Archive for the ‘Chords’ Category

3 Essential Improvisation Tools that You Need to Know

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Imagine that you’re a construction worker.

You’ve just pulled yourself out of bed at 4 a.m. and slipped on your steel-toed boots. As you stretch your tired legs you let out a sigh as another long day looms on the horizon. No worries, nothing you can’t do after a strong cup of coffee.

You arrive on site as the sun is rising, just in time to get a head start before the rest of your team shows up. You quickly unpack your gear and reach into your tool box when it suddenly hits you – you’ve forgotten your tools.

“*&$%#!”

The best you can do now is just stand there and mumble some sorry excuse as you silently curse yourself for your stupidity.

Doesn’t sound like too much fun, right?

But then again it’s common sense. I mean who would show up to work without the one thing they need to do their job?

Well, it’s much easier than you think and if you’re a musician, you’re probably guilty of this very mistake. In fact most players out there struggling to improvise are showing up to solo without any tools. What’s worse, they don’t even realize it.

These hopeful soloists have their instruments and they’ve learned their scales. They’ve memorized the melody and the chord progression and they’ve stepped up to the mic. But when it comes to creating musical phrases in real time, they are stuck up there without any tools.

“*&$%#!” is right.

Think of it like

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7 Reasons you’re not getting to the next level and what to do about it

Monday, October 13th, 2014
How to get to the next level in Jazz Improvisation

When you begin something new, there’s so much to learn. Improvement is quick and often, practice is exploratory and fun. But after doing anything for a while, you settle into a routine and your once explosive improvement tapers off. Wherever this may leave you, you can’t seem to get beyond this plateau.

Why are you stuck at this intermediate level and what can you do about it?

Fear not friend. The primary reasons people remain at the same level in jazz improvisation are generally the same across the board. Let’s dive into these roadblocks and detail exactly how to handle them so you can get to the next level asap!

1.) You’re using scales as a shortcut to understanding chords

A huge problem and possibly the reason most people get stuck at the same improvisational level for so long, is their constant reliance on scales to understand chordal structures.

When you want to play over an Eb-7 chord, do you have to think about what notes to play based upon scale relationships? If your thinking goes something like this…”hmmmm, Eb- is the ii chord of Db major, so I’ll play the notes in Db major, but starting on Eb,” then you’re in trouble.

Michael Jordan doesn't take shortcuts

"If you try to shortcut the game, then the game will shortcut you." ~Michael Jordan

This shortcut to chords through scales is a widely taught system for understanding chords in jazz improvisation; this system quickly gives you access to correct notes without knowing a lot about the harmonic structures. It's not a bad place to start and in the short-term, it helps you, but if you want to get to the next level, it’s time you ditch your shortcuts and start to understand what actually is going on around you... Read More

V7 to I: 10 Options for Expanding Your Dominant 7th Vocabulary

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

What’s the most important chord progression that you need to know as an improviser?

That’s a good question! Previously we explored some common chord relationships that you’ll encounter as an improviser, however the most important chord relationship that you need to know is V to I.

The Dominant/Tonic relationship is at the foundation of Western music from Baroque concertos, to Mahler symphonies, to Louis Armstrong, to Coltrane, to the Beatles. In nearly every standard that you’ll practice or perform as an improviser, you’re going to encounter the V7 to I chord relationship.

The Blues, Rhythm Changes, Stella by Starlight, Giant Steps, All the Things You Are…it all goes back to V7 resolving to I. If you haven’t already worked on this dominant to tonic relationship, it’s time to get started.

The Basics

For many players, the most common way to access the Dominant 7th to Tonic sound is with the Mixolydian mode:

or a Bebop Scale:

The other common rule that many players also fall back on for V7 to I is the natural voice-leading motion between these two chords. Coming from an analytical perspective, the voice leading “rules” of the V to I relationship are resolving the 7th of the V chord to the 3rd of the I chord:

(7-3 Resolution)

and the 3rd of V7 to the root of the I chord:

(3-1 Resolution)

This is a fine place to start conceptualizing these chords in your mind and your ear, however … Read More

Happy New Year! 8 Musical Resolutions That Will Change Your Playing

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

A new year is the perfect time to look back at what you’ve accomplished in the practice room and to look forward  to what you still wish to achieve as a musician. It’s also a great time to make a fresh start, to realign yourself musically, and to set some new goals. So, Happy New Year!

…now what are you going to do to become a better improviser?

A while back we posted 100 New Years Resolution Ideas for the Improviser. These resolutions are great to choose from for your daily or weekly practice routines, however there are some major points that are truly pivotal in making you a better improviser. If you focus intently on these key elements, you’ll be able to transform yourself musically.

Here are 8 musical resolutions for the new year that will make you a better improviser.

I) Work on Ear Training

The #1 area of your musicianship that will make you a better improviser is your ears. Your success as an improviser depends on your ability to hear and understand the sounds around you: melodies, chord progressions, intervals, time signatures, the other musicians in your band, etc.

All of this goes directly back to your ears.

It’s important to intellectually understand the theory and construction of the music, but to truly play it you must be able to hear it. This means working on ear training.

Here are some articles that you should check out to improve your ears:

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The Philosophy of Learning Jazz Improvisation: Thinking like a Composer

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Composition is selective improvisation…~Igor Stravinsky

In 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.~Steve Lacy___________________________________________________________________________________________

Learning to improvise is a big undertaking. Not only must you become proficient on an instrument, you also need find something musical to play on that instrument. That’s no small task!

But don’t get discouraged just yet, many musicians have learned to improvise before you and many more will in the years to come. Having the correct mindset as you start your journey, however is vital in realizing your goals. In this day and age you can have all the study materials and learning aids in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them, they’re useless.

So where are you going to find this mindset?

In your musical journey so far you might have noticed that improvisation is often compared to musical composition, and for good reason. Creating a solo over a chord progression is essentially composing music in the moment.

As you improvise, you’re using your ears, instrumental technique, and musical language to create new melodies in real time. All of the skills that are essential for composition are also necessary for improvisation. You must create a theme, develop that theme, follow the contours of the harmony, and send a musical message to the listener.

Therefore it’s only … Read More

The Anatomy of a Sound: Overcoming the Barrier of Music Theory

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

From the moment we are born, the world tends to have a container already built for us to fit inside: A social security number, a gender, a race, a profession, an I.Q. I ponder if we are more defined by the container we are in, than what we are inside. Would we recognize ourselves if we could expand beyond our bodies? To be authentically ‘un-contained’ would we still be able to exist?

~Paige Bradley

Expansion                                                                                                                                                                                   Bronze, electricity and mixed media

Music is sound.

We take in this sound with our ears and produce sound on our instruments.

Everything that you need to know about improving as an improviser originates from these two phrases. When you approach improvisation with the big picture in mind the entire process becomes much simpler. Coming to this realization can even change the way you improvise today.

Now I know what you’re thinking…”So I don’t have to worry about those scales, chords and theory ever again?” Not exactly.

You need to know your chords and scales, but you mustn’t stop there. Your creativity shouldn’t be limited to music theory alone, however this is much easier said than done. In the practice room analyze each chord, learn the names for each scale degree, and learn the rules for creating melodies and chord progressions, but when it comes to performing strive to move past the theory.

Remember, in the end music theory is just a method to describe sound with words. No matter what you’re thinking when … Read More

How One Note Can Open Up Your Ears and Spark Your Musical Creativity

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Can one note really change your ears and improve your musical creativity?

The answer is yes and I’ll show you how.

A few years ago I took a lesson with the great trumpet player, improviser and composer Ingrid Jensen. As we started the lesson, instead of the usual warm-up exercises and scale patterns I was expecting, she turned on a drone machine, a little black box that emitted a single constant tone.

For the next 10 minutes or so we played a number of different exercises along with this background tone – long tones, scales, trumpet etudes, intervals, etc. For some reason these familiar exercises that I had done hundreds of times before were transformed into something different with the accompaniment of the drone. The effect even changed the way I approached chords and tunes in my practice years later.

She later explained that she often uses a drone machine as a practice tool to enable creativity, musical freedom and focus at the beginning of her practice sessions. To clarify, a drone machine is basically an electronic synthesizer that sustains a single note, but the same effect can be achieved with other instruments or recorded tracks.

The idea of focusing on a sustained pitch is something that has been practiced for thousands of years. A drone is used in meditation (om mantra) and is played using instruments like Tibetan Singing Bowls or the Tanpura in Indian music.

The drone has been used as a calming element and focusing tool … Read More

How to Learn Jazz Standards with the Piano

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Learning tunes should be fun. If ever there was a secret to expanding your repertoire of tunes this would be it.

You’re more likely to pursue an activity that’s exciting, interesting, and challenging rather than one that feels like an annoying chore. At the end of a long day you’re going to put the hours into a pursuit that’s an extension of the activities that you already enjoy.

For musicians, one of the most enjoyable things you can do with music is listening. If you’re reading this right now and are serious about improving as an improviser, chances are you’re already listening to records as much as you can.

Listening truly is the starting point for your musical improvement and your growth as an improviser.

One misconception surrounding musical improvement however, is that you can only practice if you’re in a practice room with your instrument in hand. This is simply not true. The learning process can happen anywhere, instrument or no instrument, as long as your ears are open and you’re focused on improvement.

Below I’ll show you how to turn your next listening session into some time spent learning tunes – a two birds one stone approach. You may not realize it now, but you can actually figure out and memorize tunes at the same time you’re checking out your favorite records.

How is this possible? The answer lies at the piano. The piano or keyboard is one of the greatest tools we have in learning … Read More

6 Common Chord Relationships (…other than ii-V-I)

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

A common question that many improvisers often have is “How do I connect chords when I’m soloing?”

Improvising over one chord is simple enough, however when you begin to play tunes with actual chord progressions, creating and connecting lines becomes a bit more challenging. This musical obstacle goes to the heart of the skills you need as an improviser and the solution, like many obstacles we encounter in music, is simple in theory yet significantly more involved in implementation.

Imagine for a moment that you took away all the theory terminology, the voice leading rules, the maze of scales and the chord symbol jargon that you normally encounter as an improviser. What would you be left with? You’d be left with sound – that’s it! Despite everything that our brains get caught up in as we try to create a solo, the harmonic aspect of improvisation boils down to sound: Individual sounds (chords) and the relationships between these sounds.

As an improviser a theoretical understanding and technical proficiency are the first steps when approaching these harmonic relationships, but your ultimate goal is melody. Can you create a seamless melody over these sounds and subsequent chord progressions? Herein lies the creative challenge that improvisation poses to us every time we attempt to play a tune.

Your ability to play melodies over a chord progression is directly related to how well you can hear the individual chords of a progression and the relationships between them. If you want to play … Read More

5 Secrets to Learning Tunes

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Secrets To Learning Tunes

Everyone knows they should learn tunes straight from recordings and not from a lead sheet, but it’s not that simple. Figuring out what’s happening melodically and harmonically is super challenging for most people, and it’s so convenient just to print out a lead sheet.

Forget the lead sheet. Anything you learn with your mind and not your ear will not stay with you unless you constantly review it. Anything you truly learn with your ear will stay with you for a lifetime. Here are some things that if put into practice, will make you wonder why you hadn’t been learning tunes from recordings all along.

First impressions matter

In terms of the way you relate to a tune, first impressions are everything. Many people today think All the Things You Are, Just Friends, and Stella By Starlight are lame boring songs. Even though these are some of my favorites, surprisingly, I can relate to this attitude because many tunes still sound far from exciting in my mind. But why? Why do certain tunes have no spark, no energy, no life? Why do some tunes feel impossible to solo over?

It’s all about first impressions: how you were first introduced to the tune. Was it an assignment? The first time you heard it, was it from a play-along track? Or had you never heard it, and just played it from a lead sheet?

As you first conceptualize a tune, it becomes an entity with a certain vibe to it … Read More