Can Jazz Improvisation Be Taught?

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Jazz Improvisation By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Jazz Improvisation
Last updated: 15/08/2017
Tags: improvisation, jazz

A common question that I have encountered is the issue of whether it is possible to teach someone to improvise in the jazz idiom. Whilst the ultimate goal is to be free to play one's original ideas created in the moment, it takes a great deal of preparation to get to this point. This is where I believe teachers can have an important role. They should not tell the student how to improvise, but rather provide them with the skills and knowledge necessary to find their own path.

Two very important foundations are harmonic knowledge and aural recognition. Contrary to some people's belief, these are not mutually exclusive! It is possible, and indeed preferable, to be able to 'play by ear', but also have the understanding of how the music is put together in a theoretical sense. These are skills which take a great deal of study, and having the right teacher can enable one to acquire them more quickly and efficiently. Once they are developed, the student is much freer to take inspiration directly from records and from hearing live jazz, as they are able to make sense of what they are hearing and apply it to their own playing. In this way, the teacher helps to ensure that the student has the requisite knowledge to begin paving their own way in the world of jazz improvisation.

Other important concepts that are perhaps more difficult to teach include melodic development and rhythmic feel/phrasing. It's hard to pin down exactly what constitutes a strong melody, and there are limitless variations of effective phrasing in an improvised jazz context. With that being said, there are certain principles regarding these subjects that are generally adhered to, and which teachers can help to make students aware of. For example, with the trumpet (which is my instrument), it is helpful to practise different styles of tonguing and a variety of slur-tongue combinations in order to emphasise certain notes to help the music 'swing'. By ensuring the student has these skills in place, they become equipped to phrase how they see fit, within the framework of an authentic jazz feel. Similarly with melodic development, principles regarding repetition, sequences, augmentation, diminution etc. can be studied in order to provide the improviser with a strong platform on which to innovate. Whilst all of these things can be self-taught, it is often helpful to have a mentor to guide the student through these concepts. An experienced, fresh set of ears can often identify issues with the student's playing in these areas that they haven't yet recognised themselves.

This I think is the fundamental point of the issue. Whilst the student must eventually strive to find their own voice in the world of jazz improvisation, the right teacher can ensure that the craft of the music is being taken care of, and provide guidance in order to overcome any issues that they are having. As Miles Davis once said, "Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself".


Sean Gibbs Trumpet Teacher (North London)

About The Author

I am a professional jazz trumpet player and composer/arranger based in Harringay. I'm also a dedicated and passionate teacher who can help you towards your musical goals, whatever they may be.




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