds, but I personally recommend the Band-In-A-Box software, which allows you to make your own tracks, and more importantly to adjust speed and pitch quickly and easily. Another solution is the Ireal app, which is similar to Band-In-A-Box.

Many keyboards also have electronic drum patterns. Drumming alone already provides a great stimulus to play more creatively and forces you to get in time. If you play the piano, you can play the bass with your left hand and lean on a drum track, like this.

In sintesi, ecco dove puoi trovare le tracce di accompagnamento:

  • On YouTube
  • Use the software Band in a Box
  • Use the app Ireal
  • Use the well knows Aebersold backing tracks
  • Just use a drums track

Final remarks: find your way to learn to improvise.

If you found the approach to improvisation I proposed in this lesson interesting, perhaps you might be interested in my improvisation course , which covers 12 jazz pieces and 32 exercises in order of difficulty. The first lessons are free, check them out now.

videocorso per suonare jazz e imparare a improvvisare
Videocorso di improvvisazione

To learn to play and improvise, there are no tricks or shortcuts: music requires discipline and study, like all things beautiful and exciting.

However, if you don’t make the mistake of starting with things that are too difficult, you will be able to have fun from the very beginning, and that is what counts because you will have even more desire to study and play. If you like, please leave a comment: What is your biggest difficulty in studying jazz improvisation?

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