The Number One Fear about teaching Improvisation? Improvisation!

When I do a workshop or talk to another music teacher, I often ask, “What is your biggest fear about teaching jazz?” The number one answer I get is “Improvisation.” Here’s the way a few people put it at a recent workshop I gave:

  • My biggest fear about teaching jazz? Improv.

  • Teaching beginning improvisation

  • Student fear

  • Getting kids to feel comfortable with improvising

  • Not being able to help students (and myself) personify the music (Ed. We’ll talk about this more in depth later on.)

  • I want the students to at least try to incorporate the sophisticated theory I’m presenting them, but I fear a) they are inexperienced and overwhelmed or  b) afraid to play alone (which is a big part of jazz)


Lots of folks say that improvisation is the hardest thing to teach in a jazz band. Many times we’re led to believe in these old ideas, which just become stale excuses. Have you heard any of these or have you said any of these?

  • “It’s hard to teach improvisation”

  • “I don’t have time to teach improvisation”

  • (To your students) “You’re all welcome to try it…”  BUT

  • “Some just get it and some just don’t”


Many of us, including me, grew up in a system where “those who got it” were the ones who soloed.

  • Did they just have an innate ability that others lacked?

  • Did they have “Better Ears” or were they working on jazz with a private teacher?

  • Did they somehow have some previous experience with jazz improv?

  • OR, Were they just braver, or more open and willing to try something new?


Interestingly, when I asked the same teachers at that workshop this question, I got very similar answers. “What is your biggest fear about playing jazz yourself?”

  • Improvisation

  • Not being able to improv well enough to show the kids

  • Experience/my ability to accurately demonstrate   


Obviously, this is a big topic which cause many folks some big discomfort. This is one of the reasons I created my book, “Rhythm First! A Beginners Guide to Jazz Improvisation.” It’s also why I created this website and the teaching tools I’m sharing here and in the book.


Through the articles posted here and the community dialog I hope we can share, my goal is to give you some concrete steps to take to reduce your fear and your students’ fear of improvisation. That’s why I’m calling this project, “No Rules, No Fear Jazz.”


For now, here are a few simple ideas you can take away today that might change the way you think about teaching jazz, so you can reduce the fear:


  • Break it down into manageable steps for students, like using a method book.

  • Gently take them out of their comfort zone, giving them opportunities to succeed and build confidence

  • Let kids improvise at the same time at first

  • Give them many safe opportunities in rehearsal and home practice before having them play on a program

  • Model for students a focus on process, rather than product

  • Combine aural and visual teaching:

    • Show them jazz figures written out, include articulation marks at first, while they hear a model of the sound

    • Use Call/response at first, then what I call: Imitation, Variation, and Conversation (Clark Terry said: “Imitate, Assimilate, then Innovate”)

  • Teach them how to teach themselves

We’ll go into much more detail about most of these teaching ideas in other blog posts.

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