How to Break Down Barriers in Jazz Improvisation by Setting Limits

If you’re like me, you’re probably always looking for ways to play better improvised solos. This may be by improving your harmonic or rhythmic vocabulary, your fluency with the jazz language, or just your overall creativity. My suggestion involves working through a series of self-imposed limitations, or parameters, in the way you approach practicing on different tunes. Let me explain.

When I was younger, I would put long hours in the practice room, playing my heart and soul out to the four walls. I would practice a lot of vocabulary and a lot of soloing. I made what I considered to be substantial progress, but I often felt like I was repeatedly playing a lot of the same stuff. I also found that incorporating new vocabulary into my solos was a slow process. I eventually determined that limitations in what and how I practiced was the key to playing with better musical command and ultimately a higher level of creativity.

It seems counterintuitive to state that imposing practice parameters would be a key to opening a creative doorway. After all, we often associate creativity with a form of artistic freedom. By limiting portions of our practice routine on tunes to specific concepts, however, we end up forcing ourselves to explore these concepts more thoroughly. The end result being that we find many ways of assembling our musical ideas.

As an example, I’ll outline a method that I am currently using with several of my students that are working on Rhythm Changes (Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm). I’ve broken the process down into three steps, each containing two stages. If necessary, each step and stage may be worked on for 1-2 weeks before moving to the next step. These steps should be done methodically with a metronome and followed with creative solo practice using a play-along track.

Step 1:

Stage 1- Begin by practicing only the triads associated with the chords in the “A” section, and only the basic pentatonic scales related to the chords on the “B” section. Practice starts with playing these components up and down from root position. This must be done in time with a metronome set at a slow tempo (60 bpm or less) before increasing the speed eventually to your technical limit.

Stage 2- As the comfort level with the root position triads increases, begin playing improvised passages using only the triads and a metronome. Again, start slowly. Work to become comfortable starting chords on any triad tone while creating lines that move smoothly through the changes. Look for creative ways to connect the chords without relying on the roots.

Step 2:

Stage 1- Increase the vocabulary practice to include 1,3,5,7,9 arpeggios on the “A” section while adding the 7ths to the pentatonic scales on the “B” section. Following a similar format to the one used in Step 1- Stage 1, practice the vocabulary up and down the chords in time with a metronome. Start slowly but increase the tempo as you become comfortable with the notes.

Stage 2- Begin taking an improvised path through the chord changes, looking for ways of connecting the chords by moving to the closest chord tone at the change. This may include solo practice, but more importantly, work to create lines that navigate smoothly from one chord through the next. One of the most important objectives is developing the ability to think into the upcoming chord. As before, use a metronome starting at a slow tempo.

Step 3:

Stage 1- Expand the vocabulary on the “A” section to include flat 9’s in the dominant chord arpeggios and pentatonic scales on the major and minor chords. Bebop scale passing tones are to be added between the 7th and 8th scale tones on the “B” section. Practice the specific components in time using a metronome. Inversions of the scales and arpeggios should be explored, working to build fluency with the vocabulary.

Stage 2- As in Stage 2 of Step 2, begin taking an improvised path through the changes while incorporating the new vocabulary. It might not be possible to play everything on every chord, just be certain not to overlook components of the vocabulary by going to typical “default” passages. Remember, the objective is to become comfortable with new vocabulary.

At this point, it should be easy to follow the system of limits I’ve put in place for learning and incorporating new vocabulary. Add or substitute additional vocabulary components to the routine, while working within the strict parameters we’ve set in place in Steps 1-3. Remember to follow this systematic approach with creative improvisation practice using a play-along track. This is where you will notice improvements in your musical fluency and creativity.

NOTE: I’ve posted a set of Rhythm Changes etudes on my website that demonstrate the Stage 2 parameters we’ve covered. The etudes can be found by clicking the “Etudes” tab at:

Randy Hunter is a professional saxophonist and private saxophone instructor living in the Atlanta area. He is also the jazz saxophone instructor at Emory University. He has an extensive series of online jazz improvisation and beginning sax lessons along with a series instructional jazz saxophone books endorsed by many of the living jazz legends. Skype lessons are available.