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

January 16th, 2012

Transcribing for Musical Style

Written by Eric

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

Curing Chord Confusion Syndrome

Written by Forrest

Chord Confusion

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?

iii Vi ii V

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

January 10th, 2012

Hey, Do You Know That Tune?

Written by Eric

Hey, Do You Know That Tune?

It’s a question that we get asked all the time on gigs, at jam sessions, and even in our weekly lessons.

As you probably know, it’s not a lot of fun when you are put on the spot and don’t know a tune. In fact, it seems like a lot of the motivation for our practice comes from our efforts to avoid this very experience of getting caught off guard or looking like an unprepared moron.

We try to memorize as many tunes as we can, we make longs lists of standards to learn, we listen to and transcribe various recordings of the greats playing, and in our free time we try to review these melodies and progressions in our heads.

However, even after all the lists, listening sessions, and memorization practice, have you done enough to “know” that tune? Take a second and honestly ask yourself: “How well do I really know these tunes?”

Do you know them well enough to shape interesting original solos? Have you spent enough time in the practice room to be free in performance or do the form and progression feel like shackles weighing you down? Are you doing just enough to fumble through yet another melody and chord progression?

I hear musicians all the time talk about all the tunes they know, but when it comes down to it, the definition of “knowing” a tune ends up being pretty wide. For some, knowing a tune means hearing it once and faking their way … Read More

January 6th, 2012

Visualization One Key At A Time

Written by Forrest

visualize one key at a time

Grab a sheet of paper or take the following quiz mentally and record your response time for each:

  1. What’s a ii V in the key of F# major?
  2. If the V7 of a ii V progression is Ab7, what’s the ii chord?
  3. What’s a iii Vi in the key of Db major?
  4. If the ii chord of a ii V progression is C# minor, what’s the V7 chord?
  5. If the ii V of a key is F- Bb7, what’s the VI7 of the key?

Now, judge your answers based on correctness and speed of response. Did any of them take you more than a split second?

Be honest with yourself. Chances are a couple of these questions took at least a few seconds for you to answer. You may not think that a few seconds is a big deal, I mean, you got the correct answer, right?

The problem is that after even a second of thought we can totally lose our creative focus. The more ingrained these fundamental progressions are, the less we have to think, and the freer we become.

Chord independence

Why is it difficult to quickly conjure some chords, while others are easy? We’re very used to encountering chords in a set way. For example, after A- we expect D7. Or after D7, we expect G major. But even standards mix and match these basic chord progressions.

These slight rearrangements of the chords can shift us just enough to make it so we screw up. For … Read More

January 4th, 2012

The Power of One

Written by Eric

It’s the time of year again when we make ambitious lists of resolutions and let me tell you, 2012 is shaping up to be different. Seriously…all those other years were just practice runs, this year we’re actually going to follow through on our resolutions.

It’s very easy to make hopeful resolutions and music is no exception. For jazz musicians, this means making lists of tunes we want to learn, solos we want to transcribe, and setting lofty practice goals. A year ago, you may recall that we made a list of 100 resolutions for the jazz musicians.

Think back, did you attempt to do any of those resolutions? More importantly did you complete any of them?

You’re not alone if you fell short. The reality is that most of the goals that we set musically are never met, this is just how things work. We get ambitious and set lofty goals for ourselves and then we rush into the practice room.

However, after a few weeks this ambition runs out and frustration slowly sets in and all that we’re left with is this unattainable goal hanging over our heads. So much for setting our sights for the stars.

It’s not a numbers game

For many aspiring musicians, learning to play jazz becomes a numbers game. You need to know more tunes, more ii-V lines, transcribe more solos, have more technique, play it faster, play it higher, etc.

More is better.

This mentality is transferred into the practice room and is … Read More

January 2nd, 2012

The Underlying Purpose of Jazz Language

Written by Forrest

The Underlying Purpose of Jazz Language

Learning language is arguably the most important aspect of learning to improvise.

When you start to use the language you’ve worked on in your solos, you start to realize how powerful it truly is. You feel like a whole new perspective has been opened up to you; that you finally understand. But then, over time, this feeling naturally fades…

Instead of feeling like you’ve figured something out, you now feel like all you’re doing is copying and inserting the same few lines, over and over and over. This can be the most frustrating feeling in the world, especially if you have no idea how to exit this situation and get back to improving. Where do you go from here?

A reader recently wrote to us describing this very situation. He’s grabbed a lot of lines from recordings that he loves and he’s even learned them in all keys. The problem: he feels like all he’s doing is copying and pasting language. He’s so frustrated, he writes, that he could cry. Don’t worry. We’ve all been there. This can be incredibly frustrating and push just about anyone to that point.

So, let’s take this one step at a time.

Making language your own

Before we dive into the underlying purpose of language, there is an important step that you should take with all the language you work on. Take the language and make it your own. Review that article and take it to heart. Get in the habit of asking … Read More