February 22nd, 2012
When we practice jazz improvisation, we zoom in on one area of study so much that we often lose sight of the whole. How do we practice in this truly focused way, while simultaneously train ourselves to perform in a way that expresses all of what we know?
In other words, how can we shift our perspective from a one-pointed zoomed in view to a wide angle lens where we’re capable of drawing from many concepts, lines and techniques?
The answer: practice mixing.
Mixing is just that. You practice mixing multiple techniques during a chorus or several choruses of improvisation. By doing this, you learn how to widen your gaze and not get hung up on playing the same thing every time around.
The more you learn to mix everything you practice, the more it will be available in live performance as it will be natural for you to move from one idea to another, or to sprinkle in some new concept you’ve been working on at just the right moment.
What to mix
What can you “mix”? Well, when you think about it, in general, anything you play is either a piece of language, or a concept. Really, even a piece of jazz language is an example of concepts in action, so essentially everything is a concept, but for sake of clarity, I prefer to think of language and concepts as two complimentary entities.
So, you can mix:
- language with language
- language with concepts
- concepts with concepts
These are … Read More
February 20th, 2012
Great solos don’t come from nowhere.
The ability to apply innovative harmonic concepts, flawless instrumental technique, and appropriate musical language doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. These prized aspects of excellent musicianship have to start somewhere. However when it comes to pondering our musical idols, for some reason we can’t help thinking in this illogical and romanticized way.
From Charlie Parker to Miles to Michael Brecker we see the staggering end result of their work and can’t imagine it being any other way. They never had to work hard, those amazing solos just came out naturally, right?? The reality though, is that each great player and more specifically, each great solo has an exact origin and a traceable path from idea to implementation.
Now this idea is nothing new to musicians, but an area of contention among many is what exactly it is that goes into creating a great solo. There are many theories out there as to what it takes to become a great improviser. Just take a look at all the different concepts and methods you can study in books and the DVD’s put out by dozens of big names.
Even between great players, there are discrepancies as to what works and what doesn’t work.
Despite all of these personal methods, there is one consistent truth that can’t be ignored. When you improvise a solo, you can only draw upon what you’ve practiced and ingrained in the practice room. It’s as simple as that – if you … Read More
February 17th, 2012
I practice a lot. Some days more than others, but I try to get in a couple hours everyday no matter how busy I am. In many jobs I’ve had, I’ve even been known to take my horn to work and sneak away in a spare room once everyone leaves.
I bet your life is just as busy as mine. Between work, family, and personal obligations, our musical endeavors fall to the wayside and end up in a chaotic mess; you scramble to find an hour to practice and when you finally do, you’re not sure where you spent your time yesterday, where you should spend it today, and what you should spend it on tomorrow.
Relax. It’s time to get organized.
Documenting what you know
The first and main step in getting organized is documenting what you know. This is an easy step to pass by. Believe me, I still have much of what I know undocumented. Why is this bad?
It’s not necessarily bad that not everything you know isn’t documented and it’s probably impossible to document literally everything you know, however, conversely, the more you can document what you know, the more you will understand where your greatest strengths and weaknesses lie. Think of your documentation as a visual representation of your arsenal.
Document language you learn
Every week you should be further ingraining the language you know, and introducing new language into the mix. With all this language coming in and out the door, it’s easy … Read More
February 14th, 2012
Recently I’ve been checking out a book called “You are Your Own Gym: The Bible of Bodyweight Execises.” The author, Mark Lauren, is a former instructor and trainer for elite special forces soldiers.
The central premise of his book, geared toward your everyday civilian, is that you don’t need all those fancy high-tech weight machines or even an expensive membership to your local gym to get in shape. According to the Mark Lauren, what most people don’t realize is that you already have all the equipment you need to completely transform your body.
You are indeed your own gym.
At first glance, it seems like a concept that’s too simple and too obvious to work let alone create elite soldiers. However after a few weeks of sticking to his program, the results speak for themselves. More important and far reaching than his workout program though, is the concept of intrinsic improvement.
This idea of self-engendered personal growth may not be a revolutionary concept in the realm of physical fitness, but in the world of music it is surprisingly rare.
Fitting the mold of the musician
In music, we constantly define ourselves and our musicianship by external factors: the instruments we play, the style of music we perform, the records we listen to, and the groups we play with. Classical musicians are supposed to play a certain way, jazz musicians have to play another way, string players play a certain way, drummers should focus exclusively on rhythm, horn players … Read More
February 9th, 2012
It’s as easy as getting from point A to point B, right? Of course it is. But what they fail to mention is that the distance between the two points is not a straight line!
In terms of large goals, like learning how to improvise, the path is not linear. In terms of small goals like learning a single line or concept, you can create a direct approach to practicing that particular thing and work it into your playing in a systematic way. However, today we’re not talking about little goals. We’re talking about big goals. Large ideas. Multiple levels of improvement.
We’re talking about learning jazz improvisation as a whole. The larger the goal and the more general it is, getting from point A to point B becomes less linear, so you can bet that this is a good candidate.
Understanding the reality of non-linear paths
What is a non-linear path and why does it even matter? Saying a path is not linear means that it’s not as clear-cut and dry as people think. When we first start to learn how to improvise we’re scrambling for what to practice and we easily get overwhelmed when we realize there’s so much to learn.
With all this to learn, in what progression do we tackle the material?
We recently received a question from a reader asking if they should start transcribing, or working on ear training, or learning language…and the answer is: yes.
It’s simply yes because these are all necessary … Read More
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 pops up at jam sessions, on gigs, in music schools and in conversations with great players.
Hey, what tune do you want to play next? Do you know this tune? What tunes are you working on? I really need to learn this list of tunes…
It’s not surprising then that a lot players quickly develop an anxiety about learning tunes and dread the entire process. What was once a fun project in the practice room gradually becomes a long drawn-out chore that never seems to end.
For years I was stuck in this mental box forcing myself to memorize tune after tune from a piece of paper. I somehow never knew enough tunes yet I spent countless hours trying to force feed these melodies into my brain.
And when it came to performing these tunes, I was hanging onto those mental images from the page 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 keep me afloat.
This is not ideal for any musician. When you are learning in a situation like this, building a solid repertoire can seem like an impossible task. And even when you do manage to learn a tune, are you sure that you truly know it and remember it?
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably had the same thought … 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