An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

June 6, 2006 Jazz Improvisation 33 Comments

Learning to improvise - introduction



During my first two years of college, I was a jazz studies major. Since I transferred schools after my first year, I got to experience (at least part of) the jazz curriculums of two different universities. In each school I did well in my music classes, however I wasn't dramatically improving as a jazz musician. Sure, I knew more information about jazz, especially jazz theory, but that knowledge wasn't translating itself into my playing. I wasn't alone, either. As the months passed, many struggling players (including me) would eventually drop out or change majors, each believing they'd never be good enough to play jazz professionally. Some of us even gave up playing jazz altogether, as I did for seven years.

When I finally started to play the trumpet again (summer of 2002), I was eager to find a new approach to learning jazz improvisation that would take me farther than my previous jazz education. I wanted results! During my search, I read several new books and visited dozens of jazz web sites and forums. For the most part, everything I read followed the same old approach that I was all too familiar with: start with a description of swing rhythms and accents, then briefly cover topics like transcribing, learning patterns, playing melodically, and finally move on to several chapters of complex and long-winded jazz theory lessons. No matter what I read, at least 50% of the discussion was about jazz theory.

At the same time I was reading about jazz improvisation, I started reading jazz biographies and interviews with legendary jazz musicians. Among other things, I learned that several top jazz musicians didn't know how to read music, and many more knew far less theory than was contained in the average jazz improvisation book. This really surprised me. After all, jazz education's heavy emphasis on theory would suggest that jazz theory is must-have information, as if you couldn't possibly be good without complete mastery. But that just isn't the case.

As I continued to read and learn about great jazz musicians, I found that there is a skill common to all of them. Oddly, it's a skill that is rarely discussed in mainstream jazz education. That skill is the ability to play by ear. All great jazz musicians can play accurately and effortless by ear. And actually, it's this skill that first and foremost guides them in deciding what to play.

If the ability to play by ear is shared by all great jazz musicians, why do very few jazz method books and classrooms ever mention it? And, if knowledge of jazz theory isn't essential, then why do ALL jazz books and classrooms spend so much time talking about it? (for possible answers, read my jazz theory article). These questions are even more perplexing when I think about the fact that NONE of the struggling players I've known can play well (or at all) by ear, yet most have had a decent grasp of theory. We didn't need to learn more theory, we needed to learn to play by ear!

Convinced that jazz education missed the mark on the importance of playing by ear, I started thinking about the other key issues plaguing struggling players and how those issues could be overcome. Once I felt I had some worthwhile suggestions, I started writing, and that's how my Learning to Improvise series was born. Since my Learning To Improvise guide is geared toward beginners and otherwise struggling players, it's pretty light on details. My goal is simply to present a foundation from which developing players can grow. There's a lot more out there that you can and should learn about jazz improvisation.

The topics I'll cover include:

Topics like transcription are already mainstays of jazz education, so I'm not exactly breaking new ground with this series. But, I do think I'm presenting each topic in a somewhat original fashion that's easy to understand. As you read, keep in mind that all of this stuff requires practice and patience. You won't improve simply by reading alone (I wish it was that easy!). In fact, many of these topics can take several years of practice to master. That's fine. Keep at it. The rewards are well worth the effort.


If you've listened to any of my audio clips, you know I'm not a great player. Occasionally I play a halfway decent solo, but most of the time I sound mediocre at best. With that said, you might be wondering why I think I have anything worthwhile to share about learning jazz. And certainly, how can I claim to have better advice than so many educators and professional musicians?

In general, I don't think great players can relate to the specific issues that impair those of us who are struggling. Playing by ear is a good example of this disconnect. I think it's rarely mentioned in jazz education because great players assume everyone can play by ear, or they simply don't understand how impossibly difficult it is to improvise without that ability. Consequently, instead of emphasizing ear training, they might suggest that we learn chord substitutions or some other form of advanced theory, because that's what helped them get to the next level. But, how can advanced theory really help someone who can't even play something like "Happy Birthday" by ear? After all, if you can't play something that easy by ear, you'll have a heck of a time trying to improvise a musical jazz solo.

And that's where I come in. I may not know as much about jazz and jazz improvisation as the average jazz educator, but I'm extremely familiar with the challenges facing struggling jazz musicians. I know what it's like to start a solo and have no idea what I'm going to play. I know what it's like to play one bad note after another when I lose my place in the changes. I know what it's like to play the same licks over and over again because I can't play the ideas in my head. I know what it's like to be terrified to play a solo, and I know what it's like to feel embarrassed when I play poorly. I know all of this because I am a struggling player myself. I've lived through the issues (some of which I continue to face) and I believe the lessons I've learned along the way can help others in their own musical journeys.

If by any chance I'm wrong in my assumption that I can help, well, at least the lessons were free!

Comment by Aaron

Hi Rick,

Ever since I began improvising I have intuitively felt that it's best left to the ears, but I've felt like I lonestar in this viewpoint as several teachers I've been to and friends of mine are also trying to play jazz seem to think that the best approach is to play scales and arpeggios ad nauseum. I tried this but it usually sounded awful so I stuck to playing by ear but figured I'd never be able to play jazz because I didn't have the discipline to hammer out scales against changes till it sounded better. I'm lucky that I'm now studying with a teacher that told me to give up trying that because now I can play the changes by ear without a problem. I wonder how many other frustrated students are out there beating their heads against music theory wondering how this all turns into jazz. My feeling is that the better players know intuively that it's all about the ear even if they don't verbalize it. I really wish jazz players talked more about how they actually learned rather than what they learned as an after-analysis. Anyway, it's strange that the proponents of spontaneity and real "improvisation" are the lonely ones today in the jazz world. Reading this interview with Mccoy Tyner was comforting - http://www.jazzcenter.org/index.htm?http://www.jazzcenter.org/tyner/

Anyway, thanks a lot. I listened to your most recent clip. Not so bad...

All the best,


Comment by Rick


Trust me, there are TONS of students who are frustrated with theory's inability to improve their playing. I was one of those students!

I especially enjoyed that McCoy Tyner interview. I'm going to hold on to that one so I can someday create a "body of evidence" page to show to all the skeptics...

Thanks for visiting and for taking the time to write,


Comment by Peter

This is amazing.

I am experiencing that a lot of people put theory in the place of real learning. Somehow they think that a rational take on the subject leads them to real skills, while most of the time they constrain themselves to a certain box where they never can get out.

I really think you are doing a great job with this site!

And a compliment on the visual design, it is very very good!

I think that what you teach, is also applicable on many many other fields, if not all. If we just experience drawing, art etc, we will amaze ourselves because we tap into our non-rational side of the brain.

Funny thing is that Mozart for instance, was also extremely well in playing by ear. I guess that all top musicians have that skill. It allows the brain to create music instead of a rational composition.

Thanks for your inspiring website!

Comment by kokorozashi

I suspect the problem is the very nature of institutional learning. An institution needs to justify its existence in ways the "straight" world can grasp, and that means such things as scales and books full of theory. If when you matriculated a school told you: "OK, first step: care enough to listen carefully to the records on this list. Oh, and by the way, there's no way to test whether you care, so you're on the honor system" imagine what a government bureaucrat would think. "Ah; charlatans! The public should be protected!"

Comment by thanh

wow, I totally know where you're coming from Rick. I'm still in school, and I'm taking these music theory classes, and the one thing that my teacher emphasizes on is that the class is still in the 17th century with Mozart and Beethovan.

I've always tried really hard to improve my improvisational skills, but I never knew what to do, so thank you so much for putting a site like this up, because now I can learn how to improvise without paying =].

So thanks a lot.


Comment by Jimu

Hello Rick from New Zealand.

I've just found your site, from Simon on the Breakfast room Sax forum. I think your material is great, I've been playing , largely on my own for 16 years, and enjoy playing immensly. Jazz theory has been my block to understanding many things, I play for the sound, its resonance within me and the environment My goal is to be able to improvise with freedom, to be able while travelling anywhere in the world to sit in and jam with anyone and have a ball ....is the goal and dream. Recently, I realized it's all within already, I just need to focus and release it!

Your approach, heart & willingness to share is fantastic, I bow to your commitment and energy.

I will be using your ear trainer and reading your other materials often to boost my improvisation playing and practise.

Many thanks



Comment by Bill A

Hi Rick

First, let me say I think what you have done on your website is fantastic. I mean the content and care that you have put into it.

I stumbled on it last night and spent a couple of hours on it trying to absorb the pearls of wisdom you are imparting.

I played trumpet inHS band abd orchestra and then through my junior year in college. Since then I only picked up my horn on rare occasions, always while alone. No real talent here. HS GRad 1948, Colllege grad 1953. So you see it's been awhile. I'll be 76 this August. I love music, know hundreds of songs from the forties and onward. They're all in my head. I have recently started playing and after about two months have gotten most of my lip back. I have also improved my ear so that I can pick out melodies without too much difficulty. Now I want the jazz involvement.

I just want to say that the encouragement you give and the things you say about how to progress and learn the basics is such a refreshing and honest approach. In short , you are a jewel.

I haven't seen all there is too see on your website but I'll be there working at it.Thanks for your effort, you are greatly appreciated.

Bill A.

Sarasota, FL

Comment by Rick

Bill A.,

Thank you very much for the kind words about my site! Letters like yours are a great source of inspiration and motivation for me as I continue to keep the site going.

Since you can play well by ear already, I highly recommend that you start working with vocal improvisation. You can read about it here: http://www.iwasdoingallright.com/jazz_improvisation/117/

Once you're able to sing a decent solo, you'll have no trouble at all playing one. If you do have trouble playing what you sing then ear training should help narrow the gap between what you can and cannot play by ear.

Best wishes and thanks again for the comment,


Comment by Charlie

I just came across your site: I bought a trumpet so I wanted to find something on Jazz playing. I play mediocre jazz guitar, what is interesting is the same rules apply to guitar as to trumpets.

I like your honesty and the blog in general. I'll visit it again.


Comment by Chang

Hi Rick,

I am the guitarist who sent you the email of encouragement, which is now published on your site.

Here is an interview with Jimmy Bruno which should add to your arsenal of 'evidence'. Although the key message is in the context of the guitar, it's further proof that we're on the right track in terms of starting with the ears.


BTW, a quick note about theory. I think it can be extremely useful for advancing one's musicianship and providing ideas for composition. However, the problem with traditional musical education is the ORDER in which things are taught. The ears must come first! Once one has achieved aural mastery, only then is one qualified to HEAR the musical concepts discussed in theory and therefore understand their relevance.

Keep up the good work.



Comment by Rick

Hi again Chang,

Thank you for letting me know about that Jimmy Bruno interview. I used it to create a new ear training article: http://www.iwasdoingallright.com/ear_training/184/

In this new article, I'm compiling interviews and master class notes from professional musicians and educators on the subject of ear training. My "body of evidence" article is finally underway!


Comment by luisa

Your site is irreplaceably wonderful - I've been working on the intervals methodiacll y every day and in less than two weeks I've had managed almost perfect scores, first on melodic and even on harmonic! I always thought I had ''çloth ears''!

Kokorozhashi (March 10) is right about the colleges. What they should really do is make the students play play play, constant jam sessions all day and night! and use theory to sort problems and weaknesses if or when necessary. But it would militate against the Protestant Work Ethic - youré at college to work,if you're having that much fun it can't be work...............

Comment by Tim

Hi Rick. I've never retained an ounce of theory, despite a year of music school. I would memorize my jury material and play it by ear while pretending to read. I was a solid B+ to A student in every course totally dependent on my ears and this deception. Of course I never got into advanced theory where the gig would certainly be up. My instructors didn't know why I was leaving the program but the truth was I was afraid of the deception ending and the subsequent embarrassment. Today I'm a semi-professional musician and composer (pop, rock, blues, light jazz) still yearning to play jazz like the greats. I can play most simple melody lines flawlessly with great timing and feel even through complex changes but I still stuggle with true improv. I suspect that even those of us blessed with good ears have less than a photographic memory and potential for instant recall, or perhaps I don't woodshed like I should spending the majority of my time composing. Or perhaps its something as simple as imagination. I am older and wish I had taken the time and effort to learn theory, if for nothing else than to communicate with other musicians better in my compositions. I do think one can accomplish much entirely by listening to music and self teaching. It has been my personal frustration that quality jazz improv is a just a hair beyond my abilities playing by ear. I keep trying though and have managed to pull off a few surprising performances. I think your approach is going to pay off in spades because you have that foundation in theory and I can hear from your cuts that you also have an imagination. Keep up the good work.

Comment by Rick

Hi Tim,

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "quality jazz improv" as I guess everybody has their own opinion of good and bad. But in my view, "quality" doesn't need to be super fast or complex. Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue," for example, is one of the most beautiful jazz albums ever recorded yet most of the playing is rather simple and sparse. So, if your ears are good enough to play phrases like that by ear then you should have all the tools you need to play quality music (at least as I define quality). If not, you could try some ear training to improve your ability to play by ear. I have some free tools here: http://www.iwasdoingallright.com/tools/ear_training/

But, as you mentioned there can be other things holding you back such as imagination. As a composer, I'm sure you're all too aware of the mental blocks that inhibit our creativity. When I feel a block, I'll try one of the following: listen to recordings and play a solo based off an idea that I hear, take myself out of my comfort zone with note limiting or some other exercise that takes me out of my comfort zone, or perhaps try improvising in an unfamiliar genre. You may already do these things, but if not, give them a try.

Thank you for your comment and encouragement!


Comment by Tim

Hi Rick. Thanks for the reply. By 'quality' I simply mean something that makes me feel as though I have control and a creativity that would be somewhat objectively 'interesting' to someone who appreciates jazz. I love slow (i.e Miles) and fast (i.e Bird). I'm the kind of musician that can ALWAYS work out a quality line ahead of time and with enough practice play it fluently. The problem is instantaneous creativity for me...thats how I define improv. I 'think' my mental block is not releated to ear training but my lack of fluent understanding of theory and being able to think ahead in an imaginative way....the instantaneous invention of an interesting imaginative storyline. I'm not sure if this is something one can learn or is just born with. I keep trying though and the process, while frustrating, is fun. Thanks for your comments and keep up the good work.



Comment by Kiah

It is people like you who truly inspire me. Your obvious passion for music and knowledge (and willingness to share it) is simply a beautiful thing to see. You make me feel stronger, like I can set out to get what I want. That I am not alone.

I am a female trumpet player who LOVES jazz, but has never been able to improvise. (I am currently studying classically) I can usually sing a solo, but I have trouble translating that to my horn. I can play melodies by ear, but not with any kind of fluidity on the first try, or the second.

I am hoping that by practicing hard and really focusing on learning to better play by ear I will soon be improvising (at least a little).

Thank you so much for the time you have put into this. You really are a special person...


Hi Kiah,

Thank you for the nice post!

It's great to hear that you're going to spend more time learning to play by ear. You'll certainly enjoy music more when you aren't limited to reading notes from a page.

And really, there's nothing special about me. I stumble through the wrong notes just like everybody else ;-)


Comment by aki-no.ame

And my improvising teacher said: 90% of improviz is my trained licks... But as I practiced with band i discovered ear improviz, and after those clips i can see how it works.

Thank you.

P.S. wanna get more your samples, can you post more links?

Comment by micheal


great site i am learning jazz harmonicaand i cant wait to delve deeper in this site maybe you should be a teacher.....


Comment by marcel kamst

Hi Rick,

I've decided to start anew and to play (piano) by ear only. I've searched for one of my earliest jazz experiences, The Atomic Mr. Basie and picked the slow blues After Supper. The theme was easy and the great bass line outlined the harmonic structure perfectly. Now for Mr. Basie's solo... I slowed down the song to get everything right and man was it fulfilling to learn the exact phrasing by listening and playing it over and over again! The slow tempo and relaxed style prevented me from getting overambitious and at the same there was plenty of nice stuff to keep me going. I finished of with the solo piano intro which gave me such joy after I managed to put two hands together. This is definitely the right way for me to move on!


Comment by VB

Hi there, Just want to say that I use your site all the time, especially the ear training tools. It's such a fabulous and helpful site, thank you for it!

I just have one question....when I'm soloing (which is something relatively new to me...) I tend to lose my place in the changes. Do you have recommendations for keeping place? Counting the bars is obviously one way, but is that the best way? it seems to distract me from the solo itself. Any tips?

Keep up the good work!

Comment by Rick

Hi VB,

Most jazz musicians could hear a few measures worth of chords to a popular tune like "All The Things You Are" and they'd instantly recognize the tune and they'd also know exactly where they are in the song form. You've probably have had similar experiences while listening to the radio. You'll hear just a few seconds of a song and you'll start singing the next vocal part, or you'll know that a guitar solo is about to start. All of this is a result of familiarity. When you're familiar enough with a tune, you don't have to work at finding your place. So, for these tunes, start out learning the melody. And I mean, really learn it. You can then learn to play the chords on the piano and/or sing the arpeggios. In time, you'll gain enough familiarity with the tune that you'll always know where you are in the song form.


Comment by James

Rick I really have been enjoying your sight, and I think you really hit on THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE IN MUSIC EDUCATION. As a guitar player, you're right, I was able to get rudimentary ear training just by trying to play what sounded cool to me of the songs I new. My ear is no where near 'trained' beyond roots major, minor, and I can pick out a melody usually in about 2 minutes if I hear it, which always seems like a long time to me. In just ONE week of dedicated ear training the difference is monumental. I've taught myself a bunch of theory over the past year without ever really just sitting down and training my ear. I'm really surprised by your comment that a lot of jazz students wouldn't be able to play happy birthday off the top of their heads, is this exaggeration? People have always said I have a good ear, here and there, I think my problem is confidence. I just don't 'feel' like I'm playing good, even when I apparently am. Ear training and confidence should come before any theory. Unfortunately the ear comes along easier than the confidence. Keep up the good work buddy.

Comment by James G

Hi Rick. Thanks very much for this excellent site. I'm very impressed with the resources you've put together here and the efforts you've gone to. I'm also picking up my trumpet after a few too many years of letting it gather dust and am attempting to follow your approach i.e. training my ears. Thanks again for the site: it's great to have such a good place to get inspiration from.

Comment by Norman H.

Rick -

You are on to something. The "gap" between jazz theory and jazz education, and the reality of what jazz improvisors actually do has a parallel - in my opinion - in the world of language education. Language teachers actually teach language "theory" - verbs, conjugations, sentence structures. Learning a language is something quite different than that. At this point in my life - 53 years old - I have learned three languages, but the language theory approach never worked for me. After many years of frustration as a youth and young adult, I dropped learning languages. Years later however, I discovered a "fun" way of learning languages that had nothing to do with the theory/grammer parts of the language. I used "feelings" and my ears, and learned how to use simple everyday encounters to practice. After picking up the trumpet again 10 years ago, I am exploring a parallel approach to my language success. I am having more fun, and playing better than ever. Still a ways to go, but the "patterns" and "cord analysis" are of limited use in my opinion. I know that as I develop my own organic knowledge of fingerings and sounds, these small "islands of expertise" will grow, until I have enough skills to express what I am "singing" on the trumpet itself. So it is when I start learning a language - I develop little islands of conversation that slowly I master (how are you? I am fine. Nice shirt. Thank you). Then the islands grow larger; then they begin to touch; then fluency starts.

Thank you for your super contributions to the conversation with which so many people want to engage.

- Norman

I would like to post a few paragraphs from Ted Greene´s Jazz Guitar Single Note soloing book, which I consider inspiring for all of us trying to improv jazz:


3)Please, please have patience.

5)Do listen to jazz. A good part of the way we learn music is the same way we learn to speak a language: by osmosis, that is, by being exposed to the sounds until ther become part of us, until they seep in, little by little. That is une reason why there are so many musical examples in my book - to virtually flood your brain with the sound of jazz until they become a part of you, anf flow out of your naturally. Have you ever noticedhow whole sentences flow from your mouth without you having to think of each separate word before you speak? Well, it happens the same way in music - if you study it sincerely, and really work at it.


Ted Greene.

This for me is exactly what your method is doing Rick, Showing everyone the path to create melodic sentences and learning the language by teaching us how express, not by playing single notes that don´t say anything.

Hopefully all of us will help each other by sharing our own experiences and say what has helped us become better.


Roberto A. Rios

Comment by Felix

Back in my youth we had jam sessions. I used to get insulted at the sessions. Now for many people this discourages them and makes them give up, but on the contrary it made me more determined to be a better musician. Older cats could be very mean. I was young enough to be their son. I was born in 1950 and most of the old timers were young adults in 1950. WW2 ended in 1945 and they were coming into their prime years. The standards were being played on the radio. I had to learn all of this music from odd sources. I read and memorized 200 tunes from the Real Book, and 200 tunes from the Black Book as well as recordings. I did not get hip to Jazz until I was in high school which was from 1964 to 1968. Motown and popular dance music was the music of my teenaged years. I was never good enough or adequate to work regularly with those guys. By the time I had become a journeyman, ( I got my first musician's union card in 1968) those cats were all dead. What kept me motivated was being told I was not good enough. I knew I could play gospel music well and I stayed in demand. I made a lot of money playing piano and organ for churches. Too bad we don't have jam sessions anymore. They provided invaluable experience for me.

Excellent blog. I have linked to it on my own. Thanks for posting!

Comment by RC

I like you have trouble and struggle when playing an adlib solo (30 years of not playing have hurt my efforts). The one thing that you must be able to do is listen and hear yourself and the bands chord progression. If everyone plays their part as written and you have chord structures that you understand you can play any 1st, 3rd or 5th of the chord with little trouble. Then you could play a 7th or 9th augment or diminish (I know theory again). But if any one background player plays a wrong note it changes that perfect enviroment into something that will deffinately not sound good. Let the rythm section and any back up instrumentation make the first move, let them give you the chord then you fill to it. Lay back and enjoy the "ride" it's your time to shine. Being completely proficiant and one with your horn will definately help. That is where I'm strugglin not enough lip to mouthpiece time these days. You must hear the note before you play it and most importantly you must know how to get the one you hear in your head out the end of the horn. Good luck and happy practicing, cause that is what it takes.

Comment by Bryce

I'm a high school trumpet player in the advanced jazz band, I'm no great soloist but some advice I can give is the importance of learning scales:major, minors, blues, pentatonics of each scale... this will help your improving amazingly. I used to just be terrible and play whole notes out of being scared and uneducated. but finally this year I am taking a college coarse in music theory and harmony. It is making me a better soloist (with practice) it is incredible. and practice is the big think... you need to know for yourself which notes to go for and which ones to shy away from, which accidentals you should put in at certain points of the beat... I for myself have a lot to learn still and all i can say is practice, practice, practice!!!

Comment by Bren

You don't need a great voice and you don't need music theory to sing, hum and scat a tune in the bathroom. Playing an instrument needs to be like that. This requires plenty of practice, listening and experimenting.

If you want to get out of the bathroom and into public performance, you had better train yourself to produce good quality sound and if you want to play unfamiliar pieces with others, you will need band training. Likewise, you need to be able to read music if you want to play unfamiliar pieces at all.

If you want to write music, you will need theory (or someone to do the technical bit for you).

Likewise, if you want to arrange music with others you will need plenty of theory.

But like has been said, the key to being a musician is the ability to play by ear, just like when you sing, hum or scat a tune in the bathroom.

Comment by Chris

Yours is an approach that really helped me out. Thank you for the website and the ear training tools. And for providing them for free.

Comment by Sherwood Botsford

While you are a jazz player, your post here I think reflects all types of musicians.

When I was younger, I played flute. Not well. I found that if I could whistle a melody, I could play it. Might make mistakes the first run through if it used flats and sharps.

As a piano student, I was totally unable to play anything at my current level unless I knew what it sounded like.


Training playing by ear:

I think that there are two paths here:

* You need a large library of licks, short melodies, ranging from Twinkle Twinkle little star and working up.

* Software that plays the melody, and you echo it back.

Now that same software can be used for sight training: It shows you a score, and asks you to play it. When you miss a note, what you played shows up in red. This is easiest with a midi controller, but a mike, and fast forrier transforms can do this with an accoustic instrument too. Hide the titles of the song.

That same software can be used to pose improv exercises. You get the lick. Now improvize an acompaniment to it. You get the melody playing in a loop. Improvise a harmony. Improvise a descant.

So path one: Echo back a tune.

Path 2: improvise around a tune.

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