Improv for Beginners - A simple tip to help those just starting out

Improv for Beginners

A lot of the tips that get posted on this site vary from intermediate to advanced concepts found in improvisation. While there are a few focused on beginners, I thought it would be good to post a few more to help those that are just starting out. If you are one of those that beginning improvisation is where you are at now, I would encourage you to go check out the category (For Beginners) to see some of the other posts in addition to the one below.

One of the big concerns I have heard from beginning improv students (and teachers of those students) is where do I begin? There is so much information out there it can be hard to find a good starting point. Do we start with scales? Theory? Transcribing? Let me give you my suggestion for where a beginner should start:

  1. Rhythm/Time
  2. Listening

Everything else you can work on, in my opinion, supplements those first two items. Here’s why: To have the proper sound, feel and phrasing you must have good rhythm/time. To have good rhythm/time you have to understand what is considered good by listening. #2 is something everyone should be doing already. Listen to your favorite players (old and new) and get their sound, phrasing, rhythm/time, articulation, use of space and ideas in your ear. Close your eyes and picture yourself there with them. How much should you listen? A lot. As a beginner what you listen to can help shape who you are as a musician and WILL eventually come out. Who you become as a musician is a combination of all the influences you have stored in your head.

#1 is something that can develop over time by listening AND playing rhythmic exercises. The exercise below is one that I like to use with beginners. This is also mentioned in my book Breaking the Monotony. Unless the beginner already has a pretty good sense of rhythm/time, they need to be exposed to good Jazz rhythms. This exercise takes a rhythmic example that the student plays while using any combination of the three notes listed.

Rhythm to be used:

Note choices:

Example of what this would look like over a simple Bb blues:

You can get into the theory later, but I find it is best when talking about notes to limit a beginner to 3 or 4 to start. Let them find out the different variations of what you can do with those notes on their own. Eventually they will become bored with those and will naturally want to expand their palette (although I have heard plenty of Jazz Giants do more with 3 or 4 notes then some do with all 12).

In my opinion, this is the best way to start beginners. This gets them started playing something and using their ears and rhythm to come up with ideas. As I mentioned at the top of this post, be sure to check out some of the other posts in the For Beginners category. In addition to those posts are my books you can find in my Digital Store as well as the Skype lessons/coaching I offer for all levels of players.

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About the Author jasonklobnak

Jason Klobnak is a versatile trumpet player that has been performing as an active musician, author, clinician, composer and educator. His band, J's Ruckus, is Denver's blend of Post-Bop, Soul, Gospel, and Hip-Hop. They perform infectious and up-lifting originals for audiences hungry for a memorable live experience. J's Ruckus released their latest album, Suck Less, in March of 2020 and their first EP, Sermons, in July of 2019. Both were recorded live in front of an audience. Suck Less was recorded to a packed auditorium at Arapahoe Community College's Waring Theater in Littleton, CO. Sermons was recorded in front of a sold out crowd at the Soiled Dove Underground.  The JKQ (the Jason Klobnak Quintet/Quartet) is Mr. Klobnak's Hammond B-3 centered groups. The JKQ released their third full-length album in March of 2018 called Friends & Family. It has been very well reviewed, on numerous Top 10 lists for Jazz radio stations across the country (including Denver's KUVO 89.3FM which named it May 2018's CD of the month), and in Jazzweek's Top 100. Each composition was written for specific family and close friends (that might as well be family). Their second album, New Chapter, was recorded in part thanks to the Pathways to Jazz Grant from the Boulder County Arts Alliance. In 2015 and 2016, New Chapter was in the Top 75 on the Jazzweek charts and on the Top 10 playlists for over a dozen radio stations worldwide. Their first album, Mountain, Move made the Best Recordings of 2013 list from AllAboutJazz.com by C. Michael Bailey. His very well reviewed Christmas single, Hark the Herald, in 2016 as part of a creative project with musicians James Roberson and Nathaniel Kearney Jr. Besides the JKQ, Mr. Klobnak is a B.A.C. (Best American Craftsman-custom trumpet), Denis Wick (mouthpiece and mutes) and Westone Audio endorsed artist (ES20 and Tru Customs). Mr. Klobnak has played and recorded for numerous groups ranging from jazz, soul/R&B, indie-rock/pop and gospel. In addition to performing, he has also written two improvisation-based books called Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose and Breaking the Monotony and is currently an adjunct professor and brass instructor at Arapahoe Community College. Mr. Klobnak holds a bachelor degree from Drake University (Des Moines, IA) and a Master’s degree from the University of Denver, Lamont School of Music (Denver, CO).

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