February 24th, 2013
“You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
You’ve probably heard this well-intentioned phrase before. It’s as common and overused as “Practice makes perfect” or any of the countless other sayings that we encounter when it comes to learning a musical instrument.
As students of the music we get bombarded by these catch phrases on a daily basis. Teachers show us their personal philosophy for musical improvement, we take away quotes from masterclasses, books and videos, and even our friends give us helpful pointers.
Despite our best efforts, most of this information flies by us unnoticed without any tangible impact on our playing. But you don’t have to stop there, just dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that there’s some valuable truth behind those words:
“You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
If you find yourself stuck with improvising, this phrase can be a game changer. However to create growth, you have to begin by reading between the lines. What exactly are the “rules” and what does it mean to “know” them?
Anyone can hear this statement and think, “yeah, that makes sense,” but to take that message to heart and then apply it to your own playing takes a completely different kind of person.
What does it mean to Know?
Before I started high school I attended a week long jazz camp with about 30 other aspiring improvisers. Five days of big band and combo rehearsals as well … Read More
January 28th, 2013
Learning language is vital to your success as an improvisor. Without it you’re truly lost. You may know a scale, a chord, a concept…but without the fundamental ideas of what to do with these tools, you’ll aimlessly wander through the harmony. These fundamental ideas are gleaned from learning and studying language.
A reader recently wrote in, “I’ve been transcribing and learning language from my favorite players, but now I feel like I’m just repeating the same stuff over and over. How do I get beyond this?”
For starters, make sure you’re learning language not licks, and that you’ve spent ample time making lines your own. If you’re doing those two things, you should already feel like you’re not playing the same stuff all the time.
But, how do you set yourself up from the get-go feeling like when you learn a piece language, you’re going to open many doors, not just one door to one line, in one particular situation? The answer lies in how you understand the line, and what you do with that information once you know it.
The inner workings of jazz language
Whenever you study a piece of jazz language, whether it’s a line you just transcribed, or it’s something you learned months ago, always ask yourself, “What makes this specific line special?” Really dwell on it and ponder the answer. In some cases it’s immediately obvious and in others, it may taking some more thinking.
The point is, you need to realize early … Read More
January 21st, 2013
Recently I’ve been studying and transcribing a lot of Miles from around 1956-1957. Albums like Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’.
More than the notes or the harmonic devices in his solos, the one thing that sticks out about Miles is his sense of phrasing. This is what sets him apart and why so many listeners connect with his sound. Miles could play anything he wanted, but he always plays musically.
It takes an advanced and honest musician to improvise a melody that they are hearing in their heads amid the wash of constantly moving chords and time. And it takes an even more mature musician to not play all the scales, and patterns and language that they’ve practiced for hours.
Most people don’t realize how much work and focus it takes to get to the point that you can free yourself from the theory and play something that you’re hearing and feeling.
This idea of phrasing and creating meaningful musical statements is one aspect of improvising that is missing from a lot of players’ solos. Improvising is not just using scales or inserting a pattern into a chord progression, in the end it’s all about creating music and performing personal melodies.
What is a musical phrase?
When you improvise a musical phrase, you essentially become a composer, creating new melodies on the spot over an established chord progression. Therefore, studying or at the very least becoming familiar with the elements of composition is essential for creating a … Read More
January 14th, 2013
It’s a new year.
I guess that means we should be making some resolutions right about now.
New beginnings, a fresh start and all that other good stuff. For most people making “resolutions” translates into sitting down and writing out a list of goals. It’s not a bad exercise to do every now and then and anyways, it feels good seeing those big goals on paper that you’ve always hoped to achieve.
But honestly, how often are resolutions actually followed through?
You’ve probably made dozens of resolutions over the past few years. Most of the time these hopeful goals just fall to the wayside and wither away, but every now and then we actually stick with one and complete it.
Have you ever wondered why those goals are the ones that we stick with? When you make those resolutions and set out to pursue these goals do you actually have a choice in the matter or is it a game of chance where you just roll the dice and wait for the results?
To get the answer just take a look in the rear view mirror. Every skill that you posses today is the result of a goal that was successfully accomplished in the past. Whether it’s a sport, a musical instrument or some specialized knowledge that you’ve acquired, these goals weren’t accomplished in one sitting, you worked on them consistently for years.
From your perspective today it can seem like you’ve always had these skills, but they started out … Read More
December 11th, 2012
There is one important part of practicing and learning any musical instrument or musical style that many players are unintentionally missing. A necessary skill that’s so obvious it often remains hidden in plain sight. It seems to be the same across the board from absolute beginners to college music majors. It doesn’t matter if you are studying classical music or are working on improvisation.
This essential piece of practice often gets overlooked, taken for granted, and sometimes even skipped altogether, yet it’s an activity that can be one of the most beneficial and enjoyable things you can do for your playing. If done the right way, it can entirely change your conception of music and even speed up the learning process.
So what could this “thing” be? You practice your technique, you play some etudes, you do a few ear training exercises, you’ve studied your theory, you run through some tricky chord progressions, you review a few tunes you’ve learned, but you’re still missing it.
Any guesses? It’s listening.
Now you may be thinking I listen all the time. I listen when I’m walking to class, I listen to music at the gym, and I turn on a record when I’m reading or studying. However, are you just hearing music in the background or are you actually listening to it? (…and yes, there is a difference.)
Furthermore, is listening a part of your daily practice routine? Do you set aside time each day to listen to a tune that … Read More
November 4th, 2012
We’ve presented tons of exercises on how to practice ear training, but many require that you have someone to train with. So what do you do when you don’t have a partner?
When you have no one to practice ear training with there’s just as many exercises you can do and better yet, you can really take the time to iron out your personal weak spots. Here’s a few of my go to exercises that are super simple and super effective.
Exercise #1: Interval pre-hearing
I love this exercise, in fact, I think it’s even more valuable for learning your intervals than if you had a partner! With a partner, we get into such a guess-and-check mindset, feeling rushed and oft forgetting that the point is to absorb the sounds we’re hearing on a deeper and deeper level.
By ourselves we can take our time, relax, and let the sounds echo endlessly.
To do the interval pre-hearing exercise, first choose any interval and direction to focus on, for example, let’s choose a major third going up. Next, play any note on a piano, or if you don’t have one, any tone will do, even if it’s hitting a spoon against a glass (yes, you can practice ear training anywhere even with very minimal equipment). Once you play the note, hear it in your mind and then, pre-hear in your mind a major third (our selected interval) above the note you’re playing on the piano, before singing it. Got it?… Read More
October 24th, 2012
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.~John Cage
At some point as an improviser, whether you welcome it with open arms or avoid it like the plague, you’re going to be faced with the chance to compose. That’s right – you, alone in a practice room writing your own music.
You may be excited to explore this creative opportunity or maybe the idea of staring at a blank sheet of staff paper immediately induces fear and doubt. Whatever your initial reaction, the opportunity to compose your own music will always there and if you truly want to move forward musically, there are a number of practical reasons that you should give composition a try.
You may want to perform some of your own music for once, rather than another long set spent rehashing worn out standards. You might have an assignment for one of your classes or a request for an upcoming gig. Or maybe for some strange reason you have this melodic fragment that keeps ringing in your ears everywhere you go.
We all have different musical backgrounds. Up to this point you might’ve tried your hand at a few originals or maybe you’ve sketched out a simple chord progression and left it at that.
However, if you’re like a lot of improvisers, composing music remains this elusive task that you keep meaning to do, but never seem to get around to actually starting or finishing – and this … Read More
September 9th, 2012
People have been writing in a lot lately asking us what’s okay and what’s not okay to transcribe. With all the different styles of jazz and genres of music, people are entirely confused as to what’s acceptable to transcribe.
I have to admit, upon receiving these questions, I was a bit confused. I thought to myself, “How can somebody not know what to transcribe?” We talk constantly about how to pick solos to transcribe. It all boils down to this: you need to love what you’re transcribing.
But as the questions continued to pour in, I began to realize that people arrive to transcribing with a handful of assumptions which keep them shackled upon their quest as an improvisor.
The first assumption: I’m only allowed to transcribe Bebop
Jazz is made up of a span of about 5 or 10 years, right? So wrong. There’s a whole history of this music before and after the so-called “Bebop” era. And while were at it, let’s talk about all these jazz “periods.” Jazz is commonly split into all these neat little boxes with nice little names. Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Modal, Free…and the nice little names go on…
And then each musician is then stuffed neatly into each one of these categories. Charlie Parker goes here, Cannonball there, we’ll put Trane there, and let’s throw Miles here. Okay, done! That’s jazz!
Hindsight is 20/20
Looking back, we seem to think that jazz happened in this neat orderly fashion. It did not. So-called … Read More
September 5th, 2012
The process of learning to improvise is a journey. A long and rewarding journey and one that is punctuated by a series of milestones.
This can be hard to see from that comfy seat inside of your practice room, but take a step back from your daily routine and look at the path that brought you to where you are today.
You played your first notes, you learned your first scale, you learned your first tune, you figured out the inner workings of a chord progression, you got fluent in all 12 keys, you worked on the blues and rhythm changes, you learned your first ii-V- I line, you transcribed your first solo…
As you begin your musical journey these milestones are huge and transform you at a personal level. Your first notes on your instrument turned you into a musician. Your first solo over that chord progression made you an improviser.
These leaps forward changed your identity and set you apart from everyone around you. However the better you get, these breakthroughs are fewer and far between. More effort and determination is required to make even the smallest step forward.
But even the small steps forward are essential to your improvement and gradually move you toward your goal of becoming a great improviser. This musical path that you’re on can be as long or short as you want it to be. Your destination can be the sound that you hear on your favorite records or maybe you … Read More
August 27th, 2012
Despite what everyone thinks, being creative isn’t easy. You don’t just suddenly find yourself with talent one day and immediately start creating great works of art. It takes years of hard work to develop artistic skills and once you have these skills, it’s no guarantee that your artistic vision will always find a way to express itself.
Creative people of all types encounter a block at some point in their work. There are a number of outside sources that can cause this block: nerves, pressure, fear, exhaustion, etc. But, the ones that really hold us up are the obstacles that come from within ourselves.
We’ve all heard of writer’s block, however creative troubles don’t just affect that desperate writer struggling to start the first word of that first sentence, they affect artists of all types. The dejected composer sitting at the piano amid a mountain of blank staff paper. The sleep deprived painter with a glazed-over look, staring at a hopelessly blank canvas.
And familiar to all of us, the struggling improviser running through the chord progression to All the Things for the bazillionth time searching for a new line, a new sound, a new approach…anything new to play.
Sometimes this is the way it is, you just hit a wall.
Being inventive, imaginative, and spontaneous on a daily basis isn’t easy and when you finally hit that wall it can be a huge hurdle to get over it. No ideas, frustration, boredom, and a complete creative standstill.
At one … Read More