I'm giving a 6 times 3 hours workshop on musical improvisation. The participants are 5 to 10 mostly classical musicians, skilled with their instruments, slightly interested in jazz, and all keen on improvisation. (Assume that I'm good at improvising solo and in a group, and that I can teach all sorts of music theory.)

  1. How do I entertain such an amount of people? They are enough to form at least two jazz ensembles from them, but I'm only one teacher. Are there good introductory group games to learn improvisation that don't bore people who are already good at playing their instrument?
  2. What pieces of theory are important? Right now I'm thinking of teaching them how to play and recognise the different modes (ionian, dorian etc.), but I'm probably missing something.

I'm sorry that this is a little vague since I haven't said anything about what style of improvisation I want to do. Let's say that it should be loosely jazz-based, accessible for people with a background in classical european music. So funk, blues, Yann Thiersen style, impressionism would all be ok, asian music probably not.

  • 2
    This seems really, really broad.
    – user28
    Dec 24, 2015 at 0:02
  • @MatthewRead, indeed. Maybe we can collect answers in a Community Wiki style.
    – Turion
    Dec 24, 2015 at 8:55

5 Answers 5


I think an excellent piece to start with is Duke Ellington's C-Jam Blues. It's about the simplest 12-bar blues you're ever going to find.

Start by discussing the overall form of the piece: play through the head, play solos over the changes, repeat the head, stop. You could go over a few styles of soloing like strict-pentatonics, full blues scales, various modes over the changes, trading eights, bass solo, drum solo. Then spend the whole remaining first class on that song. Don't even stop. Just keep the rhythm section going, and take a chorus or two between each soloist to point out good things the previous soloist did or throw out ideas no one has tried yet.

I feel that this could make for a really solid start. But I'm not sure where to go from there for the remaining five classes. A really ambitious curriculum might end up with free-jazz in the last class. Choosing a final piece might make the intermediate ones easier to select.

Or you could develop time-wise and maybe do an early Rock-n-Roll or Rhythm-n-Blues tune like Johnny B. Goode or Twist-n-Shout.

...all of these ideas so far are for working with the full group. But you may want to break into smaller ensembles to work on communication and listening. This may depend upon the space you have to work with.

  • 1
    Super idea. A guess a lot of classical musos may not be aware of the 12 bar blues sequence, so a great start. Pents and blues will work well, not forgetting major as well as minor pent. Ostinati for two or three musos to keep playing goes down well. This can be swapped around the group. Trading fours, etc., should come towards the end of the whole thing.
    – Tim
    Dec 23, 2015 at 10:26
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    I would add that they should learn C-Jam Blues and progression in all 12 keys, being able to arpeggiate the chord changes. A good introductory class might be having them focus on listening by having musical "conversations" either in groups or as a full group. You can make up rules like "only 4 people improvising at a maximum time" using only body percussion. Imposing limits / frameworks forces people to be creative. Arbitrary or ridiculous rules ("must use an animal sound") can get people to think differently, thus, more creatively, thus improvising will be more fun. Dec 23, 2015 at 15:22
  • @jjmusicnotes, that's the kind of ideas I'm hoping for, care to write an answer?
    – Turion
    Dec 23, 2015 at 18:33
  • @luserdroog, thanks a lot, I already have some song material to improvise over. I'd prefer modal jazz without scale changes for absolute beginners, because in the C-Jam Blues they'll often play E in the F7 part. But I'd be interested whether you think that blues would still be fun to play on violins.
    – Turion
    Dec 23, 2015 at 18:37
  • @Turion I'll try to elaborate tomorrow if I get some time. Something a little bit more simple for soloing would be So What? - people just move over two different minor-7 chords; it's pretty straightforward. The big thing to remember about all this is that you're teaching people to think creativelyas opposed to specific jazz techniques. Anything I write out would be through that vein - focusing on improvising in a general sense. Dec 23, 2015 at 23:26

I'm coming at this from a completely different perspective, but I'll throw my idea out there because it sounds like you need several different activities.

There is a tradition of improvisation and ornamentation in baroque music that might feel more accessible to classical musicians. There's lots of good information out there on this, but here's an example and here's another one. You could have the musicians start with a simple melody or even a scale and add trills, grace notes, divisions, etc. La Fontegara by Ganassi is really thorough and offers plenty of examples, but I'm having trouble tracking down a copy of this on the internet.

There are also numerous examples of ground basses in classical music. La Folia is one example, although probably not one familiar to most of these musicians. It would be an interesting exercise to have them listen to an example of a piece written based on the Folia and then have them do the same.

While this type of baroque music is not typically familiar to modern "classical" musicians, it might help them to see examples of improvisation in their "tradition." Sometimes classical musicians approach improvisation with an attitude that classical musicians just don't do that, and historically nothing could be further from the truth.


I guess it depends on time and level of skill.

For a beginner's introduction, I'd start with recording a rhythm track of 12-bar blues, teach the class the pentatonic scales and blues cliche's.

For a masterclass, take a look at the question Does improvisation in the classical idiom differ significantly from jazz and folk improvisation?.

See if you can get the books

  • "Improvising: How to Master the Art" by Gerre Hancock which explains improvisation in the classical idiom
  • "The Guitarist's Guide to Composing and Improvising" by Jon Damien which introduces an analytical method of improvising that doesn't just work with guitarists.

For the masterclass sample tunes to improvise over I would suggest two Miles Davis modal tunes:

  • All Blues
  • So What

Play the tunes from the original recordings for the class. Then teach them the chords and key centers for the tunes. Introduce the concept of motifs and jazz cliche's/riffs. Finally teach the pentatonic scales for each key center.

For both the beginners and the masterclass, break the students up into groups of 3 or 4, preferably in separate rooms. Have a backing track of one of the tunes play. Band in a Box, Jamey Aebersold or Music Minus One should suit for the tracks. In these groups, play a version of the band Phish's Circle Game. For the details see the question Does Phish base their improvisational style off of any predetermined techniques?


At Turion's request, I'm writing out a few ideas for conducting improvisation classes. If using my suggestions, they should be approached and reinforced cyclically, as they all support one another. For the sake of brevity, I'll provide one example for each.

  • Listening / "Talking"
  • Call & Response
  • Response & Variation
  • Variation & Extension
  • Knowing Your Instrument
  • Thinking Creatively - imposing limitations

Listening / "Talking"

Just as in a real conversation, you can't just talk whenever you feel like it, the same is true for music. If you're constantly interrupting who you're talking to, no one will want to talk with you. Same for music.

Idea for class Give your students a prompt; they can only speak when you point to them; you gradually get faster until it falls apart. You can extend this activity by having a student be a pointer or by having them take turns with no one assisting / pointing. This activity can also be extended by using instruments / body percussion instead of voices.

Call & Response

Brainstorm situations where somebody might respond to you (saying "hello", a phone call, waving to a neighbor, etc). A response can be a direct quote or a related acknowledgement of what people just heard.

Idea for class Divide into groups of two, have students practice listening to a statement from their partner, and try repeating exactly back to the other with the same vocal inflections. For a group, play "telephone" by whispering a word or phrase in a student's ear. They must continue this all the way around the circle until it gets back to you. If it changes, you get a point, if it's the same, they get a point. Activity is easily extended by substituting speaking for instruments with the same concept - you can even still have them play telephone.

Response & Variation Very similar to the previous technique, the only difference here is that instead of reproducing the sound exactly, students add a tiny variation to it to make it unique. The same activities can be done.

Variation & Extension Again, a graduated technique. Now, instead of just providing motivic variation, students are also tasked with extending their ideas through repetition.

Idea for class Depending on ability, a great piece for structured improvisation would be In C by Terry Riley, or some pieces by James Tenney.

Knowing Your Instrument

When improvising, your instrument should be an extension of you. If you're limited by your knowledge of your instrument, you'll be limited in your ability to improvise.

Idea for class Spend some time each class with students just fiddling around on their instruments. Encourage them to come up with five or ten unique sounds. Even if they only make one unique, new sound, that's still progress. Alternatively, you can give them a goal for more structure: "I want you to create a squeaky sound". This activity can be extended by having them create soundbanks, choosing 2-3 sounds, and then having an improvisation session where they can only use those sounds.

Thinking Creatively - imposing limitations

One of the difficult things about improvising / creating music is that there are simply too many options to choose from. Imposing limitations gives people something to push against, and pushing against something is where creativity comes from - you're forced to think differently.

Idea for class Your options for limitations are endless. You can limit the time people play, the sounds they can make, their dynamic, the number of people who can play, the instruments they can use, or any number of other variables you want to influence. Remember that for students, structured improvisation is almost always more successful than improvisation that is completely free.

Good luck.

  • 2
    Awesome. This is the kind of ideas I was hoping for. I will definitely use lots of these in the course. Hopefully I won't forget commenting here how it went.
    – Turion
    Dec 28, 2015 at 20:02
  • @Turion Hope you find them helpful; I use these ideas when I myself teach improvisation. Do let us know how it goes! Dec 28, 2015 at 21:52
  • 1
    @jjmusicnotes I think I found an orphaned account of yours. I think you can use the 'contact' link below and ask for them to merge the accounts. Feb 5, 2016 at 3:29
  • @luserdroog Wow, I can't believe you found this...yeah, I had an issue with email at the time and lost the account. I will have them merge the accounts; thank you for finding this. Feb 6, 2016 at 2:52

Improvisation is at its core completion of a melody. If I was to give a class on it I would take various famous melody as extracts and then I would look critically at what happens in them.

These extracts would form basis on the improvisation you do. Students would have to learn to listen attentively at the passage you play and then together you can think critically about the melody.

What is the rhythm? How can my improvisation build on the rhythm of the given passage? What are the chords in the each bar? How can my improvisation build on the chord usage? What is the form of the passage? Wave? Runs? Pyramid?

All these ideas or idioms in the given should form part of how the improvisation is played. Good improvisation is simply an further development of a musical idea.

It is analogous as to how you may write a creative writing exercise at school. You may be given an article and asked to write an essay on the given passage. You can be greatly creative in what you write but what you write can not completely ignore the given passage. So it also with musical improvisations.

If you think about how improvisation began in Jazz music it really teaches you how to approach it. As the story goes in the late nineteenth century the African American settlers in the US would get jobs at clubs and bars to play music.

They only knew a certain amount of music but was required to play extended lengths of time. So they had to learn to take the music they knew and make long extended songs out of it. So they learned to improvise and eventually it became ingrained in the style.

  • 1
    I disagree that improvisation is all about producing melodies. Improvising accompaniments is also an important part. And if you take Debussy, who composed a lot of his pieces based on improvisations, you'll see that it's possible to improvise beautiful music without melody. Otherwise, yes, good point, we should analyse improvisations and build on that.
    – Turion
    Dec 24, 2015 at 9:22
  • @NeilMeyer I also sincerely disagree with your assertions about improvisation, melodies, and jazz. Improvising has been around for milennia, jazz has only been around for about 130 years. Dec 28, 2015 at 16:18

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