Improve Your Jazz Improv

by Martan Mann


It’s one thing to improvise. But, what happens when your improv gets boring, stale and repetitive? What are some ways to “restart the engine”? In my own personal playing, I’m always looking for ways to “renew the spark”. I realize that my best jazz improvization is when I literally surprise myself with some creative playing. In those moments, it seems like I’m not directing the playing, the piano is “playing me”. The question is how do we prepare ourselves to foster creative improvisation?

Below are some step-by-step methods to achieve this goal.

Step One: Practice Repetitive Exercises

One way that I freshen up my playing is to practice repetitive exercises. This automatically starts your hands playing if fresh directions.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Playing scales and arpeggios that I haven’t practiced in awhile.
  2. Practice a course such as Jerry Bergonzi’s books to practice pentatonics, diminished, II,V,Is etc. Of course
  3. Practice the lines in all keys.
  4. Practicing various progressions, using good voice leading, in all keys is helpful.

Step Two: Come To Terms With The Corpus Callosum.

The corpus callosum is a gland in the center of our brain which coordinated the left and right sides of our body and brain. I believe that when I’m being truly creative and spontaneous, I’m thinking “under my hands”. That means that I’m thinking more like an arranger and less like a pianist with two hands.

The problem is that the corpus callosum directs us to think in terms of left and right. It takes real training to finally think of music as a whole.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Practice playing melodies alternating between the fingers/hands.
  2. Deliberately listen to the sound with both ears (stereo).
  3. Practice playing chords by crossing your hands over. You can also split up chords with two hands.
  4. Develop time against time independence (hear as one-time).
  5. Occasionally look away from your hands.

Step Three: Deliberately Change It Up

If you are like me, I often play tunes with the same style and key. This can definitely lead to “boring playing”. To counter this, I love to play tunes in unexpected ways.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Play in a different key.
  2. Change from major to minor (or the reverse).
  3. Change the individual chords.
  4. Change the melody.
  5. Change style. (I could change from ballad to upbeat or swing to bossa, etc.)
  6. Change the form (ie. start the tune on the bridge or play an extended coda)
  7. Change the music parameters.
  8. Play lots of choruses. This forces you to reach.
  9. Learn new tunes!!!

Step Four: Fly High

Here is a “trick” that I often use to free up my playing: I “view” the tune from a “higher” perspective. This is like pulling back from a map to see more territory. In other words, instead of simply thinking from chord to chord, I deliberately think of playing more measures (or more chord changes).

Step Five: Play What You Are Singing

Train your hands and fingers to exactly play what you are singing. Don’t let the fingers “lead”. Singing is natural and spontaneous. It helps guide your fingers into new areas.

Step Six: Develop Extended Intros

One idea that I use in solo piano playing is to start with a different, fresh and extended intro. This could include playing an extended groove. Often this leads to a new look at the tune you are playing.

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