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

March 11th, 2013

5 Secrets to Learning Tunes

Written by Forrest

Secrets To Learning Tunes

Everyone knows they should learn tunes straight from recordings and not from a lead sheet, but it’s not that simple. Figuring out what’s happening melodically and harmonically is super challenging for most people, and it’s so convenient just to print out a lead sheet.

Forget the lead sheet. Anything you learn with your mind and not your ear will not stay with you unless you constantly review it. Anything you truly learn with your ear will stay with you for a lifetime. Here are some things that if put into practice, will make you wonder why you hadn’t been learning tunes from recordings all along.

First impressions matter

In terms of the way you relate to a tune, first impressions are everything. Many people today think All the Things You Are, Just Friends, and Stella By Starlight are lame boring songs. Even though these are some of my favorites, surprisingly, I can relate to this attitude because many tunes still sound far from exciting in my mind. But why? Why do certain tunes have no spark, no energy, no life? Why do some tunes feel impossible to solo over?

It’s all about first impressions: how you were first introduced to the tune. Was it an assignment? The first time you heard it, was it from a play-along track? Or had you never heard it, and just played it from a lead sheet?

As you first conceptualize a tune, it becomes an entity with a certain vibe to it … Read More

March 5th, 2013

Connecting to the Music…Wherever You Are

Written by Eric

Music is meant to be heard live.

There is no substitute for the visceral experience of sitting in an audience and soaking up a great live performance. Not only hearing the music, but feeling the physical vibrations of those melodies, chords and rhythms. Seeing the interaction between musicians as they collectively create music in the moment and experiencing the excitement of the audience.

This is what improvisation is all about.

As a performer, experiencing a great live performance is like a shot of adrenaline for your musical motivation. When you witness music at its highest level, you can’t help feeling like you need to rush into the practice room. Your inspiration is immediately renewed and you suddenly have a new focus for your musical direction.

Any way you look at it, there is no substitute for the atmosphere of an intimate live music venue. You can rub shoulders with the greats and be in an environment where people not only love jazz, but are often serious about pursuing it themselves.

All of this live music sounds great, but what if you don’t live in New York City, the jazz capital of the world? What if you don’t even have a venue for live jazz within a 100 mile radius of your home? Are you just out of luck when it comes to experiencing this music?

Of course not! It’s 2013 and the world is a much more connected place. Thanks to the web, there are some key resources to utilize … Read More

February 24th, 2013

Know the Rules then Break the Rules

Written by Eric


“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

Quadruple Your Jazz Language in 10 Minutes

Written by Forrest

Quadruple Your Jazz Language

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

Thinking About Musical Phrasing for Improvisation

Written by Eric

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

One Brick at a Time: That’s how you build a wall

Written by Eric

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

The Forgotten Skill

Written by Eric

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