Archive for the ‘Scales’ 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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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

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 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

Developing Musicality: Applying Scales vs. Applying Language

Monday, December 26th, 2011

A recurring theme on this site seems to be language – acquiring, practicing, and applying the jazz language.There is a reason behind all the repetition, however. Language is a very powerful concept when it comes to improvisation and it’s an idea that can drastically change your mentality about the music.

But, even before you get to the idea of acquiring, applying, and transforming pieces of language, there is a much more basic issue at hand here: Why should you even learn language in the first place?

When you get down to it, no one is requiring you to learn lines from the records or to imitate the style of a famous musician. There is no mandatory rule that you have to improvise in a certain way and you can easily create solos with the “right notes” using memorized scales. So why bother spending that extra time to learn someone else’s solos and language?

It all boils down to musicality. What is it that defines the musicality in your playing? Where do you learn musicality without imitation or listening? Musicality is the reason you play music in the first place. Without emotion, style, and shape those chords and scales would be, well, just chords and scales.

If I had to name the one thing that improved my playing more than anything else, the thing that made me finally “get it” when it came to improvising, it would have to be language. Before I began to transcribe solos and study … Read More

Using Permutation to Create Unlimited Musical Ideas…and Killer Technique

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Time and again, we’ve stressed on this site that scales are not the secret to jazz improvisation.

However, scales can be beneficial if you practice and apply them in the right way. Once you aurally understand and ingrain the vital aspects of the jazz language (i.e. phrasing, melodic construction, expression, harmonic application, time, articulation, etc.) the scales and theory that you study in the practice room can substantially improve your technique.

Not only that, scales coupled with a deep harmonic knowledge can infinitely expand your options for musical expression.

Whoa, wait a second! So scales are horrible and to be avoided at all costs, but they’re also invaluable for musical expression? I know it’s sounds contradictory, but consider how music is presented in most educational settings. The crux of this matter lies in the way that the majority of musicians view scales.

Most beginning players, amateur improvisers, and even some accomplished musicians see scales as 8 notes that either ascend and descend. That’s it. Not related to musicality or harmonic application, just another exercise to be practiced in all 12 keys because someone told them to. What’s worse, many frustrated improvisers use this limited view of scales as the basis for creating solos over chord progressions.

One of the major problems that people have in learning to improvise is that they turn of their ears and only think of scales in order to come up with a solo. This simply doesn’t work. Scales are for the practice room and should … Read More

Four Ways to Reinvigorate the Practice of Technique

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

We often get stuck in a rut when it comes to practicing technique.

In the practice room we cover the same bases in our efforts to improve our overall technique. We run our major and minor scales in all 12 keys, we practice them in thirds and fourths and fifths, we use jazz articulation, we play with different dynamics, and on and on. These are all essential for improvement, but the problem here is that we often continue practicing these same technical exercises in an identical way, even after we’ve mastered them.

Note: If you aren’t challenging yourself – you’re not going to be improving.

Once you’ve got your scales and patterns together in all 12 keys and have even worked on getting them up to speed, it’s time to take your technique to the next level. Don’t keep playing those same patterns, thinking that they’ll lead you to a new level of technique! Start incorporating articulation, rhythm, time, larger intervals, and chromaticism into the mix to expand your musicianship along with your technical facility.

Technique isn’t only limited to how fast you can push your fingers down on your instrument. Just as important are the technique of rhythm, articulation, and time. When you can combine all of these ideas musically and creatively, you’ll be playing much more interesting lines.

Instead of practicing the same patterns with the same rhythms and articulations over and over again, as you’ll find in many improvisation books, simply alter your approach to these … Read More

7 Harmonic Breakthroughs that Completely Changed My Playing

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Every so often we make a musical discovery that drastically changes the way we approach improvisation. One day we are struggling over the same tunes, growing more and more frustrated with our own predictable patterns and then it hits us – we suddenly discover a secret that was hidden right before our eyes.

A subtle mental, aural, or physical shift occurs and we are able to approach improvisation in an entirely new way. From then on, our eyes (and ears) are opened to a wealth of new possibilities.

Looking back at the last fifteen years or so of my own journey to learn improvisation, I have made some very important musical discoveries that have changed the way I look at the music. Some of these discoveries came rather quickly, with a small amount of practice and others I had to struggle with for years before I had control of them.

Regardless of how long the discovery took, the result was the same: from that point on my ears changed and I took on a deeper understanding of the music. Most importantly, I now went into the practice room with a renewed excitement for improvising.

On my journey to find these breakthroughs, I looked for information in all sorts of places. Some of this information I found in books on how to improvise and some of it, in contrast, was not mentioned in any texts, videos, or lessons. Some of it was handed to me numerous times while I foolishly ignored … Read More

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