How To Improvise With Others

Educator resources

How To Improvise With Others (When You Lack Confidence)

by Monica Shriver

Confidence is a tricky thing. Sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you deserve to be confident and sometimes you don’t. And sometimes that doesn’t stop you. The trick is tempering confidence with humility and kindness.

When is comes to improvising, especially with others, confidence is vital. You have to mean what you play and play what you mean. You have to be flexible and ok if things don’t go as expected or planned. As a beginner that can be challenging.

1. Practice Improvising
This may seem really obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to convince students to practice improvising. Some believe that it will ruin the spontaneity. Some believe that you can’t practice it. Some don’t know how to practice it.

In reality, all the best jazz musicians practiced – Bird, Coltrane, Sonny, Herbie, Miles. Learn what the chords mean, listen to different versions of the song, transcribe your favorite parts, and work hard. The better you know the tune the more flexible you can be. (If you are really struggling, try writing down some ideas and memorizing them. It’s a great place to start and will give you confidence knowing that if you nothing comes to you in the moment, you have those ideas to fall back on.) Practice leads to confidence and you have to practice improvising.

2. Listen First
Listen to what’s going on around you and try to fit into that. If you get lost, stop and listen and someone will give you a cue as to where you are – either musically (like a drum hit or an obvious chord change will happen) or verbally (like someone yelling out “bridge” or “top”) or visually (like with a head nod or finger point). The more aware you are of your surroundings the more likely you’ll be able to react quickly and appropriately.

Listening while you improvise can help you come up with ideas too. Don’t be afraid to leave an uncomfortable amount of space too. Remember that just because you stop playing, doesn’t mean the music has stopped. Imagine it from the audience’s perspective. If you’re soloing (regardless of the instrument you play) and you stop for a measure or two, what other sounds are still there? Piano? Bass? Drums? Background lines?

3. Let Go of Expectations
When you’re improvising, you don’t have to come up with the “coolest, hippest line ever played in the history of the world.” You don’t even have to come up with the something “good” (which is subjective anyway). You just have to come up with something.

Remember that it’s not really even about YOU, it’s about the music. Pick people to play with who believe that too. Don’t let someone else’s ego ruin your music making, regardless of your current level or ability. You are not going to try to fail – so remember that intent is more important that success.

4. Be Brave
Go for it. You literally have nothing to lose. What’s really the worst that can happen, anyway? Imagine the worst case scenario – getting lost? Playing a wrong note? Not playing anything at all? When you think about it, is it really all that awful, in the whole scheme of life?

Being brave in improvisation doesn’t mean not striving to get better. But it does mean being ok with where you are, musically, right now. You will become a better improviser with more practice. However, you can’t get to the point of having more practice without first being brave enough to try. Earlier this year, I heard Victor Wooten speak at the JEN conference. He compared playing with a child learning to speak for the first time. If a child waited until he was fluent in a language before even attempting to have a conversation, how would he ever learn? The same goes for improvising, especially with others.

5. Back to Basics
Rhythm and feel will always be more important than notes. If you are overwhelmed by combining the rhythm, melody, and harmonies of a tune, focus on one thing at a time. Try to keep with the rhythm while playing an easy part of the tune. Or keep the tune simple and vary up only the rhythm at first.

Music is made up of sound and silence. Use both to build up a dialogue, even if it is not incredibly complex. You can even repeat sections as needed, and give yourself permission to carry the tune forward. Do anything you can to keep the musical conversation going.

Remember that improvising is a long process. The only way to get better is to do it as often as possible.

How would you help someone who wasn’t very confident at improvising with your group? Share with the community in the comments section.

Monica Shriver is a professional musician, band leader, sideman, promoter, gig creator, improvisor, clinician, teaching artist, grant writer, presenter, social media nut, blogger, composer, former classroom teacher, in Phoenix, AZ. She is a doubler and plays (and gets paid to play) piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, and bari sax.

She writes about the important soft skills of musicianship (such as confidence, finding your voice, and business savvy) on her new site, Register to be the first to know about the launch of the blog and free e-course!

charlotte lang

Swiss/Dutch saxophonist Charlotte Lang was born in 1996 in Basel and studied the bachelor and master program at the JAZZCAMPUS Basel under the guidance of Domenic Landolf and Daniel Blanc. She is currently studying the Master of Music in Global Jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston under the artistic direction of Danilo Pérez. In addition she is part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.


From 2015 to 2018, Charlotte she was a member of the Swiss National Youth Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Christian Muthspiel. Since 2020, she became a member of the German National Youth Jazz Orchestra (Bundesjazzorchester Deutschland), under the direction of Niels Klein and Ansgar Striepens. She also plays is the Austrian FJO (Frauen Jazz Orchester→Women Jazz Orchestra of Austria).


In 2021, Charlotte founded her own Quintet the „Charlotte Lang Group“, for what she is composing, arranging and booking. In the fall 2023, her first album will be recorded and hopefully released by a renowned label.


Charlotte plays in the “Swiss Jazz Orchestra” and the “Zurich Jazz Orchestra”, the two professional Big Bands of Switzerland.

Charlotte recently got the unique opportunity to write a monthly blog for the Swiss Jazz & Blues Magazine called JAZZTIME, to tell readers about her time at abroad and specifically her time at Berklee. Her graduate program lasts only until the summer of 2023. She hopes to stay in the United States to enlarge her network and build her musical career.