Peter Miksza: On the Overlooked Value of Improvisation in Musical Training

How would you react if someone encouraged you to include some improvisation in your daily practice routine?

Would you react with curiosity, and perhaps be a little excited to see what this could add to your musical and technical development?

Or would you wonder about improvisation’s relevance in your daily practice, given that you don’t have unlimited time, and it’s not like you can improv your way through Schumann’s Scherzo?

Or run away, because…eek! Improv?! Where would I even start?

If I could go back in time, I’d hold younger me by the shoulders and tell that cocky little scalawag to make a concerted effort to develop some improv, composition, and transcription chops. Not just so I could do fun stuff like this or even this bit of awesomeness (btw, you can learn more about Ken and the interesting backstory of the project here), but so that I’d have a more complete understanding of what makes music work.

So to get a bit more insight on this subject, I caught up with Indiana University music ed researcher and professor Peter Miksza, whose work has come up on the blog before (re: learning faster and memorizing more effectively).

In this 30-minute chat, we’ll explore:

  • why improvisation may be a more valuable part of musicians’ training than we realize
  • the importance of “informal” practice in addition to deliberate practice
  • how “micro-improvisation” could be used even in (or perhaps especially in) ensemble settings
  • four things skilled improvisers do to get better at improvising, that all of us could incorporate into practice sessions
  • and more!

Useful apps

Below are some improv-related apps Dr. Miksza recommended. Because, you know, apps are awesome.

iReal Pro

Make and play over background tracks: Check it out

Jazz Tube

A research-driven website that has transcriptions for various jazz artists’ solos coordinated with youtube videos. It also features data from analyses of the improvisations: Check it out

Tutti MusicPlayer

Download performances and lessons: Check it out

Amazing Slow Downer

Set tempo of music recordings for transcribing or playing along: iOS | Android


And here are references to some of the studies that came up in our chat (in order of when they were mentioned):

Deliberate practice

Lehmann, A. C., & Ericsson, K. A. (1997). Research on expert performance and deliberate practice: Implications for the education of amateur musicians and music students. Psychomusicology: A Journal of Research in Music Cognition, 16(1-2), 40-58. DOI: 10.1037/h0094068


McPherson, G. E., Miksza, P., & Evans, P. (2018). Self-regulated music learning. In D. Schunk and J. Greene (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (2nd Ed.) (p. 181-193). New York, NY: Routledge.


Watson, K. E. (2015) Relationships among selected practice behaviours and achievement in jazz improvisation. Music Education Research, 17(1), 57-70, DOI: 10.1080/14613808.2014.986080

Tarr, C. T. (2016). Practising jazz performance: An investigation into the process that underpins optimal instrumental practice in the jazz idiom. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Edith Cowan University, Australia. Retrieved from

Miksza, P., Watson, K., & Calhoun, I. (2018). The effect of mental practice on melodic jazz improvisation achievement. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 28(1), 40–49.

Norgaard, M. (2011). Descriptions of improvisational thinking by artist-level jazz musicians. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(2), 109-127. DOI: 10.1177/0022429411405669

Berliner, P. F. (1994, October 17). Thinking in Jazz : The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Series) (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Where to find Dr. Miksza

When not breaking out some old-school dance moves, he can be found hanging out:

@ Dr. Miksza’s website

@ Dr. Miksza’s Music and Mind Lab

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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