The Beginner’s Guide to Improvising

The Beginner’s Guide to Improvising

A Three-Step Process for your Beginner Jazz Students

By NAfME Member Richard Grennor

This article originally appeared on “Dr. Grennor’s Music Academy” blog.


There are two misconceptions about jazz that prevent many teachers from incorporating improvisation into their curriculum. One widely held belief is that students need to have all of your scales and chords memorized before they can try to improvise. A second misconception involves thinking of improvisation with the end in mind, rather than as a skill developed over time. As a result of these long-held beliefs, music educators are often reluctant to explore the art of improvisation with their students.

“We teach best what we most need to learn.”—Richard Bach

In today’s post, I’m sharing a three-step guide for teaching improvisation. This method can be used by all music teachers regardless of their level of experience with jazz. In fact, these concepts are used by professional jazz musicians to practice improvisation and can also be used with students who are at the very beginning of learning to play their instrument.

1. Set Limitations

We don’t want our beginning improvisers to be overwhelmed with trying to do too much all at once. This approach could lead to a great deal of frustration and cause someone to give up. By limiting our students to three notes (1-b3-4 of Concert Bb) we can help them to focus on the fundamental skills they need to begin to create their own solos, which is learning to play in time. Consequently, Bb-Db-Eb are the first three notes of a blues scale. Since the students will be confined to using these three notes, they will be able to focus their energy on learning to play “in-time” with the rhythm section, rather than worrying about lots of fingerings and a bunch of note choices. 


Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash


2. Choose the Accompaniment

The next step is to choose the type of accompaniment. The accompaniment can be your jazz ensemble drummer playing a simple swing feel, a play-along recording, a metronome, a drum loop, or no accompaniment at all. If you use a play-along, be sure to select the 1-b3-4 of the scale in the correct key of the backing track for each transposing instrument.

Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash


3. Improvise

Help your students improvise using the three-note limitations. Encourage your students to begin their solos by playing a few notes and a variety of rhythms with lots of space in-between. Remind the students to avoid playing too much. Space is an important part of any good solo. Reassure your students by emphasizing that they take time to enjoy making their own music, rather than worrying about impressing their friends. Instead, the focus of this improvisation exercise is to concentrate on the rhythm and to learn to play “in-time” along with the accompaniment. 

Figure 1.1 Sample Student Improvisation


About the author:

music educatorRichard Grennor, Ed.D. has been teaching instrumental music in New Jersey to students of all ages and grade levels for 16 years. He holds a B.A. degree in Music Education from Kean University, and a M.A. in Educational Leadership from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Richard earned his Ed.D. degree from Nova Southeastern Universities -National Program for Educational Leaders.

Dr. Grennor has presented professional development workshops for the New Jersey Music Educators Association Summer Conference IX and research for the 55th Annual National Association for Music Education In-Service Conference. He is a certified by the National Judges Association as an Individual Music Analysis Judge and regularly adjudicates high school music competitions. Dr. Grennor served as the woodwind specialist judge for the 2017 Tournament of Bands Atlantic Coast Championships held at Hershey Park Stadium, PA.

Read more about Richard Grennor.


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