Musical Improv Exercises You Can Do at Home

  • February 7, 2024

Getting better at any craft takes time, but with musical improv, we often get so little actual time in rehearsals or performing to work out our skills. What about all that in-between time?

If you’re a musical improviser in the bay area you’ve likely encountered this problem. Doing some simple exercises at home can help you to develop your skills even when you aren’t in rehearsals and keep your musical improv muscles toned.

Rhyme Games

Rhyming is a core skill for any musical improviser, and the only way to get better at it is practice, practice, practice. Fortunately, rhyming is the easiest skill to practice on our own. When you have time, try playing ‘rhyme ball’ with yourselfidentify a word (sometimes just an object you can see) and try reciting as many rhymes as you can without stopping. Once your brain starts slowing down and you feel that urge to go “ummmm…..” switch to a new rhyme word.

The goal is to get comfortable quickly finding a handful of possible setup words before our brains run out of gas and start expending effort to think of anything else. We don’t have that kind of time in musical improv, so we're not trying to find as many rhymes as possible, but rather to find a handful of rhymes quickly and effortlessly. Try to make rhyme practice a part of your daily routineeven just 5 minutes of rhyme ball every day will start to show big improvements in your ability to rhyme in improvised songs.

Real-Time Harmonizing

Being able to harmonize in real-time is an excellent skill for a musical improviser and can help add some extra polish to our play. Like rhyming, it’s also a skill that only gets better with practice and, as luck would have it, is easy to practice at home! Try listening to songs you enjoy and see if you can find a harmony quickly. If you haven’t yet taken an improv class to learn how to harmonize, that’s okay. The easiest approach is 1-3-5, which means you start from the note the melody is using and then step up to the third or the fifth. If you know "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do" then you can do this. The first is ‘do’, the third is ‘mi’ and the fifth is ‘so’! You can also practice your 1-3-5-3-1 scales with this video to get comfortable identifying each note.

Once you’ve found either the third or the fifth, see if you can follow the melody and stay on the third or fifth. Alternatively, see how it sounds to just hang out on the same note (either third or fifth) as the melody moves around you. Record yourself and listen back to see if what you’ve improvised works with the melody and if not, try again and see if you can find something that does.

Improvize Songs to Tracks

We don’t always get to have a live Musical Director to work with on a regular basis and sometimes pre-recorded tracks are the only way to keep getting reps and practicing. There are a number of resources online with pre-recorded tracks just waiting for you to improvise something over them. The YouTube channel Unfinished Songs has 74 songs in an array of genres for you to practice with.

Tracks can be a great way to practice song structure and pacing. What you sing and what’s being played doesn’t always line up, and that’s okay, this kind of rehearsing isn’t about perfectionit’s about building that muscle that can create melodies and song lyrics and listen to the music around you at the same time. More practice makes all of it easier.

Expose Yourself to More Musical Improv

Watching (or listening) to musical improv is an excellent way to find inspiration and ideas for your own play. A number of improvised musical performances are available on YouTube, such as Anarchy: The Improvised Rock Opera, Baby Wants Candy, Showstopper!, and Improvised Sondheim Project among others.

If you haven’t listened to it yet, Off Book: The Improvised Musical is a fantastic podcast. In each episode the hosts improvise a musical with special guests.

And of course there’s so many more videos and podcasts out there you may find stimulating. There is no substitute for watching live musical improv, but when you’re at home, these kinds of media are the next best thing.