Constantly, we’re bombarded with information on how to improve. From the teachers that give us private lessons, to friends who recommend their personal practice routines, it seems there is improvement information coming from every direction! We’ll even purchase expensive books and videos, searching for “the secret” (that must exist, right?) to improving as an improviser.
With all of these “authorities” and methods on the correct way to improvise, it can be difficult to ascertain what actually works. Everyone has their own style of learning, so naturally, there isn’t one method that works for all musicians. Rather than searching for the best way to acquire information, it can be more effective to filter out what doesn’t work.
Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at the way I learned to improvise, there is pivotal advice I wish I had followed and certain methods I should have avoided, had I known better.
Here are six common mistakes I made in learning to improvise that you don’t have to make:
1. Learning tunes out of a Real Book
For years, when I would want to learn a tune, I would immediately grab my real book and look up the melody and chord changes. This made sense to me at the time because the information I needed was right there on the page. I learned nearly every song this way. Consequently, on gigs I would depend solely on the real book to get through a set. Even though … Read More
Transposition is a skill that all musicians will need at some point in their careers. Whether you play a transposing instrument or an instrument in concert pitch, there are inevitably going to be times that call for reading music or soloing from chord changes that are not in your key.
Trumpet players, saxophone players, and other transposing instruments are frequently asked to read from lead sheets that are in concert pitch, especially in small group settings. Even if you do happen to play a C instrument, the ability to transpose is a skill that will serve you well.
Whatever the case, transposing is a skill that must be developed in the practice room and refined on the band stand. Just like any other technique that you cultivate on your instrument, you must have a methodical and dedicated approach to see improvement.
Bb Instruments to C
Trumpet players, tenor players, and other Bb instruments transpose up a whole step to play written music in C. Let’s say you have an F major scale:
When you are transposing, you should see the notes a whole step above the written music as shown below:
Get in the habit of seeing a note and being able to think of the note a whole step up automatically. A good way to practice this is to take a piece of music that you are working on to the piano. Play the written notes at the same time as the note you are transposing to.… Read More
In my first 3 Gems Harold Mabern Told Me, we learned how much Harold stresses: Relying on your ear, Being greedy for the music, and The difference between inspiration and motivation. Here’s 3 more to dwell on.
1.) Good music is good music
Harold would play all sorts of tunes in my lessons. Sometimes it was a straight-ahead jazz tune and sometimes it was a pop tune. It didn’t matter who wrote it, who performed it, or what the general public thought about it.
Often, he would take a pop tune and create his own arrangement, transforming it into a work of art. Don’t discriminate against non-jazz music. Trust your ear and figure out what makes particular music appeal to you. Good music = Good music.
2.) Learn your standards in all keys
Take tunes from the jazz-standard-repertoire and learn them in all keys. Some standards Harold loves and plays are not so familiar by many people today. Tunes like, “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and “Let’s face the Music and Dance.”
You can tell when Harold plays these tunes that he has a connection with them; that he’s fallen in love with them. That’s how you should feel about the tunes you’re playing. So find some standards you like, develop a relationship with them, and learn them in all keys.
3.) Understand where players came from
In our combo rehearsals, Harold would write a few players on the chalk board and say “Who influenced all of … Read More
Several readers have written us lately asking how to practice scales. Simply practicing them is not difficult, but attaining a high level of speed and accuracy, while keeping your sound consistent throughout all registers is quite a task. This article assumes you are familiar with the 12 keys and the scale qualities of major, minor (natural, harmonic, and melodic), whole tone, and diminished.
Typical scale practice
Most college jazz programs, as well as most books, have a standard way they have their students practice. While effective, their prescribed method can be greatly improved upon for more rapidly acquiring the speed we all desire. Here’s what they say:
Practice your major, minor ( all 3…natural, harmonic, & melodic), whole-tone, and diminished scales
In all keys
Full range of your instrument
From root to as high as you can go, back down to as low as you can go, and then back up the root
One mode up, the next down and so on (up and down)
The scale in diatonic 3rds (up and down)
In diatonic 4ths (up and down)
In diatonic triads (up and down)
In diatonic seventh chords (up and down)
Here are simple examples in the key of C:
Basic scale practice prescribed by books and colleges
Seems simple enough, right? Sure, it sounds easy, but that’s a whole lot of work. I can tell you from experience, trying to tackle your scales this way is overwhelming, tiresome, and inefficient.
Yes, eventually you’ll want to be able to … Read More
One of the most frustrating feelings I have, is to get to the end of the day and realize that I haven’t practiced enough, or even worse, that I haven’t even touched my instrument. Whether it’s because of appointments, travel, school, or work commitments, it seems like there is always something getting in the way of our daily practice. However, just because we find ourselves away from our instruments, doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice practice time. Here are five easy ways to take control and turn that otherwise wasted time into useful practice time:
The practice of visualization is used by people in all types of professions. Athletes visualize themselves performing at their peak before game time, politicians visualize themselves giving great speeches, and even surgeons mentally rehearse every aspect of a procedure before operating on a patient.
As musicians, we can also use this process to our advantage. Not only can we visualize a perfect performance, we can use this method to actually practice and reinforce techniques outside of the practice room. Scales, chord progressions, and even a transcribed solo that you have been learning, can improve by using visualization.
If you are still wondering what visualization is, read this article on visualization now for a step by step process on how to mentally practice for jazz improvisation. You can do these exercises while you are laying in bed before you fall asleep or any other downtime you have during the day.
Here's a collection of some of the best jazz improvisation educational video clips I've found. They include: Pat Martino, Jerry Bergonzi, Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker, Hal Galper, Joshua Redman, Bill Evans, John Scofield, Chris Potter, Billy Taylor, Joe Henderson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson, Terence Blanchard, Walter Bishop Jr., and Kenny Werner. Enjoy!
Whether it be figuring out difficult double-time passages, navigating advanced technical lines, or even finding the motivation to do it everyday, transcribing can be difficult.
Transcribing, while essential to learning to play the jazz language, is often one of the most demanding tasks to complete on a regular basis for improvisers. Two readers recently asked questions regarding the difficulties of transcribing. One reader writes:
“I wanted to transcribe a Wes Montgomery solo and there are some moments where I can’t hear what he is playing. What should I do, try another solo? Also, how do I overcome moments when I am not in the mood for practicing?”
Slow it down, hear & sing every note
I know this feeling well: beginning a transcription, making progress quickly, and then reaching a point where you just can’t figure out the notes. As a result, your concentration quickly falls apart and frustration ensues. At times like these, do not move onto another solo, especially if you really love the solo. In most solos there is a section that is difficult to transcribe, whether it is a fast double time section or a track of poor recording quality. Stick with it.
In these cases, I use a program to slow down the recording so I can precisely hear what the soloist is playing note by note. Don’t be afraid to slow the recording way down or feel that you’re cheating by doing so. Once you’ve slowed it down, hear every note in your mind.… Read More
I play trumpet and improvise fairly well, but mainly play by ear. How can I learn the chord tones and use them effectively to construct my solos? For example, it takes a long time for me to name of the 6th of a chord. I’ve tried several books to find a good method to achieve this. It seems as though there are so many things to learn! I begin something then I go to another. The result is very poor. Can you help me?
Slim down your focus
Yes, I can help you because I’ve experienced that exact problem. Being able to conjure chord tones in a flash is essential to improvising at your peak, but let me start by saying, you’re right, it does feel like there is so much to learn and it can be overwhelming to say the least! Stop buying instructional books on jazz improvisation.
Not to say there aren’t wonderful books written on how to improvise. I even recommend quite a few on this site. However, I can tell you from experience, in general, the more books I accumulated, the more overwhelmed I felt, and the less I focused on the truly important aspects of learning how to improvise jazz: absorbing the music of the greats, developing my ear, and playing what I hear.
Narrow your focus and increase your depth. This is the way to learn this music.
A reader recently wrote us asking about what we think about while we improvise. He writes:
“I’m a tenor saxophonist and still pretty new to the whole improvising scene. I was wondering what musicians “think” in their minds while improvising. Are you consciously focused on the scales and chord structures? Or do you just not think anything and let your subconscious play the keys and do the work?”
I remember wondering what I should think about while improvising and wondering what my favorite players thought about while they were improvising. Well, luckily, I ended up studying with one of my favorite players, Rich Perry, and had the opportunity to ask him what he thinks about while he improvises.
Rich Perry on chords
Rich tersely answered, “The Chords.” He went on to say, “What else would you be thinking about?”
But it’s not quite that simple. As our conversation ensued, I realized a number of clarifications to what he meant by “thinking.” In terms of thinking about the chords…he has the chords “burned” into his brain to the point that they are just there. In that way, he’s always aware of what chord he is on.
One of his examples was when we were playing a tune and he slipped in an Eb minor chord right before a D minor chord. He expressed, “How would I have known that I could put that Eb minor chord in, if I didn’t know I was about to be on a D minor … Read More
I used to frequent the Village Vanguard to go see my teacher Rich Perry perform all the time. As you gaze upon the walls of the Vanguard, you peer into the past; jazz legends, the inventors, live on the walls. You sit there in awe, knowing that at some point, they occupied the space you now occupy. And that thought leads to another: most of the jazz legends are not around anymore. The only window we will ever have to them is through their recordings.
Recordings and their limits
Jazz is meant to be heard live. Rarely caught on recordings, the energy permeates the venue and hits you right between the eyes. In my experience, hearing Michael Brecker, Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Garrett, and a handful of other incredible players live, greatly surpassed hearing them on recordings.
Recordings represent an extremely limited time and space in a musician’s life. Who knows what was going on in their life that month, that day, hour, or even that moment. Some recordings are flops. Not even Charlie Parker could be a perfect player all the time. And sometimes the way he was miked made him sound B-rate, and we all know, he’s not B-rate.
Just find the best
Get in the habit of finding a player’s recordings that showcase his absolute best playing. If a friend says he loves a specific player and you’re not so inclined to agree, ask him what his favorite album is. Chances are you’ve never heard … Read More
We are Forrest and Eric. We’ve learned from a ton of great musicians (Mulgrew Miller, Rich Perry and many more). We are sharing anything that continues to inspire us as musicians and creative individuals alike. Enjoy.
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