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

July 6, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 3 Comments

Learning to improvise - vocal improv



During my early playing years, I never gave any thought to vocal improvisation (also known as scat singing). I was totally focused on becoming a good trumpet player, and I figured everything I practiced should be played on the trumpet.

Today, however, I view vocal improvisation as an essential part of my practice routine. Actually, I don't even consider it part of my routine, as it's something that just happens throughout the day. If I hear a song and I'm feeling the groove, I can't help but sing along. Where I might have once sung words (assuming the song has words), I now sing harmonies and/or improvised rhythms and melodies. I do this with all styles of music, not just jazz. Improvisation is improvisation...

There are several benefits to vocal improvisation, however a personal favorite is the fact that it doesn't wear out my chops. I can work on any aspect of improvisation, from rhythm to motif development, and I never have to worry about using too much pressure!


You've most likely been singing songs your entire life, and you've probably done so rather effortlessly. This natural ease we have using our voices should be taken advantage of when learning to improvise. I'd go so far as to say that you shouldn't even bother trying to improvise on your horn until you've achieved a basic level of competency with vocal improvisation. I mean, if you can't sing a simple blues solo, what makes you think you can play one on a relatively unfamiliar instrument?


There are a lot of tunes that I think I know, especially when I'm singing the words. A song like "Autumn In New York" is a good example. If I sing/fake the words I can easily fool myself into thinking I'm getting all of the pitches correct. But, if I sing the melody without saying the words, I instantly notice that some of the pitches aren't quite right. I'm close to the right notes, but not close enough to truly know the tune. Until I am able to sing the melody accurately, I won't know the tune well enough to play it perfectly by ear. Similarly, if I can't scat sing a decent solo, then I don't have the familiarity necessary to improvise well on my instrument.


As you work on vocal improvisation, you should ask yourself whether or not you can play the ideas that you're singing. If the ideas are within your technical limits as a player, but you can't play them on your horn, what's the explanation? I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with theory. Vocal improvisation is yet another way we can identify the limitations we have in our ability to play by ear.


Before I began working on ear training, my solos were almost as much of a surprise to me as they were to my audience. I meandered through my solos, picking notes because I knew they theoretically fit into a particular chord signature. The notes might have been "correct" for the chord, but I never knew exactly how each note was going to sound until I played it. I found this lack of control to be terribly frustrating. How could I effectively express my ideas if I couldn't accurately play the notes on my horn? And, how could I develop new and better ideas if I couldn't play my existing ideas?

Ear training is the obvious solution to this issue, but it's a (very) gradual process. The good news is that if you struggle to play by ear, you can use vocal improvisation to work on the musical aspects of your playing (motif development, rhythm, inside/outside playing, etc) while you work on ear training exercises to help you play those ideas on your horn. The added control you have with your voice can advance your progress much faster than if you try to play everything on your instrument, and as your ability to play by ear improves, you'll be that much farther ahead.


Vocal improvisation is a great test to make sure you actually have good spontaneous ideas. On your horn, there's sometimes a tendency to fall back on pre-learned patterns and/or notes that you're simply plucking from your knowledge of theory. While singing, you'll probably be less likely to play those same patterns, and, unless you have perfect pitch, you won't be thinking about note names or chord theory to determine which notes to sing. It's just you and the music!


Following are a few exercises that should get you started with vocal improvisation.


If you haven't done much singing, it might be best to start out by singing jazz tunes. Sing the melodies of any tune that you know. This exercise will get you used to singing precise notes and intervals. It's also great way to learn tunes. If you learn a tune well enough that you can sing it effortlessly, you'll likely remember it a lot longer then you would if you simply memorize the note names/fingering.


When working on ear training, sing back the intervals and melodies before you attempt to play them on your horn. Singing first will ensure that you've accurately heard each note before attempting to play the notes on your horn. As with singing tunes, forcing yourself to be accurate in your pitches while singing will improve your musical accuracy when you try to play the ideas in your head.


Try vocal improvisation with the exercises presented in the rhythm and motif guides. Pay close attention to articulation and phrasing. You should approach singing with the same intensity and focus that you'd use if you were playing your primary instrument. If you're sloppy while singing, you'll probably be sloppy on your horn too.

Comment by Chuck Langford

I just found your site and I have to say I love it. You have some really great insights here and I thank you.

I've never even considered vocal improvisation and I'm excited about it because I do a lot of driving and this is something I could practice in the car. Thanks!

Comment by Felix

I have had many of the same kinds of experiences you guys had. I was doodling when I was soloing. I had memorized the changes most of the time although I could play basic patterns by ear. Formula's like I VI II V I and I IV V I were progressions I could prehear. I honestly did not know how my music was going to turn out any more than the listener. I knew a lot of patterns because I knew all 7 seven cycles in all 12 keys. I could play the "Giant Steps" cycle in all twelve keys too. Still I kept loosing work with the cats who were working the most. I just did not know enough tunes, and I knew at least 50 tunes and all of these patterns.

Now with Gospel music I had another problem and that was because I had worked to learn chords as solid qualities and not as individual pitches. I would listen to hear if the chord was Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished, Dominant, Extended, Altered ect... but that is not how voices work. Voices are concerned with voice leading and vocal parts. I had to learn which pitches to hold over to the next chord and which pitches to move to the next chord. I am still working at this and have gotten better over time through sight singing and making sure that I own each interval within a two octave range. Singing is the best tool I ever used to check my ear. I wish I had taken choir when I was in public school but it just seemed too sissy and feminine to me. I was in the marching band, and took piano lessons but never really had an eye, ear, hand, and voice coordination. Now I can sing parts by ear and can teach them to others fairly accurately but I still screw up sometimes. I do not have it completely down yet but I have the rest of my life to do it. I think the choirs I work with appreciate that my skills are good and getting better. They are paying me.

Comment by CLIVE FYNN

I read every thing you made this site for me that's how I feel I needed this so much open my eys thank you

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