March 19th, 2014

Why You Should Be Hearing Music in Your Mind

Written by Eric

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

February 23rd, 2014

Creating the Perfect Practice Environment

Written by Eric

I’ve practiced my instrument huddled inside a closet, surrounded by dirty laundry. I’ve worked out scales after dark sitting in the back seat of my car. I’ve practiced classical etudes in secluded corners of Central Park. I’ve done my warm-up routine in hotel bathrooms and I’ve played into pillows after midnight to run through tunes.

Over the years I guess I’ve practiced in some pretty weird places. Now I didn’t exactly select these locations because I liked them or thought they would be a fun change of pace, it often came down to a simple choice: practice or don’t practice.

If you’re serious about music, you’ve probably encountered this exact situation in your daily quest to find practice time. You truly want to get some practicing done, yet despite your best efforts you’ve nowhere to do it.

You might be traveling, working late, staying at a friend’s house, or living in an apartment building where the neighbors have a strict quiet policy. Or you might just find yourself in a place where you don’t want to bother anyone.

As a musician you’ll encounter many obstacles on your journey to perfecting your craft, but there is a simple, yet important issue that can affect your playing in a big way: your practice environment.

While most people think about practice in terms of content (scales, etudes, technical exercises, tunes, etc.), it’s equally important to consider the quality of your practice time, specifically the physical location and the mental … Read More

February 9th, 2014

Reality Check: Motivating Yourself to Better Musicianship

Written by Eric

It’s been a few weeks since the new year when we posted articles on setting goals and making musical resolutions.

Did you make some resolutions this year? If so, how are they holding up?

Maybe you didn’t exactly make a conscious resolution, however you probably have some areas of your playing that you want to improve in the new year. Are you on track to achieve these goals or has your progress and ambition slowly come to a standstill?

Not to worry, if you haven’t stuck with those resolutions you’re definitely not alone. In fact you’re completely normal. Most resolutions and goals start out with excitement and determination, then slowly wither away after a few weeks.

Chances are you’re reading this article because you’re genuinely interested in improving your musical skill set, whether it’s ear training, improvising, music theory, or instrumental technique. That’s great, we want you to improve these skills and we want the information on this site to make a difference in your playing.

However, it’s going to take more than just reading an article to make this happen. The reality is that many people are going to read these articles and then…you guessed it, do nothing. I often did the same with the information I received from my lesson teachers, I would study my notes, make some goals in my mind, imagine getting better, and then never implement it into my daily routine.

With any type of large or life altering goals there seems to be … Read More

January 26th, 2014

Why You Shouldn’t Be a Real Book Player

Written by Eric

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

January 5th, 2014

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

Written by Eric

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

January 1st, 2014

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

Written by Eric

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
December 28th, 2013

Hitting the Target: How to Accomplish Your Goals in Music and Anything Else

Written by Eric

On this site, we often talk about the specifics of learning improvisation: ear training, transcribing, chord progressions, language… But what about the big picture? How do you accomplish what you want to as a musician?

How do you get from the player you are today to the player that you want to become down the road?

It’s an important question for any aspiring musician to ponder and the answer is surprisingly simple, yet it’s one that many players forget as they head into the practice room.

The truth is, a lot of musicians are spending hours in the practice room, but few of these players are actually achieving their musical goals.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Here are three simple steps to turning this pattern around and accomplishing all of your goals, musical or otherwise:

I. Have a defined objective

Know what you want.

This is the first step to achieving a goal in music or anything else. You need to know why you’re doing something and what you want to get out of it.

Think about your musical practice as a journey that you’re about to embark upon. If you begin your travels with no clear destination, you’ll spend months wandering around aimlessly. By chance you might get closer to your goal or you may even be going in the completely wrong direction, you’ll never know.

However, if you know exactly where you’re headed you can easily find the best route to get there. … Read More

December 16th, 2013

What to do when You Crash and Burn on a Tune

Written by Eric

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

November 27th, 2013

Overcoming Mental Limitations in Music

Written by Eric

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

October 30th, 2013

Write Jazz Tunes Like a Pop Star

Written by Forrest

Write Jazz Tunes Like a Pop Star

I love John Mayer. There, I said it. My secret is out. I’d totally go to one of his concerts if I could stomach being one of many in a herd of screaming fourteen year old girls. I’m not about to be a part of Bye Bye Birdie, so sorry John, not sure when I’ll be showing my support.

But I love him not for his dreamy eyes, or his perfect hair. Oh no no. I love him for his ability to craft a tune. Not write. Craft.

There’s so much we can learn about writing tunes simply by listening to pop music. So while you’re improving your ear through pop music, pay attention to these 3 key points, and the next time you go to write a tune, it just might be a keeper.

Write a great hook

In pop music writing, they talk about hooks all day. Write a great hook is their credo, yet in the jazz composition universe, we rarely if ever talk about it.

Wikipedia offers a pretty good definition:

“A hook is a musical idea, often a short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in popular music to make a song appealing and to catch the ear of the listener. The term generally applies to popular music, especially rock music, R&B, hip hop, dance music, and pop. In these genres, the hook is often found in, or consists of, the chorus. A hook can be either melodic or rhythmic, and

Read More