The #1 Thing You Need to Do To Become a Great Improviser

I’m seeing a trend in adult  students that I have taught over the last 10 years and wanted to write about it.  The #1 thing that most students young and old want to improve is their ability to improvise well.   Many times, I ask the students what their practice routine is like and I get answers similar to this:

Student-“Well, I only have an hour a day to practice so I usually spend about 10-15 minutes on long tones. Then I continue to warm up by running through some assorted scales.  Then I do some reading from a jazz etude book. Then I work on some technical passages with a metronome to increase my speed or read from a transcription.  Lately, I have also been spending time on the overtone series and altissimo practice also.  Then if I have any time left I will play a tune with an Aebersold track…………”

Me-“So in an average day, how much time do you spend actually improvising on the saxophone?”

Student-“Ummmmm……. I never thought about that before………Honestly, not much.  If any, maybe 5 minutes at the most……….”

It’s no exaggeration when I say 90% of my adult students give an answer similar to the answers above.  Do you see what the issue is here? The #1 thing students want to be good at is improvisation but the one thing they spend the least amount of time doing…….improvising!

Now, when I talk more about this with the student, I find that I get many similar responses:

  • Well, I have too much to practice and can’t fit it all in…..
  • I feel that I’m really bad at it so when I do it I get frustrated……..
  • I find it really hard!  I can’t seem to come up with any ideas……….
  • I feel like it’s fun and all that but I’m not really practicing but just goofin’ around.  I need to stick to an organized practice routine or I won’t get any better……

If you want to get better at improvising you have to spend a good deal of your practice time improvising.  I can honestly say that 90% of my practice everyday is spent improvising.  I put on a play along, funk grooves, the radio or just play acapella and just use whatever concept I am working on while improvising.  This morning,  I was working on a  chromatic pattern trying to get my technique smooth and after 10 minutes thought “Let me try this with some music and see how it sounds.  Let’s see if I can get into the idea and out of it smoothly.”  I put on a random funk groove in B minor and then spent the next 45 minutes jammin’ over that groove.  What started out as a technical exercise was now being used in a musical setting.  Not only that, but I was coming up with hundreds of different ways to use the pattern over that B minor groove.  I was coming up with different rhythms, different combinations of the notes, different directions of the pattern, different intervallic combinations (instead of just chromatic I started trying to do it in whole tones, minor thirds, circle of 5ths, etc…….I felt great by the end!

Why did I feel great?  Well think about it, instead of just practicing my chromatic pattern up and down the horn with a metronome I was flexing all my musical muscles while playing it to that groove.  I was working on:

  • My time. Locking my lines into the groove of the song.
  • Different rhythmic ideas-Offbeats,8th notes,triplets,16th notes,odd meters over the time
  • My expression-making the ideas sound as good as I could. Playing ideas over and over figuring out the best way to bend the notes, articulate the notes,etc…….
  • My ear-making sure I was in tune, listening to how the lines wanted to resolve. Trying different resolutions. Trying different tensions and recognizing the dissonance and where the notes wanted to go.
  • The full range of the horn-While improvising I went up into the altissimo and down in to the low notes of the horn
  • My sound-thinking about my sound, does it sound good, can I make it sound better, is it a full fat sound that fills the room, etc…..
  • And lastly and most importantly CREATIVITY-the whole 45 minutes I’m flexing my creative muscles and seeing what I can do with the concepts and ideas.

All these things are pulled into the equation when you are practicing improvisation.

So, although it might sound like a straight forward common sense  idea, I have found that the majority of students out there are not dedicating the time they should to actually improvising.  I think there can me many reason why and you have to do some contemplating yourself to figure out your reason or reasons.  One possibility is that many of these students find that practicing patterns from a book, or etudes, or classical studies, or charts, or scales is easy or shall I say “less taxing”.  Many of them are good at these things and many times while doing something we are good at we “feel” good about ourselves.  So human nature will tend to pull us towards those things that might make us feel good…….

I understand the feelings of  “this is hard”, “I’m not creative”, “I don’t know what to play”, “Everything I play sounds awful” ,”I stink”.  We have all had those thoughts and feelings.  People (who don’t play music) always tell me “You are so talented and gifted!  I wish I could have your ability to make stuff up on the spot like you do” but the truth is that I wasn’t born with this talent. I remember years and years of frustration where I couldn’t come up with stuff to play.  How did I overcome those thoughts and feelings.  I improvised!  I spent hours everyday playing with records.  Sometimes trying to copy the person on the record, other times just going nuts and trying my own ideas. The process went something like this:

  • Year 1-1 of every 20 ideas I came up with was ok 19 were lame!
  • Year 2-1 of every 10 ideas was ok 9 were lame!
  • Year 3-1 of every 10 ideas was ok and one was pretty darn good I thought 8 were lame!
  • Year 4-2 of every 10 ideas I tried were ok 2 were pretty darn good 6 were lame!
  • Year 5-3 of every 10 ideas I tried were good one was amazing in my mind 1 was pretty good 5 were lame!
  • Year 6-4 idea of 10 were pretty good 2 were really good 4 were lame!

and so on, you see where I am going with this. The abilty to improvise is built through repetition, experimentation and just doing it as Nike says……..

I was talking to a Skype student about my blog article the other day called “Why is learning Jazz Patterns Foreign to Me?”  and the adult student was saying that although my analogy with music to a spoken language makes sense, speaking is so much easier than playing music and improvising.   Why is that?  Simple, think about it, you have been improvising with words day in and day out since you were 2 years old!  Every day you would wake up and start improvising using the words you knew?  Nothing was scripted, nothing was being read off of a page.  You were winging it in every situation you encountered.  As you went through life you made communication mistakes.  You said things wrong. You weren’t clear in what you were trying to say. People misunderstood you or didn’t understand you at all.  Most of the time we would just laugh those moments off and then try again to communicate. Usually, we would find a way of succeeding and getting our message across even if clumsily.   Through all of this process we were learning, practicing and becoming better communicators.  That is why speaking is so much easier for most of us.

One of the biggest obstacles to improvisation and creativity is negative self talk.  Ideally, it would be best to have a learning environment where you can make mistakes and then try again.  Laugh at yourself and try again.  No judgements, no taunting, no put downs about your abilities or jokes about your mistakes.  You just try again.  It’s a pretty sad parent or person that puts down a child who is learning to communicate and having trouble but unfortunately many of us do that to ourselves when practicing improvisation.  We play something that sounds bad and our minds become that kid on the bus who is making fun of another kid who has trouble talking.  We start telling ourselves:

  • You can’t do this…..
  • You stink at this…….
  • You’ll never be good at this……
  • This is a waste of time……
  • You’re not a creative person…….
  • You should just give up…….
  • Forget this……..You should practice from that book over there.  You’re good at that……..

One of the best breakthroughs in my life was recognizing this bad self talk going on in my head.  This negativity is the enemy of creativity. It will stifle it and if left to run rampant in your mind will put out your creative flame totally. I have had adult students who have carried these negative thoughts throughout their life and now as they start the saxophone these thoughts are blocking their attempts at creativity from the very beginning.  (The great thing about children is that most of them don’t have these negative thoughts yet ……although some surprisingly do…….) Learn to recognize this pattern and you can start to stop it right when it starts…….But that is a topic for another article.  Back to the topic!

The point of all this is that if you want to become a better improviser…………improvise! Have fun!!!


Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site


  1. I am an adult student guilty as charged. I want to be a better improviser, but same thing, I have all these reasons not to actually spend time improvising. I have found it difficult to memorize music, and have started spending time everyday doing this. It seems to help my improvisation. Would you say that time spent memorizing licks and 12 bar songs counts as improvisation? I do want to make the best use of my practice time I have set aside for improvisation………Thx……..Gary P.

    • Gary,
      Memorizing licks and songs is certainly valuable and needed but it is not improvisation. Improv is creating something new. When you are memorizing a lick you are not creating but copying. That being said, you can engage in improvisation by taking the lick you are memorizing and altering it. In fact, that is how I memorize lines. I play them over and over again and each time I alter them in different ways. Changing the rhythms, changing some notes, adding some notes, subtracting some notes. My goal is not just to learn one line I can use one way but rather to learn a line that I can then play 100 different ways. Hope that makes sense. I do spend time memorizing lines and patterns but I always then put on a play along and see how I can use these lines while improvising. Steve

  2. Avatar Steven Charles says

    While dealing with negative self-talk is something that’s never completely gone away, thankfully, being timid about improvising was never an issue, for improvising was how I first learned to play. I would just put records on, and:
    1. Play as if I’m soloing with the band, not so concerned with playing the song’s melody.
    2. Using the music, it’s feel, sometimes even just the rhythm, as a catalyst to fuel my experimentation, as others may use a metronome, to keep the time, while they practice whatever. I have never used one, preferring to use the time of music I’m hearing, or at least a drum loop, etc, because tick-tick-tick just doesn’t cut it…
    3. Instead of copying someone’s licks, I would often just pretend I was them, and play along as if I were them, taking on their feel, approach, style, but using my own ideas as to what to play. And this would not only be sax players, often it was guitarists, especially blues, & bluesy rock players, or singers, etc.
    4. I played all kinds of music, so that when I would sit in with bands of various genres, I could slide right in, playing with the appropriate feel. At one beach concert I played in Hawaii, I performed with a Rock band, R&B, Jazz, & even a Country band. And often, band members would be impressed that I knew when to play, when not to, and how to blow authentically within their genre.
    I know it was due to my “playing with” many great bands of varied genres, at home, in my room…

    I don’t think that today, it’s only adult students with this issue. I see lots of young very (maybe over-) educated players, with sometimes amazing technique & skills, but no real idea as to how to improvise in a way that tells a story, or really touches & moves their listeners. Instead, I hear a lot of very practiced patterns, licks, scales, etc, usually played at top speed…. which might work at an audition for a music school, but not in the real world.
    A lot of older, established Jazz artists have been commenting on this as well, some saying that improvising & developing one’s ear have been neglected, while there’s been too much emphasis on reading, technical virtuosity, copying solos & licks, etc., in other words too much head, not enough heart.
    Whenever I have someone in my band who’s hesitant about soloing on a particular tune, or just in general, I urge them to just go for it, and if they mess up, at least do it with authority, and to get their head & insecurities out of their way. Often, they’ll end up playing it fine, and even if one should make a mistake, the truth is, 98% of audiences won’t know it, especially if the player doesn’t skip a beat, and just keeps on playing. Or, the good ones, will take Miles’ advice, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” to heart, and make lemonade from a lemon…

  3. Avatar Walter George says

    This was a great article. Thank you, Steve.
    It is too bad there is not a print option next to each blog post article. This is one for sure that would be nice to print out and reread regularly. I was looking at another website and made a similar suggestion and instantly the print option was added to all their blog articles so it is doable without a tremendous effort.

    • Walter, I tried using that plugin the other site used and it broke something else on my site. I then tried another plugin that worked well but started putting random ads on the print page which I didn’t like at all. Whenever you ad a new plugin you are increasing the chance of conflict with the other elements of the site. As soon as I find one that works I will be sure to ad it. Steve

  4. This is a really really good article, Steve. Seriously. Thank you.

  5. Avatar Frank Maurer says

    Walter George,
    You can highlight the article by clicking the left mouse button at the beginning of the article and, keeping the mouse button pressed, pull the mouse down to the bottom of the article. You can then press CTRL + C to copy the article to the clipboard, then open your favorite word processor with a new document, click inside the document and the press CTRL + V. This will copy the article into the document and you can then print it out from there (all that assumes you are running Windows. I don’t know how to do it with a Mac)
    I use this all the time to keep copies of interesting jazz articles from the web.
    Probably should spend the time practicing (and improvising!) instead…

    Hope this helps.

  6. Avatar Alexander van Rose says

    Like many insightful statements this is so obvious once someone has said it – ONCE someone has said it!! You hit the nail right on the head, Steve. If only someone had banged me on the head with it years ago!

  7. Steve, this is a great piece. I think I fall into the 10% group in that I spend a significant amount of my time improvising. I try to divide my time between improvising, learning new tunes and then go into etudes, classical pieces, scales, etc. I try to take a multi-prong approach by learning a new tune, improvising over it, and incorporating technical, melodic and tone building into the new tune/improv. For example, if I’m working on a ballad, (which to me is the most challenging), focus on long tones within the structure of the ballad, then try to incorporate pleasing improv lines over the form. If I want to work on altissimo I’ll play along with a recording which has lots of it and try to emulate the player, i.e, Sanborn, Eric Marienthal, Gerald Albright. This approach works for me since I feel that I can address multiple areas of focus into one segment of my practice routine.
    Again, a great article. Thanks so much. I will pass it along to my students.

Speak Your Mind