Archive for the ‘Ear’ Category

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

6 Practice Essentials for Every Improviser

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

6 Improvisation Essentials

You walk into your practice room.

You sit back in your favorite chair and mentally prepare to play your first note of the day.

You glance at your stack of etude books, the half transcribed solo sitting on your music stand, and your growing list of tunes to learn and you let out a heavy sigh.

What are you going to practice today?

Sound familiar? Thought so.

Every musician knows this feeling well. Each time you pick up your instrument you’ve got to make a decision: Which type of practice is actually going to make you a better improviser?

Sure, we’ve all heard about the basic stuff, but in the back of our minds we’re secretly hoping to find that one perfect exercise or method that’s going to solve all of our improvisational woes.

However, it’s not that simple. The more you study and perform this music, the more you’ll realize that there isn’t a magic method for learning improvisation. The truth is each player has a personal way of approaching their time in the practice room that allows them to reach their goals.

So how do you sort through all of these methods to find the one that works for you?

Well the good news is that you don’t have to! You see, it isn’t one single method or practice plan that makes a player succeed, it’s the actual content of what’s happening in the practice room.

Take a closer look and you’ll see that every great practice routine … Read More

Why You Should Be Hearing Music in Your Mind

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

I have a vivid memory of the first time I tried to play in an early jazz group. I was in school and was asked to play the trumpet part in an ensemble that met each week studying the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and other significant early players.

Cool, building my jazz history foundation right? How hard could it be to go back and pick up these styles?

However, once that first rehearsal began I quickly discovered that there was a huge hole in my playing. I could make it through each melody decently, but every time it was my turn to solo I hit a wall. My mind suddenly became blank and I had nothing to play – no melodic ideas, no rhythmic inspiration, and no idea where to even begin crafting a solo.

The music was just not in my mind, plain and simple. The style was unfamiliar, I wasn’t hearing the rhythmic elements of the music, and my sound and articulation weren’t fitting in with the group’s sound.

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To be honest, I had never really seriously listened to anything before Bird, Dizzy Gillespie or the big bands of the 1930’s and ’40’s. Up to that point I was used to playing modern jazz standards, ii-V-I’s, and aiming for the upper structures of chords, but none of that worked over this style – in fact it sounded terrible.

Like many other musicians, I’ve encountered this exact feeling in other areas of my playing as well. … Read More

Why You Shouldn’t Be a Real Book Player

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Take a peek into a high school jazz band rehearsal or grab a seat at a college jazz combo concert. Better yet, walk into your local jam session or take a close look at the jazz trio playing the next time you’re at a wedding. What do you see?

In each case you’ll find the “Real Book player.”

The Real Book player is the musician that learns tunes out of a fake book, practices in front of a fake book, and performs using a fake book. Like a ball and chain, the book is always there. No book = no music.

For years I used to be a real book player. I looked at lead sheets to memorize tunes, I practiced improvisation by staring for hours at written out chord progressions, and I relied on the book like a life preserver at gig after gig.

From my perspective, this all seemed to work out just fine, however after a few years a problem slowly began to emerge. I was performing standards from a book all the time, but I wasn’t actually learning any of these tunes that I was playing night after night.

Even worse, I wasn’t improving at all as an improviser. Week after week I was basically rehashing the same old material in the same exact way without having any musical progress to show for it.

The problem was not that I wasn’t trying to improve as an improviser, it’s that I was trying to use a fake … 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:

Read More

Overcoming Mental Limitations in Music

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

I can’t.

We’ve all said these fateful words at one point or another.

Fill in the blank for your own situation. “ I can’t (____)”…draw, run long distances, wake up early, stop eating cheesecake.

Everyday there are literally dozens of things that we convince ourselves that we simply cannot do, and playing music and improvising are no exception. From the tasks in the practice room that feel like too much work, to the skills that we have no experience with, to those dreaded moments that strike fear into our hearts, it’s all too easy to say I can’t and give up.

It seems natural, easy, and even trivial to say these words, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself: Is this really true?

At the moment these statements just might be true — you gave it a try, you failed, and it just didn’t work out. However, the consequences of hanging onto this limiting mindset can run deeper than you might expect, especially as a musician, and I’ll show you why.

Over the years, I’ve taught at various jazz camps and workshops and instructed hundreds of students in private lessons. A curious thing that I’ve noticed about new students is that many come in with a preset belief about themselves or performing music.

Young, old, beginner, comeback player, weekend player – it doesn’t matter. There seems to be this burdening belief that all players carry around with them about some aspect of their playing.… Read More

10 Exercises to Practice When You’ve Run Out of Ideas

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

We often get a ton of great questions from our readers about what to practice. These inquiries range from players that are stuck in a daily musical rut to aspiring improvisers that simply don’t know the next step to take in the practice room.

The truth is, every musician encounters frustrating days on their instrument where nothing seems to be working. You become bored with the same old exercises, frustrated with your rate of progress and confused as to the next step to take…and some days you just don’t feel like practicing at all.

These feelings are natural for anyone trying to improve, however this is not an excuse to give up on a perfectly good practice session. Every single day, no matter what the obstacles, you can accomplish something to improve your musicianship.

Many times a roadblock in your practice is the result of being overwhelmed. The root of the problem can even come down to a simple lack of motivation. Too many projects, not enough focus and a lack of musical drive and inspiration. This is a recipe for frustration and musical inertia.

When this happens to you, stop, reset and focus on one small task and master it. Here are 10 practice ideas for those times when you’re simply out of things to practice.

1) Learn the melody to a standard

One of the best things you can do when you’re stuck in a rut is to learn something by ear. It could be a melody, 4 … Read More

How to Use Pop Tunes to Improve Your Ear

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Admit it.

You listen to pop tunes. You probably even like them.

But hold on a second, aren’t you’re supposed to be a serious musician?

It’s OK, everyone listens to pop tunes. Just because you turn on the radio and check out the top 40 every now and then it doesn’t make you less of a musician.

Traditionally the repertoire of the improvising musician has been comprised of popular songs: All of Me, How High the Moon, All the Things You Are…and today you hear Radiohead tunes and Dilla beats. Everyone from Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis to Michael Brecker, Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper have incorporated pop elements into their musical conception.

The beauty of jazz is that it’s naturally inclusive of any style of music and influence. All the way from the diverse musical melting pot of New Orleans to the infusion of Latin music or Hip Hop today, improvisers have been including a wide array of musical influence in their approach.

Anything is fair game for an inspired improviser and pop tunes are no exception. Remember, at one time jazz was the pop music of it’s day.

The “standards” that we spend time learning today are essentially the pop tunes of a bygone era. Part of being an improvising artist is absorbing and commenting on your current surroundings. Today, even though we don’t exactly have Irving Berlin or Richard Rogers churning out tunes anymore, we can still use pop tunes to our advantage.

Ear-candy

If you … 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