Archive for the ‘Tunes’ 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

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

What to do when You Crash and Burn on a Tune

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar:

You walk into a jam session ready to play a tune that you’ve been sounding great on. As the band finishes up a set you gather up your courage, walk up to the stage, and call this tune you’ve been working on memorizing all week. But at the last second someone suddenly jumps in and suggests a new tune.

All of the sudden you’re up there on the spot with the audience staring at you and this tune that you don’t even know is being counted off.

What key is it in? What is the chord progression? I don’t even know the melody…

You try to play by ear, you try to find a guide tone line, you try desperately to fake it, but nothing works. You go down in flames.

This is bound to happen to every musician at some point because in truth, no one knows every tune. At one point or another, if you’re pushing yourself to get out there and play, you’ll find yourself in a situation just like the one above.

You might be getting together with friends to play some standards and a tune will come up that you don’t know, or you may find yourself in a rehearsal and suddenly you have to solo on a tune in a weird key or chord progression.

In these situations, you’re on the spot and you have to perform something that you’re not comfortable with or worse, totally inexperienced … 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 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

Jazz Contrafacts and Reharmonization: A Creative Approach to Jazz Standards

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Creativity in its most basic form is simply the act of taking something old and making it new.

Whether you’re a novelist, an architect, an engineer or an improviser, artistic creation stems from a desire to make something new within the existing confines of your craft. To put a personal stamp on your art form and to have your voice heard in some way.

For musicians this revolves around our personal interpretation of the fundamentals of music: sound, melody, rhythm and harmony.

However, creative inspiration doesn’t just appear out of the blue like a bolt of lightning, instead it slowly reveals itself through the diligent study of previous generations and the mastery of established skills. Schools of thinking must be studied, styles are to be imitated, and techniques will need to be ingrained.

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”~Albert Einstein

The study of jazz improvisation is a perfect example of the progression of creating the new from the old. This idea of continual reinvention and self expression is prevalent throughout the history of this music and you’d be hard pressed to find a lasting piece of music or style that didn’t have a direct line back to the creative work that came before it.

Take the process of transcribing a solo for instance: starting with the musical language from a previous generation, learning it slowly and eventually making it your own. An old musical language ingrained and interpreted into new musical language.

However, this concept of … Read More

Learning Tunes Your Way

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

On this site we’ve frequently written about learning tunes. This is no coincidence – learning tunes goes hand in hand with improving as an improviser.

Whether you’re practicing, performing, or simply listening to a few records with some friends you’re dealing directly with tunes. Keeping this in mind, building a solid repertoire of tunes should be near the top of your practice list as a serious musician.

If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out some of the these articles to help you get started with building your repertoire:

These articles are a good place to begin when you want to start building a solid base of tunes that you’ll feel confident performing, but what’s your next step?

If you’ve learned a handful of tunes and have a solid grasp of chord progressions, the answer is simple – you just need to learn more tunes.

However, this simple solution isn’t as easy as it sounds. As soon as you get into the practice room things begin to look a little different. The prospect of picking out one tune to learn from the hundreds upon hundreds of standards out there can be an overwhelming and even depressing process.

Where do I even begin? Why choose one tune and not another? 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

Your Next Musical Milestone: Chromatic ii-V’s

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

The process of learning to improvise is a journey. A long and rewarding journey and one that is punctuated by a series of milestones.

This can be hard to see from that comfy seat inside of your practice room, but take a step back from your daily routine and look at the path that brought you to where you are today.

You played your first notes, you learned your first scale, you learned your first tune, you figured out the inner workings of a chord progression, you got fluent in all 12 keys, you worked on the blues and rhythm changes, you learned your first ii-V- I line, you transcribed your first solo…

As you begin your musical journey these milestones are huge and transform you at a personal level. Your first notes on your instrument turned you into a musician. Your first solo over that chord progression made you an improviser.

These leaps forward changed your identity and set you apart from everyone around you. However the better you get, these breakthroughs are fewer and far between. More effort and determination is required to make even the smallest step forward.

But even the small steps forward are essential to your improvement and gradually move you toward your goal of becoming a great improviser. This musical path that you’re on can be as long or short as you want it to be. Your destination can be the sound that you hear on your favorite records or maybe you … Read More