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
August is finally here and with the approaching end of summer looms the shadow of the fall marathon season. Across the country runners are stepping up their training for races that they’ve been preparing for since the beginning of summer. As I have started to prepare for my own race, I’ve thought about how the concept of training for a big race relates to the idea of practicing towards substantial goals as a jazz musician.
Part of the reason that a marathon, triathlon, or any other race is appealing, is the pure challenge: an impressive feat that takes an enormous amount of sustained effort and a goal that many people aim to accomplish at least once in a lifetime. Running a marathon is achievable, thousands of people do it each year and have been doing it for years now, but the actual effort and determination required to run 26.2 miles separate the runners who actually train for the distance and finish it, from those who intend to but never get around to it.
In the three to four months that it takes to train for a marathon, a complete transformation takes place. Regardless of the fitness level that you start at, you have to train extremely hard for months to be able to complete the race or finish at your goal time. In other words, a marathon is not something that you can just go out and run with no preparation and expect to perform well. It is only … Read More
Lately I’ve realized that to get to specific parts of a solo that I’ve transcribed to memory, I’m quite dependent on the material that comes before them. In other words, I’ve learned the solo from start to finish, the way it was originally played, and therefore, have difficulty jumping around to different sections at will.
The goal is to own this material: imitate it, assimilate it, and innovate upon it, as Clark Terry so eloquently stated. Being able to accesses the material from various entry points greatly improves your mastery of the solo, as well as your understanding of the construction of the solo. This is wonderful ear training too. Increasing your aural memory, strengthening it and giving you the ability to retain larger chunks of music in your mind.
Define each chorus in your mind
For this exercise, choose a solo you have memorized that has a short form, a blues works perfectly, and it should be between 5 and 10 choruses. Play through the solo at medium tempo and note where the beginning of each new chorus occurs.
Do not to break up the phrases. For example, if a chorus starts with a phrase that is a measure early, include that phrase in the chorus. When I start to practice a solo this way, I pause between choruses and verbally say what chorus number I’m about to play.
Do this over and over until you can mentally replay the beginning of each chorus in your mind, knowing which … Read More
When I was younger, my father constantly cut out articles from Investor’s Business Daily that he found interesting or inspiring, and casually placed them throughout the house where I would stumble upon them. Not wanting to take parental advice, just like any other kid, most of these articles ended up in the circular file cabinet, however, albeit this childish attitude, one in particular managed to survive to live another day.
In fact, not only did it survive, but it made its way on to my wall where it would receive daily attention. Obviously, this one had to communicate real value.
These words of advice from Investor’s Business Daily (the issue’s from February, 2002) act as simple daily reminders that anyone on a creative path will benefit from. Perhaps they’ll even make it up on your wall…
Investor’s Business Daily has spent years analyzing leaders and successful people in all walks of life. Most have 10 traits that, when combined, can turn dreams into reality.
How you think is everything: Always be positive. Think success, not failure. Beware of a negative environment.
Decide upon your true dreams and goals: Write down your specific goals and develop a plan to reach them.
Take action: Goals are nothing without action. Don’t be afraid to get started. Just do it.
Never stop learning: Go back to school or read books. Get training and aquire skills.
Be persistent and work hard: Success is a marathon, not a sprint. Never give up.
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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