Teaching Improvisation by Ear

Teaching Improvisation by Ear

Improvisation is Scary

The excitement of playing in an environment with “no wrong notes” quickly turns ugly when a student realizes that only the “right” notes will create a solo that sounds like their favorite artist. Students should have an introduction to improvisation (jazz or otherwise) that generates confidence while also developing musicianship and ear training.

Rather than being force-fed music theory (“Play these notes over this chord!”), students will develop better improvisation skills if they are able to use their ears to hear what they want to play instead of concentrating on every change. Generating a musical conversation with motives and phrasing will ultimately result in more fluent musicians and improvisers. Professional improvisers aren’t guessing, and they aren’t puzzling their way through the changes as though improvisation were a game of Tetris. Soloists with excellent motivic development, phrasing, and musicality are successful because their ears tell them what to play.

So how do we approach teaching improvisation? Here’s a basic, flexible exercise that will get your entire class working on ear training and improvisation simultaneously.

The Exercise

Arrange students in a circle. Explain that you are going to “pass” a one measure musical figure to the next person in the circle by playing it twice, with a one measure rest in between.. Once the second person in the circle has heard the figure twice, they should (in rhythm!) repeat it exactly. If they don’t get it, rest for one measure and try again. Once the figure is correct, the second person will play a new figure and “pass” it to the third person, and so on around the circle. Notated, the exercise looks like this:

Teaching Improvisation by Ear

The best part of this game is that it can be customized for students at any skill level by controlling pitch and rhythm. Even beginner students can get around the circle without too much trouble when the requirements are “play exactly a whole note” and “your note must be from the Bb major scale.” Students can then advance to two half notes, four quarter notes, any combination of quarter notes and quarter rests, minor keys, alternative modes, and more.

High school jazz band students, for example, could do quarter notes, swung eighth notes, and triplets, but only on the notes of an C7 chord. Now students are practicing swing feel and part of a ii-V progression. However, rather than running patterns against an Aebersold track, they are listening to each other and generating their own ideas for use in a full-length improvisation.

improv exercise example 2

While this rhythm may be difficult for some high schoolers to recognize by ear, knowing that the only possible notes in the example are C-E-G-Bb keeps the example manageable.

The Benefits

This exercise deliberately connects improvisation to ear training. However, it offers many other benefits as well. The exercise:

  • Encourages all students to improvise by generating their own musical idea to pass on to the next student. In this way even the most hesitant students are exposed to improvisation.
  • Focuses on specific concepts — for example, odd meters can be practiced by passing a measure in a challenging meter (but with simple pitches!) around the circle.
  • Fosters sound rhythmic foundations by putting an empty bar between each attempt that students must count.
  • Teaches students melodic dictation — plus, having them reproduce dictation on their primary instruments generates an ear to arm/fingers/lips connection.
  • Helps students internalize the idea that improvisation (and music composition in general) is the result of collaboration and conversation with other musicians.
  • Introduces transcription (an important tool for advanced improvisers) by having students essentially transcribe short solos from their peers.

But the biggest reason that this exercise has been so successful for me as both a player and an educator is its flexibility. I’ve used this exercise in private lessons with a single student and with a 20 piece jazz ensemble. I’ve used this exercise with flutes, cellos, and more. It’s an inclusive approach to teaching jazz improvisation that engages students with a game-like exercise.


Here are some additional ways I’ve customized the exercise:

  • Have the rhythm section play behind the improvisers. This can help improvisers with time and pulse and gets more students playing at once. If your students are having trouble, a metronome can also come in handy!
  • Use a progression. Limit the rhythmic options (only quarter notes and quarter rests) but have the exercise use two bar segments that mirror a progression in a piece the group is performing. This is particularly effective for teaching students to improvise over a bridge or B section.
  • Have each student start their original figure on the same note that the previous student ended on.
  • Have each student’s original figure use the same melodic shape (leap up, step down, step down, for example). This trains motivic development in a deliberate, organic way.
  • Use the same “passing” concept to practice articulation and intonation. In this case, the figure is not improvised, but the goal of “matching” is applied to technique.

Students should fall in love in improvising because it offers an unparalleled opportunity for creativity, not because there is a “right” answer. Teaching techniques that encourage creativity help teachers push students in that direction. I hope this exercise helps your students feel more confident improvising and trains their ears!

Ryan SargentIn addition to his role as MakeMusic’s social media manager, Ryan Sargent is an active teacher and performer in the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area, and a member of the music faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

A graduate of Baylor University, he has studied jazz composition and improvisation with Art Lande and Alex Parker.

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