Countless books and college courses have focused on all types of jazz improvisation exercises. With so many opinions on practicing the art of improvisation, it’s often a question of where to begin. In this article we’ll take a look at some of our favorite jazz improvisation exercises. Why are these our favorites? Because you can start to notice results in your playing quickly, and one of them can even be practiced away from your instrument.
Jazz Improvisation Exercises #1: Rhythm Training
Rhythm is a fundamental element of all music, so it’s a great place to start. Plus, rhythmic training is something that transcends a particular instrument, so here we’ll present an exercise that can be practiced literally anywhere, even if you don’t have your instrument present.
To start, all you need is a metronome, either a physical metronome or any of the free apps that are available online. Set your metronome to 64 beats per minute (bpm) and think of each click as a quarter note. Now do the following:
Clap quarter notes along with the metronome and be as rhythmically precise as possible;
Clap 8th notes with rhythmic precision;
Clap 16th notes with rhythmic precision;
Clap 8th-note-triplets with rhythmic precision.
Once mastered at 66bpm, increase your tempo to faster and faster speeds. You can also practice the four steps above with any song on the radio. Simply find the quarter note pulse and jump in. Then, move on to the advanced steps below.
With one hand tap quarter notes along with the metronome while doing the following with your other hand (rhythmic precision is key):
Tap 8th notes;
Tap 16th notes;
Mastering this exercise means that your on your way to rhythmic hand independence (much like drummers must learn to master).
Jazz Improvisation Exercises #2: Enclosures
What the heck are “enclosures”? It’s a term we sometimes use in jazz-speak to mean “playing the notes around the target note as a way of resolving to the target note.” And it’s a great way to start to develop some of the advanced jazz vocabulary.
Say you’re improvising over a Bb major chord. There are some obvious notes you might want to use as target notes: Bb, D, and F (the notes of the major triad. Let’s focus on just one of those notes (the ‘D’). “Enclosing” the ‘D’ means using the notes around ‘D’ (usually within a whole-step) to help create movement to the ‘D.’ Practice all of the examples below.
Jazz Improvisation Exercises #3: Learn This Chord Progression
Here it is - LEARN IT! The progression is: ii - V - I - V/ii. In simpler terms that means a “ii - V - I” progression followed by a turnaround chord, which is the “V7/ii” (sometimes incorrectly called the “dominant VI chord”). This, or some variation of this progression, is everywhere in jazz. In the key of F, it would look something like this:
Practice the following:
Play the example above in 3 keys per week (you’ll have all 12 keys learned in 4 weeks). Use your metronome on 70 bpm and have each click represent beats 2 and 4;
Play the left hand bassline while outlining chord tones with your right hand;
Play the left hand bass line against simple (repeat SIMPLE) right hand improvisation (perhaps, even use some enclosures).