August 28th, 2013

Becoming a Musical Character

Written by Eric

Have you ever seen a movie where a certain character stuck with you long after the film was over? Or what about a piece of artwork that kept popping up in your mind’s eye?

Maybe you’ve witnessed a speech that had the same lasting effect or attended a concert where the performer played their instrument in such a way that it altered your own musical approach.

We’ve all experienced these moments, but what was it about these performances or experiences that stuck out for us?

In any field there are certain people that stand out and there are certain voices that rise above the masses. Nonchalantly, we often say that these individuals have character…but what exactly is character?

A quick glance at a dictionary will give you the following definition: The combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another.

And a character is a person who embodies these distinguishing features.

A character is someone that stands out from the crowd. A character has immediately distinguishable traits. A character has a unique way of speaking or a specific vocabulary. A character has a unique sense of style. A character grabs your attention and sticks in your mind. And a character has a story to tell.

Characters of all types catch your attention and connect with you in a personal way and in an art like improvisation, this is an essential tool in developing your voice and connecting with the listener.

Musical Characters

Characters in … Read More

August 20th, 2013

How One Note Can Open Up Your Ears and Spark Your Musical Creativity

Written by Eric

Can one note really change your ears and improve your musical creativity?

The answer is yes and I’ll show you how.

A few years ago I took a lesson with the great trumpet player, improviser and composer Ingrid Jensen. As we started the lesson, instead of the usual warm-up exercises and scale patterns I was expecting, she turned on a drone machine, a little black box that emitted a single constant tone.

For the next 10 minutes or so we played a number of different exercises along with this background tone – long tones, scales, trumpet etudes, intervals, etc. For some reason these familiar exercises that I had done hundreds of times before were transformed into something different with the accompaniment of the drone. The effect even changed the way I approached chords and tunes in my practice years later.

She later explained that she often uses a drone machine as a practice tool to enable creativity, musical freedom and focus at the beginning of her practice sessions. To clarify, a drone machine is basically an electronic synthesizer that sustains a single note, but the same effect can be achieved with other instruments or recorded tracks.

The idea of focusing on a sustained pitch is something that has been practiced for thousands of years. A drone is used in meditation (om mantra) and is played using instruments like Tibetan Singing Bowls or the Tanpura in Indian music.

The drone has been used as a calming element and focusing tool … Read More

July 28th, 2013

How to Learn Jazz Standards with the Piano

Written by Eric

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

July 17th, 2013

Critical Vs Creative Thinking: How Initial Judgments Can Cripple Your Learning

Written by Forrest

Critical Vs. Creative

That’s really good. And that’s bad. That’s ugly. And that’s pretty. I like that. But I hate that. That sucks. But that’s great.

Our first instinct upon experiencing something, whether it’s hearing something, seeing something, or meeting somebody new, tends to be that of judgment. We are creatures of classification, often subconsciously fitting everything around us into an understandable compartment – judging quickly and efficiently has its purpose.

But is judging everything we experience the most beneficial initial response for our creative output?

Initial judgment can lead to learning nothing

I recently read the book Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb. The book discusses the simple idea that one rare event can have a huge unforeseen impact, and in hindsight, we tend to rationalize why it makes sense that it happened.

At one point, Taleb discusses a neuroscientist named Yevgenia Nikolayevna Krasnova and her book A Story of Recursion, that became an international best seller. Not knowing who she was, I of course googled her name instantly. Page after page, readers express their disdain for Taleb. “How could he possibly make up this character!?” and “I guess we can’t trust anything he says.”

Review after review of the book, people tear apart all sorts of things Taleb discusses, which made me stop and think. I learned quite a lot from the book; concepts that I can take and actually apply. I could throw out everything in the book because of my initial judgments about some of his content, or I … Read More

July 10th, 2013

The Improviser’s Tipping Point

Written by Eric

When exactly do I become good at improvising? Is there a single point that occurs where I can finally play like I want to?

These are questions that inevitably pop up and hover at the back of your mind as you begin learning to improvise. Is all the work you’re doing now really going to pay off in the future?

If you were anything like me, when you first started learning to improvise you imagined a point in the not so distant future where you would suddenly “get it.” Sometime a year from now or maybe 5 years from now… It would be a sort of musical promised land or an instant melodic awakening where everything would fall perfectly into place.

It only had to be a matter of time, it had to be! After so many years spent toiling away in a practice room you were bound to hit that place where the odds fell in your favor and improvisation became easy.

However, this mythical point of enlightenment that contains all the answers sadly doesn’t exist. In reality there isn’t one single tipping point or exhilarating moment of insight that makes you an improviser. Rather, reaching your goal with improvisation is the culmination and collaboration of a number of different areas in your playing.

The greatest improvisers I’ve met never felt like they arrived at a destination – they were always searching for the next level and striving to improve.

Improvisation is not a destination, but a journey with … Read More

June 18th, 2013

The Art of Teaching and Being Taught

Written by Forrest

The Art of Teaching and Being Taught

Acrobatics is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. The physical prowess needed to do even the most basic maneuvers is on par with that of the Incredible Hulk, while the necessary flexibility exceeds even that of a ballerina.

Upon seeing my first live cirque performance in Montreal, La Clique, I knew that someday, I wanted to try it.

Several years after seeing this performance, I found myself at a crossing, where the traditional gym environment and workout just wasn’t exciting me anymore.

By shear chance, in cocktail conversation, a newly acquainted friend of mine started talking about circus training centers, where acrobats and aerialists dedicated countless time to their craft. Apparently, these training centers existed throughout the country, and the one she had been attending happened to be right next to where I was living!

What better time to attempt acrobatics than now? Eagerly, I enrolled in several months worth of classes.

As the months went by, I could feel myself getting stronger and more flexible. Being a rock climber my body was not exactly ripe for acrobatics, but it was getting better. Gradually, I went from absolutely horrible, to terrible. A step in the right direction! And after several more months I felt myself go from terrible to simply bad. And that’s where I remained. Bad. Better then when I started, but still bad.

This can be a tough place to be. It’s not a plateau, but more of a never-ending abyss. A black hole … Read More

May 27th, 2013

Jazz Contrafacts and Reharmonization: A Creative Approach to Jazz Standards

Written by Eric

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

May 2nd, 2013

8 Improvisation Improvement Projects That Will Change Your Playing

Written by Eric

Practice is an essential part of your journey as a musician. We all do it everyday…or at least we try our best to, however daily practice doesn’t always guarantee improvement.

Why?? Simply because not all practice is created equal. If you look at the big picture there are two basic types of practice:

  • (1) maintenance practice in which you are doing the necessary work to maintain your current level and…
  • (2) improvement practice in which you are breaking new ground, isolating problem areas in your playing and working on skills that you have not yet developed.

Both types of practice are necessary for performing at your peak. There is a certain amount of instrumental maintenance to perform each day to ensure that you are staying at your current level of musicianship and there is also a need to acquire new information and skills if you wish to improve as a player.

However, the barrier that most musicians encounter when striving for improvement is that they get stuck on maintenance practice. Day after day they spend hours practicing what they already know: the same exercises, the same lines, the same patterns, the same tunes.

Hours are being logged in the practice room, but the time is not being spent on the type of practice that will elevate your skills to the next level. Left unchanged, this process can go on for years where you’re just maintaining the musical level that you’ve already achieved, not learning anything new.… Read More

April 18th, 2013

Learning Tunes Your Way

Written by Eric

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

April 10th, 2013

6 Common Chord Relationships (…other than ii-V-I)

Written by Eric

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