February 8th, 2012
Recently we’ve gotten a few questions regarding chord tones: how to work on hearing them, how to aim for them in your lines, and how to connect them when you’re improvising over a chord progression.
Understanding the sound and function of chord tones is important to your success as an improviser. However, it’s important to remember that chord tones are not the only aspect of improvising that you need to worry about. In fact, focusing only on these specific notes or ways to connect them when you improvise can lead you in the opposite direction then you’re aiming for.
Think of this ability to hear, understand, and utilize chord tones in your solos as yet another skill in your improvisational arsenal, one of many that you use daily to create the lines you’re hearing in your head. In other words, chord tones should just be one piece of the puzzle, not your only way to construct material to improvise with.
With this in mind, here are concepts to think about that will put you on track to understanding and using chord tones to your advantage. Along with each practice idea, I’ve included some links to some of our articles that will guide you through the process of acquiring these skills.
I) Adjusting your mental approach
While the focus of improvising should be the sound of the music, the way that you think about chords and their respective chord tones can have a huge impact on the way you play. The … Read More
February 3rd, 2012
You’ve heard it time and time again…”Play what you hear!”
But how do you actually go about playing what you’re hearing? And how do you hear the stuff that you want to play? Playing what you hear sounds easy in theory, but it’s much more difficult in practice.
When you think about it, it’s kind of the whole point. If you could hear everything you want to play and play everything you hear, you could play anything you wanted to. That being said, the advice, “play what you hear,” is not an easy task.
There are however many ways to get closer to the goal of hearing what you play and playing what you hear. Here’s a simple process to get the ball rolling and make quick headway.
Step 1: connect your voice to your mind’s ear
The first step to playing what you hear has nothing to do with your instrument. It’s just you: connecting the voice that produces sound in your mind, with the your singing voice.
Anybody can develop this skill. We all have the ability to hear voices and sounds in our head, in fact, sometimes it’s difficult to turn them off! Yet not everyone learns to control this inner voice. It’s this inner voice where everything comes from.
For this first step, sit in silence and close your eyes. Turn all your attention to the voice in your mind. Instruct your inner-voice to “sing” a solid continuous pitch. Focus even more on this pitch and … Read More
January 31st, 2012
Everybody talks about learning tunes. I mean everybody. It’s the one common thread that you hear about at jam sessions, in music schools, and conversations with great players. So much emphasis is placed upon the need for more tunes it’s not surprising that most players have this burgeoning mental complex about knowing and learning tunes that hangs over their heads day after day like a black cloud.
With this ominous mindset, the simple act of learning a tune becomes a painful, long, drawn-out process that we try to avoid at all costs.
For years, I was stuck in this mental box and would force myself to try to learn tunes by pure memorization, from a piece of paper. Hours were spent in fruitless pursuit and it became easier to read tunes than to actually learn them. When it came time to perform these tunes, I was hanging onto these mental facts like a stranded swimmer holding on to a life preserver.
If I couldn’t think of those note names I memorized or that sequence of fingerings, I had nothing to play and worse, no aural skills to keep me afloat.
When you are learning in a situation like this, building a solid repertoire can seem like an impossible task. Even when you do manage to learn a tune, are you sure that you truly know it and will remember it?
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably had the same thought I often had: There has to be a better … Read More
January 26th, 2012
We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to play, but how often do we think about what we don’t want to play?
I’m sure if you spent some time recording yourself or simply observing what you play, you’d find you’re playing some things that you actually do not want to play. Rather than continue to ingrain these things you don’t want to play, why not consciously decide that you’re not going to play them anymore?
Unfortunately it’s not that easy. Just like a golfer who picks up a bad habit early on spends the rest of his career fixing it, any poor playing habits that we pick up, whether they be crappy lines or undesirable stylistic nuances, getting rid of them is difficult. But even before you start ditching stuff, some self-reflection is in order to figure out what you don’t want to play.
Determine what you don’t want to play
To clarify, what you don’t want to play doesn’t have to be something that you already play; it could actually just be something that you don’t want to ever play in the future. For instance, there’s a famous line called “Indiana Bebop” as illustrated below:
It’s not a terrible line and you do hear people play it, but perhaps you think it’s very generic and boring, or because many people play it, you consciously decide that you’re not going to play it.
Or, perhaps what you don’t want to play is not a line, but … Read More
January 25th, 2012
1. Nobody’s checking for your music degree
Just because you graduated with a degree in jazz studies and minored in Coltrane licks doesn’t mean that you know how to play. Music school has its benefits, but it’s not the end of the road for your musical education – in fact, if you picked up the right skills, it’s just the beginning.
On the flip side, if you’ve never went to music school it doesn’t mean that you can’t play. Becoming a great player takes the same type of work, whether you’re enrolled in a music school or learning on your own with the records. In the end, here’s what matters: Can you play?
2. Keep going back to the fundamentals
When it comes to improvisation, your improvement stems from the basic building blocks of musicianship. Still can’t hear a ii-V progression and rusty on your major scales, but continually trying to improvise over difficult tunes? That’s like trying to be a world-class olympic swimmer and not knowing how to do the back-stroke. Stop setting yourself up for frustration of failure. Start by building a solid foundation of technique, ear training, and language and go from there.
3. Talent is great, but skill and perseverance win every time
Not every person has the same kinds of talents, so you discover what yours are and work with them.~Frank Gehry
A natural affinity or ability for something is great, but to succeed at improvisation you need to tirelessly develop your skills day … Read More
January 22nd, 2012
The extreme ranges of any instrument express extreme emotion, but they’re not easy to tackle. The high register is notoriously difficult on most instruments and the low register is often under-developed and under-utilized.
The standard approach towards these registers is to extend your scales and arpeggio exercises as high and as low as you can. Yes, this is a great start, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t do that, however, if you think by simply playing scales and arpeggios in these registers that you’re going to suddenly be using them creatively while you improvise, you better guess again.
And furthermore, the idea of “extending your range” does not simply mean you can play one note really high. That’s useless.How interesting is it really to hear some trumpet player squeaking out the highest note he can in the most un-musical and look-at-me manner?
Get over it. Nobody cares how high you can play. Well, not true; the same crowd that loves Kenny G, probably would love to hear you play high too. But seriously…the high and low registers can be used musically and with purpose.
Once you learn the fingerings and proper relaxed technique to achieve the sound you desire in these registers, there are some obvious but rarely used tactics to explore, which will help you become fluid in using the extreme ranges while improvising.
Apply language to extreme ranges
This is the most obvious concept, yet the most overlooked. We probably sound like a broken record. Language, language, … Read More
January 20th, 2012
Let’s face it, improvisation is hard enough as it is, even when we do spend the time in the practice room. But however much we study or practice, there are some key factors that can destroy our creativity and ability to improvise in seconds.
We’ve all experienced this feeling before in performance. You hear an idea or a line in your head and for some reason or another it doesn’t come out of your instrument. It seems that something is preventing you from playing over those chord changes with ease. Sometimes it’s even hard just to find a good idea to play!
All too often we think the excuse lies in some area that we have no control over or we look for some hidden problem that is keeping us from playing the way we envision.
We get questions all the time from people encountering these issues with improvising. Most of the time people are looking for some hidden problem that is holding them back. I totally relate with this experience and remember looking to advanced harmonic concepts and special techniques to solve my problems.
Nine times out of ten however, the issue lies with one of 5 key areas of musicianship that I’ve listed below. Think of this list as the 5 pre-requisites that you need to have down before you graduate to improvising on the stage.
Without them, improvising is like trying to take the final exam after you’ve skipped all the classes – you’re going to be … Read More
January 17th, 2012
Half-diminished chords are difficult, but they don’t have to be. In How to Not Suck At Half-diminished Chords, I presented a simple way to start to improve at these often neglected chords and if you practiced the exercise in that article, you will without a doubt have made progress.
But even with some concentrated effort on those exercises, half-diminished chords are probably still giving you a tough time.
Why does this particular chord cause us so much trouble and what can we do about it?
The only reason half-diminished chords are difficult is because we’re given incomplete information about how to approach them. Jazz theory instructs us to play the locrian mode. So, what do we do with this information? We make a short cut so we can remember in real-time how to play over a half-diminished chord.
The line of thought goes something like this: Oh, B half diminished is just the locrian mode (7th mode) of C major. Great…that means whenever I see a half-diminished chord I’ll simply go up a half-step and play the major scale.
If that sounds like you, that’s why you suck at half-diminished chords. As How To Not Suck At Half-diminished Chords notes, the locrian mode is a starting place. That’s it.
And that being said, it’s actually a quite confusing starting place. Take for instance the half-diminished chord in this iii Vi ii V:
What does the B half-diminished chord have to do with C major? The answer: Nothing! … Read More
January 16th, 2012
A magical thing happens when you listen to a recording of your favorite player and begin to play along with the record. It’s almost as if an unconscious transformation takes place, an instant instruction through aural osmosis. Simply by sitting by the speakers with your instrument and taking in those sound waves, you can instantly imitate that player’s unique musical style.
Ironically though, many of us miss this connection because we have tunnel vision on the music theory. Somewhere along the way, we’ve picked up this mentality that you learn the notes in one place and get the style from another.
Chances are you’ve even heard someone describe musical style with words while teaching improvisation: “bend that note, lay back on the time there, ghost those notes, play with a brighter sound, tongue those notes shorter, put some edge on it!”
These phrases give you a general target to aim at, but when compared with the actual sound, these verbal descriptions continually fall short of the intended target. To truly grasp style, it must be experienced and understood on a deep emotional level. This is where the benefits of transcription and serious listening come into play.
The majority of improvisers have a set definition and goal when it comes to transcribing, which usually begins and ends with figuring out the specific notes of line or solo. But think about it, once you’ve learned those notes, do you sound like that player from the record when you’re by yourself? Is that … Read More
January 13th, 2012
In a recent question from a reader, I was asked why in many examples on this site do I denote the iii chord in a iii Vi ii V as half-diminished?
This is an excellent question. In many lead sheets you see the iii chord denoted as minor and many theory books claim that the iii chord should always be minor because that’s how you would derive it from the tonic key.
So, what’s correct? We’ll get there later…
The thing you have to remember for now is that chords are sounds. It almost seems dumb saying that, but we often forget that simple fact. Chords are not just symbols on paper. They are living, breathing, aural entities that work together to create a progression.
A progression “works” because one chord pushes to the next. That’s why it’s called a progression…it progresses. It’s this sense of forward motion within progressions that allow you to make many different decisions on what chords you specifically play at any given time.
Lead sheets are leading you astray
I remember years ago learning tunes from play-along recordings with the written music in front of me and no matter what, I couldn’t seem to sound “right.”
I finally took it upon myself to learn one of the tunes I was working on straight from the recording. At first, it took a lot longer and I was terribly frustrated, but it got much easier. And then, I realized, wait a minute, the piano is not playing … Read More