For the younger player, or for the beginning jazz player of any age, here are a number of exercises and activities that you or your students can do alone. They will all help in ear training, jazz improvisation and general musicianship.
They are roughly in order of difficulty and/or importance. Some of them will interest you more than others: do those that you enjoy!
Note: the most important factor in learning is that it be positive experience. Students (or you yourself) are unlikely to stay long in a learning project that is not fun.
Play many simple tunes by ear, in easy keys and easy ranges at easy tempos. Select only tunes you know at first: Christmas carols and nursery rhymes are probably familiar. Usually this is not taught in school music programs or in private lessons; make it a do-it-yourself project.
Often, before you play a tune, sing it. This will refresh your memory, help your ear, and help you to complete the song. Instrumentalists must not be shy about using the voice.
Also play those simple tunes at the piano. This is more important than many non-pianists realize.
Transpose (playing) simple tunes into many keys. First do some other easy keys, and then later you will play the same tunes in every key you know. It’s fun! Also in addition to tunes, play various “head patterns” such as broken thirds, triads, scale fragments, arpeggios, etc.
Get a little pocket sized spiral notebook to carry with you and begin to draft several lists of tunes:
Tunes I Know
Tunes I Am Working On
Tunes I Want To Learn
As the list of Tunes You Know grows longer, eventually break it down into sections: Ballads, Jazz Heads, Bossa Novas, Rock, Dixie, Waltzes, Christmas Songs, Show Tunes, Old Swing, etc. If you think one section of your list is too short, go learn some more. All working jazz musicians should maintain this valuable list. Keep the list in your instrument case. With it you will always have good ideas of what to practice; without it, many students cannot think of what to work on, or what to play next. Photocopy your list for safety.
Begin to embellish the tunes you know. Add grace notes. Play in rubato style. Add vibrato and jazz elements. Use swing rhythms. Add chromatic passing tones, scalar passing tones, lower neighbors, and pickups. Use stylistic devices like short trills, glisses, falls, etc.
Read the following excellent books: Coker, How to Practice Jazz; Coker, Jazz Improvisation; David Baker, Jazz Improvisation; Dan Haerle, The Language of Jazz; and Jamey Aebersold, any of the text in the books that come with the albums.
Listen to jazz almost every day. Find things you especially like and listen to them over and over, dozens of times, until you are truly familiar with the material and can hum or whistle it. You will absorb it, it will influence you, and you will probably learn to play it. This listening is necessary.
Later you will listen to a wider variety of music, some of which you may like a bit less, but still need to learn about.
Keep learning tunes. Never stop! This will help you play better lines, and all good musicians know a lot of tunes. Many students neglect repertoire.
You should own some fake books to help you learn many tunes correctly. But learn the tunes and their harmonies by memory. Try not to be one of the players who must have his book along.
Take some jazz improvisation courses or lessons. A good teacher/coach can guide you to many shortcuts and save you years! Jazz has never been entirely self-taught.
Know music theory quite well, at least through scales and chords, basic Roman numerals and simple analysis, common functional harmony, jazz chord symbols, treble and bass clef, modes, secondary dominants and principles of transposition.
Learn how to write music down on paper. Do this almost every day with fairly neat manuscript. This actually will help your ear, and it is a form of dictation. A musician who cannot write music is missing out on a lot. It will also help your reading and your rhythmic skills. When you are able, transcribe all or part of a solo from a recording.
Be quite familiar with II-V-I in major keys (and then in minor). Get the idea, and because this progression is basic in jazz and common in almost all American popular music. Make up many different little melodies that will fit this very common harmonic cadence.
Periodically record yourself. Perhaps play a ballad with no accompaniment. Play another with a recorded rhythm section (Aebersold et al). Listen to what you’ve played. It won’t sound as good as you do, unless your recording equipment is very good, but this is tremendous help in developing style and refining technique. Take pride in the good things and develop them further; remedy that which is not-so-good.
Take one tune on which you can improvise and play it to death, perhaps for an hour or more, really! Saturate yourself with it. When you get bored by your playing, use your intellect to escape the rut (see the attached page titled “This Time I’m Going To _______”). Design new licks, new rhythms. Discipline yourself to play (for instance) more repeated notes, or more ascending passages, or more long notes, or more spaces (rests), or more short phrases, more pickups, or more sequential material.
Pick tunes you know (start with one) and harmonize it at the piano. See Alan Swain’s books on this, but do it often. Then discover more possibilities with reharmonization.
Continue to work, always, on your basic instrumental (or vocal) techniques. Maintain a great sound. Good legit workouts and plain technical work have never hurt anyone’s jazz. First be a good craftsman; it will not stifle your genius.
Be sure to continue work on your ranges: high and low, loud and soft, fast and slow.
Compose a new song (with or without lyrics).
Compose a countermelody to some song you know. Do this on paper, with or without the piano as a tool. It could be rhythmically near-unison, or it could be rhythmically very different, complementary, or near-opposite. It could be very imitative. (You’ll probably find the nicest sonorities (sounds) if you mostly use the intervals of sixths, thirds, sevenths and tritones away from the original melody.) Doing it on paper, with your instrument handy, slows the process and gives you more time to think and to imagine, with interesting results.
Build endurance on your instrument, so you have the stamina to play or practice quite awhile. Play until you feel fatigue (but avoid exhaustion).
Be sure to develop the strength to play loud enough. A solo that is too soft might as well not have been played. Do some loud practice each day.
Learn and use jazz-flavored “ornaments” and stylistic devices such as trills, shakes, falls, scoops, rips, doits, et al.