January 18th, 2011
Have you ever wondered why great pianists, guitarists, bassists, and drummers often sing along as they improvise? Ever noticed how many of the best horn players also happen to be great singers? Great musicians all over, seem to have developed the ability to sing somewhere along the way, whether they’ve had formal training or not. For all of us, from the musical innovator to the weekend music lover, singing is a natural part of musical development and artistic expression. The voice is in fact our first instrument and one that everyone can play. For serious musicians, though, the voice is a crucial part of our technique and one that can always be improved upon.
One concept that is not often talked about, yet immensely important, is the gap between our ears and what is coming out of our instruments. The fact is that what is easily understood aurally, rarely is translated to our instruments without any work. Internalizing this music takes hours of repeated listening and imitation until it finally appears in our day to day playing. As improvisers, we rely heavily on our ears to hear the music going on around us, but this is only a small part of developing our ears to their full potential. The real skill comes not in simple identification of intervals and chords, but in the ability to recreate what we hear instantaneously – singing.
Singing a musical idea naturally creates a strong physical connection between our ears and the sounds that we’re … Read More
January 12th, 2011
Here’s a recent query from a reader struggling with fast tempos:
Hi, I’m a saxophone player in Toronto. What might you recommend in terms of practice techniques to play on blistering fast tempos?
When it comes to fast tempos, we could all be better. Want to play fast? Start slow.
Slow over fast tempos
No matter how counter-intuitive it seems, you must first learn how to play slow melodic lines over fast tempos. These slow melodic lines consist primarily of half-notes and quarter-notes. Even when you’re not playing over fast tempos, resist the temptation to work more on playing fast than slow. Do not make the mistake of thinking that fast notes are more important than slow notes.
To play interesting slow melodic lines over fast tempos, think in larger units of time. Hearing in larger chunks of time will help you relax. How do you typically feel playing fast tunes? Frantic? Up-tight? Behind? To play confidently over quick tempos, you want to feel comfortable and relaxed.
Supposing we’re in 4, Rather than feeling every beat (1-2-3-4), feel just beat 1 of every measure. As each measure flies by, think to yourself “1…1…1…1…”
Or if the tune is really burning, think in even larger groups; feel only beat 1 every two measures. So for four measures where normally you’d feel 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4, you would feel just 1 – – – – – – – 1 – – – – – – – .
Listen to Bud Powell play … Read More
January 10th, 2011
We’ve all seen concerts that have affected us greatly and left a lasting impression on our musical perception and even our lives. Performances that seem to transcend the stage into another form of communication and stick with us long after the show has ended. It’s as if certain groups or performers have an uncanny ability to take complete control of an audience’s attention, communicating with the listener on multiple levels. But how does one get to this level? What does it take to make this much of an impact on listeners? What was it about those groups that made them special?
The answer lies with the rules of communication between a performer and a listener. When it comes to communicating ideas, there is no better source to look at then the techniques of great speakers. Accomplished speakers have the ability to move audiences, from the individual listener to large groups of people. Throughout history important speeches and noteworthy speakers have facilitated change through the power of language and incited movements through the tactful delivery of a message. The actual power lies in taking an idea or message and crafting it in such a way that it will have an impact upon whomever may be listening.
Speaking to an audience is essentially a type of performance, akin to improvising, in which a message is delivered through the use of a language to the listener. In both public speaking and improvising, the goal is the same – to effect the listener with … Read More
January 7th, 2011
a: to make a written copy of
b: to make a copy of (dictated or recorded matter) in longhand or on a machine
c: to paraphrase or summarize in writing
d: to represent (sound) by means of phonetic symbols
This is the definition I found for the word transcribe when I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary recently. I was curious to get to the bottom of what transcribing actually meant, a word that I had heard for years as I was learning to improvise.
Ever since I became interested in jazz, transcribing solos was continuously touted as the “secret” to learning improvisation. Jazz musicians and educators constantly talked about transcribing, but it seemed that there was a conflict in what was actually meant by the word transcribe, as well as the reason behind doing it.
Throughout the years I’ve met amazing improvisers that claimed they’ve never transcribed a solo and have come across others that say they’ve transcribed hundreds of solos. I’ve had teachers that didn’t write solos down, but had numerous solos memorized to the point where they could sing them without their instruments. On the other hand, I’ve encountered players that had dozens of solos written down, but didn’t seem to retain any of it or improve by doing so. So who is right and why are there so many discrepancies if everyone is “transcribing”?
Even though we may not always believe it, the words and language that … Read More
January 4th, 2011
In no particular order, here are five myths we’re going to dispel for you right now:
When it comes to improvising, you either got it or you don’t
This is complete bullsh*t, yet I’ve heard countless people claim this fallacy. The ability to improvise is a skill, just like anything else you want to excel at. It takes focus, passion, and understanding of how to improve.
Don’t buy into the idea that being great at improvising is a skill only permissible by a lucky and privileged few. The people that sound great put in years of focused practice every day, striving to improve. Sure, some people have more natural talent to begin with than others, but as one progresses, talent subsides and pure perspiration takes over. There’s no substitute for perseverance.
You need to know 1000 tunes
Check out a dozen recordings by the same performer and you’ll soon realize they have their favorite jazz standards that they’ve recorded time and time again. Miles Davis recorded many of the same standards over and over throughout his career, including: In Your Own Sweet Way, Tune Up, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Four.
It’s better to be able to sound exquisite on 10 standards than to simply know and get through 100 tunes. What’s the point of “knowing” a bunch of tunes if you can’t sound how you want to sound on them? Aim to Know 10 tunes to the point where you would feel comfortable recording them and … Read More
January 1st, 2011
Stuck in the same monotonous pattern? Not excited about playing lately? It’s time to start with a clean slate and welcome in the new year feeling motivated.
Here’s 100 ideas to reinvigorate your energy for the music. Read through the list and pick one that gets you excited. Then, just do it.
- Transcribe your first solo
- Learn one tune straight from the record
- Practice at least 30 minutes daily
- Learn a tune in all keys
- Read a biography of a famous jazz musician
- Learn basic piano voicings
- Write your first tune
- Learn a ii V line in all keys
- Learn a simple blues head in all keys
- Visualize every night before you go to bed
- Master all your intervals
- Learn to play in 3
- Play well over “Cherokee“
- Learn to stay focused while you practice
- Transcribe a solo of someone who doesn’t play your instrument
- Commit to 15 minutes of daily ear training
- Practice at least an hour daily
- Find a new favorite musician on your instrument
- Do something athletic everyday
- Read Thinking in Jazz by Paul Berliner
- Replace the stupid videos you watch on youtube with classic jazz recordings
- Learn a chorus of a transcribed solo in all keys
- Seek out new music everyday
- Learn a bebop head like “Confirmation” in all keys
- Play duo with a drummer
- Listen to classical music
- Work out simple melodies like ‘Happy Birthday” on your horn by ear
- Master the key of F# major
- Learn how to hear
… Read More
December 30th, 2010
On this site we frequently write about the benefits of ear training for improvising, with good reason. Hearing and singing intervals, melodies, chord progressions, etc. is one area of daily practice that will directly affect your improvising for the better. However, ear training isn’t only limited to improving your harmonic sensitivity. Developing rhythmic awareness and the ability to internalize all aspects of time can also be improved through ear training exercises.
The concept of time for improvisers is just as important as navigating the intricacies of a chord progression. Although this may seem obvious, it’s a fact that is largely ignored by harmonic players, especially in educational settings. The reality is, a soloist who plays with bad time, whether it’s rushing, accenting weird beats, or just plan not swinging, might as well be playing wrong notes. The end result is the same: a negative effect on the listener.
Improving your time and rhythmic awareness requires daily practice. Just because you aren’t a drummer, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be focusing on rhythmic concepts in the practice room. In fact, it means that you should be concentrating on time even more. Attaining rhythmic freedom is an achievable goal and the path there starts with training our ears to hear time in the same way that we hear melodies.
Hear it, internalize it, don’t think about it
The reason we practice ear training is to internalize the sound of what we’re trying to play, so when we’re improvising, it’s one less thing … Read More
December 22nd, 2010
A reader recently wrote in the following question:
I used to play classical guitar, then stopped for a couple of years, and am now trying to teach myself jazz guitar. Here’s the thing: I’m a college student. Between classes, homework, and work, it’s hard to get in practice time. What would you recommend working on the most if I only have maybe 30-45 minutes a day? Sometimes it’s difficult knowing where to start/what to do…
I think most people can relate to this reader’s question. Being crunched for time is just how it is these days. Not to worry. You can still make huge positive leaps in your playing with very little time.
Scope and depth
The concept of scope and depth relates to how broad and deep a selection of anything may be. With regards to practicing, scope has to do with how many topics we choose to cover during any given practice session and depth describes how deeply we study each of these particular topics.
Most people’s practice sessions tend to be broad in scope and shallow in depth. For instance, they’ll attempt to tackle tone exercises, dozens of scales in all keys, five new tunes, and what ever else they can cram into an hour! On top of that, the method they approach each of these topics with may be completely inefficient. For example, most people tend to learn new tunes from play-along recordings as opposed to learning them off the record, or they make one of … Read More
December 17th, 2010
A reader recently wrote:
I was reading your “6 mistakes” article and was intrigued by the first rule. I would be more than happy to toss my lousy sixth edition real book, but have some questions about learning tunes by ear. When I’m blowing through changes or learning licks, it all comes down to the chords. So I depend on the changes in the book. On recordings, a lot of the time all I can hear is the linear solo, and can’t hear the changes in the rhythm section. So when I learn a standard by ear, how should I approach figuring out the changes?
This is a great question and one that I’ve often struggled with myself. Sure, it’s simple enough to get the melody from a record without looking at a book, but deciphering all the chord changes can be another story. Whether it’s because of a poorly recorded track, a fast tempo, or just flat-out inexperience, taking the time to figure out each chord to a standard can be frustrating.
So why not look up the changes in a real book?
A chart in the real book represents just one version of a tune taken from one recording. That chart may have been based on substituted chord changes, a different key, or even an embellished melody. You have no way of knowing unless you check out the record for yourself. Many times, I have learned a tune from a book only to realize too late … Read More
December 16th, 2010
The extent to which your aural imagination is developed, largely determines: the quality of lines you play, how you play those lines (articulation, swing feel, inflection), and the sound you play with. Nothing has such an impact on your playing than your aural imagination. If there were a secret to improvising, developing your aural imagination would be it.
Ok, ok. I didn’t say oral imagination. You’ll have to go to the other 98% of the internet for that. Get your mind out of the gutter
When we go to improvise, we draw from a well of knowledge. This well is filled with things we’ve practiced, listened to, or studied theoretically. The stuff, though, that actually emerges during improvisation is the stuff that we can really hear. Want to change the way you sound? Change the way you hear.
The way we hear is the most neglected aspect of practicing improvisation. We simply expect to have great ears. The problem: great ears don’t just happen. They are something that are consciously developed over years and years of practice. But what does it even mean to have great ears and a vivid aural imagination?
We all hear differently. However, many traits of great ears can easily be identified. The ability to:
- Hear and sing intervals
- Hear and sing specific chord tones while a chord plays in the background
- Hear and sing the roots of a progression
- Hear a line from a recording and retain it. Slow it down in the mind. Then
… Read More