February 14th, 2012

You Are Your Own Instrument

Written by Eric

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

The Myth of The Linear Path

Written by Forrest

Myth of the linear path

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

Understanding Chord Tones

Written by Eric

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

3 Simple Steps Toward Playing What You Hear

Written by Forrest

three steps to play what you hear

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

How to Completely Learn a Melody in 30 Minutes

Written by Eric

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

What You Don’t Play Matters

Written by Forrest

What you don't play matters

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:

Indiana Bebop

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

20 Things Every Improviser Should Know

Written by Eric

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

3 Ways To Extend Your Range You Probably Haven’t Thought Of

Written by Forrest

Extend Your Range

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

5 Solutions to Improvisation That Are Hidden In Plain Sight

Written by Eric

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

Why You Still Suck At Half Diminished Chords

Written by Forrest

Half Diminished Chords

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?

Incomplete information

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:

iii Vi ii V

What does the B half-diminished chord have to do with C major? The answer: Nothing! … Read More