Five tips to better vocal improvisation

vocal style

Get some stellar advice on how to deliver a great vocal improvisation in different music genres from Antonio De Lillis.

In this my third article on improvisation. It’s now time to talk about vocal style. Although normally associated with jazz, improvisation can be found in different genres including pop, rock, soul and funk.

A great example of this is Clare Torry’s performance in Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Did you know she entirely improvised her vocals?

So how can we learn to improvise in different styles? Here are my top tips.

1 Be all ears!

It may sound obvious, but the best way to learn how to improvise in a particular style is to listen to it and focus on the instrumental improvisations. If blues, rock and funk are your thing, listen carefully to guitar solos. If you like jazz, check out the solos of wind and brass instruments.

2 Listen and repeat

Your next step will be to choose a solo that you like and try to sing along. It’s difficult at first, but don’t worry, it needn’t be perfect. Memorising some phrases, even just a few notes, will help you internalise the articulation and phrasing specific to the genre and vocal style. This listen-and-repeat process is crucial: I can’t stress enough its importance.

Here’s me attempting to sound like Chet Baker’s fabulous trumpet in But Not For Me (1953) and then having a go at singing two of my favourite pop-rock solos (Steve Porcaro’s on keyboard, Steve Lukather’s on guitar), both from Toto’s hit song Rosanna (1982)

3  Doobeedoobee what (syllables)?

“What syllable should I use when improvising?” is a question I am often asked when I run my improvisation classes. When it comes to vocal style there’s no general rule and you may use whatever comes naturally to you. However, if you’re in need of a little inspiration, check out singers who improvise. You’ll notice that normally different genres call for different syllables.

In pop, rock and funk, singers prefer vowel sounds, or syllables like “No, Yeah, Woah, Hey”. In jazz (especially traditional and bebop), they often improvise modelling instruments like trumpet or saxophone, imitating their onsets, timbre and phrasing. Syllables like “du-ba” or “da-ba” are used for their explosive attack and rhythm. Here’s a couple of examples for you.


4 Feed the rhythm

When improvising, rhythmical choices are important. If we improvised using only one note value (e.g. crotchets), it would probably feel and sound very boring. Whatever style you choose, try to use a mixture of different values and rhythmical patterns. Make generous use of articulation features like staccato, legato, accents and dynamics. Variety is key.

Genre wise, jazz musicians tend to prefer swing quavers, while rock ones like better straight quavers and semi-quavers. When you shape your musical phrases, keep in mind these differences.

5 Scales and arpeggios

Practising some scales, like our instrumental counterparts do, makes you more confident in choosing the notes for your vocal solos. If you wish to improvise in a pop, rock or soul style, get familiar with the sound of the minor and major pentatonic and the blues scale.

In jazz, there’s a wide array of scales to choose from.  Now, jazz harmony is a complicated subject and I won’t go into detail about it. Let’s just say that in addition to the ones I mentioned above, you may wish to explore modal scales (e.g. dorian, lydian, myxolidian etc) and others like the whole tone and diminished scale.

Singing arpeggios is also good practice. It increases your harmonic awareness while improving your technique. Be adventurous and go beyond the typical major chord (e.g. C-E-G-C, in the key of C major): there’s a whole world of awesome arpeggios to explore! Major 7th, Minor 7th and Dominant 7th represent a good starting point.

We reach the end…for now

Well, this is the end of this little journey into the fascinating world of vocal improvisation. If you want to learn more check out the other articles in this series, Why vocal improvisation is beneficial to singers and How to get started with the practice of vocal improvisation. If you still want to know more, don’t hesitate to give me a shout. Until then, just improvise!

Italian-born singer, songwriter and singing teacher Antonio De Lillis started studying music and guitar in 1991. He then studied singing at some of the most prestigious music schools in Italy (C.P.M. in Milan, Università della Musica and Saint Louis College of Music in Rome). In 2011 he graduated with a first class degree in jazz arranging and performance at Licinio Refice Conservatoire of Music (Frosinone, Italy). In February 2018, he gained a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Professional Practice (specialism Vocal Pedagogy) from Cardiff Metropolitan University, in conjunction with Voice Workshop Ltd. Antonio sings jazz and pop with several bands performing on television, radio and at numerous gigs, concerts and festivals. He has released four albums, one of which as a band leader. Antonio has been teaching singing since 2000, in different academies, schools, charities and colleges in Rome and London. He regularly leads workshops on vocal technique, jazz singing and vocal improvisation.