September 19th, 2011
When your goal is to improve at a skill like improvisation, you will stop at nothing to gather as much information as you can. Your search leads you in every direction: out of print books, the method books that the masters studied, seeking out jazz gurus and famous teachers, and searching for bootleg recordings. Along the way you pick up stories and legends, “jazz folklore” if you will.
Some of the stories are surprisingly true and others are mere exaggerations. Some stories have been stretched and altered to the point, that when they finally reach you, there’s not one ounce of truth left in them. Sometimes we only get a small piece of a story, a half-truth, and we set out to follow this example, only to find out later that this goal that we set out trying to attain was in fact, an urban legend.
Because these stories can have a powerful effect on us as we set our personal goals and head into the practice room, it’s important to separate fact from fiction. A simple misguided, but well-intentioned belief, can lead us in the completely wrong direction and cost us valuable time and effort in learning how to improvise.
In Mythbusting the Top 5 Myths about Jazz Improvisation, five common misconceptions about learning to improvise were discussed in detail. Here are four more jazz myths to keep in mind as you head into the practice room and onto the stage.
1) All the practice you need is … Read More
September 16th, 2011
The old maxim “A is for effort” does not apply when it comes to jazz improvisation or playing any style of music. Effort is the last thing you want. In fact, we seek effortlessness. When it comes to playing our instruments, the ultimate goal is to be as efficient as possible. No movement or mind-share wasted. Everything automatic. Controlled and precise.
Unfortunately, we often think we should be exerting effort to play our instruments. It’s not supposed to be easy right? Wrong. It is supposed to be easy. The actual physical and mental process of playing our instrument should be as easy as humanly possible.
How much work should it actually be?
This is completely objective because what you call “easy” is always going to differ from what I call “easy.” However, a good rule of thumb is that playing our instrument should not be much more difficult than breathing. If it is, you’re working too hard and your musicianship will greatly suffer.
This applies for any instrument. For example, if you sit down at the piano and your fingers stumble and strain to strike the keys, you’re not being efficient, and you will not be as free musically as you could be.
On a woodwind like the saxophone, if it takes quite a bit of effort to produce one note, just think about how much effort you’ll require to produce lines?
Everything: your mind, your body, your equipment…should all be aligned with the attitude of effortlessness and being as … Read More
September 14th, 2011
“Anyone can improvise!”
The phrase rolls off the tongue with the banality of many a late-night infomercial. “Anyone can get ripped abs! Anyone can make millions from home! Anyone can speak Navajo!” But when it comes to jazz, is this statement really true?
This has been a debate in the jazz education world since it’s institutionalization. Can improvisation be taught in a classroom? Can you take someone off the street and teach them how to play over a blues? Is everyone actually capable of improvising?
Over the years, I’ve often heard these phrases uttered in private lessons, music schools, and on gigs by a number of people: “I can’t improvise. I’ve never learned how to improvise. I don’t do the jazz thing. Making up solos is just not for me. I don’t understand how to pick out which notes to play.”
Some were accomplished musicians and others were absolute beginners, but when you hear the above statements across the board, it makes you wonder: Maybe some people are just not cut out for this.
However, it can be all too easy to make rash decisions when things are challenging and frustrating at the outset. If you look at what actually goes into the process of improvisation, you’ll find that it’s much more accessible than it appears to be.
Improvising is a skill
The first thing to realize is that improvisation is a skill, not some magical power that a few chosen people possess. Changing your mindset in this small … Read More
September 12th, 2011
We talk about jazz language a lot: what it is, what it isn’t, how to get it, and what to do with it. We constantly strive to better communicate these aspects of learning language because of the vital role that language plays in successful improvisation. It’s essentially all the raw melodic material you draw from when you improvise and it doesn’t get there by accident.
It gets there through dedicated practice over an extended period of time, a distinct process. By understanding this process of how we accumulate language and how it evolves, you’ll transform the way you think about the entire life-cycle of language, making easier to acquire language and develop the language you have.
The discovery stage
The first stage is discovery. Language starts out as an idea. A possibility. A little flicker of something that captures our attention. We get intrigued and wonder what we just heard. This curiosity leads us to peel the gem off of the recording, in hopes of understanding the composition of the melodic fragment.
Bit by bit we learn the line, imitating every little nuance that we hear. Not every nuance we think we hear, but every little detail that is actually there. Once we grasp the full length of the line and have it operating in our ears and fingers, a mental picture of the line begins to form in our mind.
The shape, the rhythm, the precise articulation…all this starts to embed itself in our subconscious. We absorb so much … Read More
September 8th, 2011
We often get stuck in a rut when it comes to practicing technique.
In the practice room we cover the same bases in our efforts to improve our overall technique. We run our major and minor scales in all 12 keys, we practice them in thirds and fourths and fifths, we use jazz articulation, we play with different dynamics, and on and on. These are all essential for improvement, but the problem here is that we often continue practicing these same technical exercises in an identical way, even after we’ve mastered them.
Note: If you aren’t challenging yourself – you’re not going to be improving.
Once you’ve got your scales and patterns together in all 12 keys and have even worked on getting them up to speed, it’s time to take your technique to the next level. Don’t keep playing those same patterns, thinking that they’ll lead you to a new level of technique! Start incorporating articulation, rhythm, time, larger intervals, and chromaticism into the mix to expand your musicianship along with your technical facility.
Technique isn’t only limited to how fast you can push your fingers down on your instrument. Just as important are the technique of rhythm, articulation, and time. When you can combine all of these ideas musically and creatively, you’ll be playing much more interesting lines.
Instead of practicing the same patterns with the same rhythms and articulations over and over again, as you’ll find in many improvisation books, simply alter your approach to these … Read More
September 4th, 2011
Hearing larger intervals is difficult for most people. After a couple weeks of practicing your intervals, half-steps, whole steps, major and minor thirds, perfect fourths, perfect fifths, and major sixths fall into place, but the remaining few linger on, causing us trouble for eternity.
There’s no reason why we can’t isolate these more difficult intervals and learn to hear them just as easily as we hear a whole-step, we just need to utilize the intervals that we already know well as the foundation to learn these less familiar sounds.
Using the intervals you know to hear more difficult ones: the 2-step method
So you can hear the intervals of a perfect fifth and a half step just fine, but tritones (diminished 5ths, or augmented 4ths) give you trouble. No worries. By using what we’ll call the 2-step method, you’ll quickly grasp tritones.
The idea behind the 2-step method is to hear an interval that is close to the interval you want to hear, and then move via half-step (or whole step in some cases) to the target interval. For instance, if you want to hear a tritone and you can hear/sing perfect fifths and half-steps no problem, then first you sing a perfect fifth, and then sing a half-step below.
The full process would be to sing a note. Now sing a note a perfect fifth above. Now sing a half-step below. Now sing the root again. It looks like this:
We’re calling it the 2-step method because in … Read More
September 2nd, 2011
Every so often we make a musical discovery that drastically changes the way we approach improvisation. One day we are struggling over the same tunes, growing more and more frustrated with our own predictable patterns and then it hits us – we suddenly discover a secret that was hidden right before our eyes.
A subtle mental, aural, or physical shift occurs and we are able to approach improvisation in an entirely new way. From then on, our eyes (and ears) are opened to a wealth of new possibilities.
Looking back at the last fifteen years or so of my own journey to learn improvisation, I have made some very important musical discoveries that have changed the way I look at the music. Some of these discoveries came rather quickly, with a small amount of practice and others I had to struggle with for years before I had control of them.
Regardless of how long the discovery took, the result was the same: from that point on my ears changed and I took on a deeper understanding of the music. Most importantly, I now went into the practice room with a renewed excitement for improvising.
On my journey to find these breakthroughs, I looked for information in all sorts of places. Some of this information I found in books on how to improvise and some of it, in contrast, was not mentioned in any texts, videos, or lessons. Some of it was handed to me numerous times while I foolishly ignored … Read More
August 31st, 2011
When you’re frustrated with your playing it’s difficult to excel at all. It’s difficult to make a coherent musical statement, let alone even listen to yourself. These bouts happen to everyone. The key is to not get too discouraged and press on…
Turn off the play-alongs
We all love jamming with a play-along, but in times of frustration, they can be extremely detrimental to your progress. What happens is you’re soloing with a play-along and you’re not content with the result, so you click the back-button on the player and give it another go.
The second run through is still not quite there, so you do it again. This behavior gets you more and more frustrated, yet with each attempt, you feel a stronger need to try it one more time to “fix” the problem.
This scenario is like beating your head against a wall, then forgetting how much it hurts, and doing it again and again. It’s human nature to want to fix our problems right away; nothing can wait, we must fix it now, and we’re oblivious that our frustrations consume us in the process, but you must rise above this natural tendency.
By trying to fix the problems you’re frustrated with by taking chorus after chorus with a play-along, you’ll ingrain horrendous habits and dig yourself deeper into the depths of frustration. When you’re frustrated with your playing, turn the play-alongs off.
Turn on your favorites
When you’re frustrated, where better to turn then to your heroes? … Read More
August 28th, 2011
In jazz education, one thing that you encounter right off the bat are rules. There seem to be rules for every aspect of the music: Which scales you’re allowed to use over certain chords, which chord tones you’re supposed to land on, how to correctly employ voice leading in a line, what notes to avoid in a chord progression, and so on and so forth.
At first, it can seem like you can’t even improvise on your own without breaking one of these sacred rules. For many educators, the easiest method to introduce a beginner to the fundamentals of improvisation may be to establish rules and guidelines for the basics, but is this the best method to produce creative thinkers?
As improvisers, we don’t want to fit into a one size fits all mold. Our aim is to create our own voice and to express our unique selves musically. Sticking to guidelines and heeding strict rules seems inherently opposed to the mentality of a jazz musician. But, by looking at these “rules” in a new light, it can be possible to benefit from the fundamentals of theory while avoiding the confines of that dreaded cookie-cutter mold.
Following the rules
Look in any text on jazz improvisation and you’ll immediately be bombarded with rules: On V7 chords use a bebop scale or altered, on all ii-V-I progressions be sure to use 7-3 resolutions, on a Major 7th chord avoid landing on the root or 4th scale degree, on a sus chord … Read More
August 26th, 2011
We all have lines we use frequently. Some lines we use so much, that we can’t stand them, criticizing ourselves for playing them over and over, thinking we’re being unoriginal and uncreative.
It’s ok. Even the masters repeat themselves often. When you’ve got some specific language to this point, where it’s coming out naturally and spontaneously but too much, that’s actually a good thing. It means it’s becoming yours. But the mistake most people make is they stop there, thinking that now they need to figure how not to play the line so much.
Instead of trying to rid the line from your vocabulary, learn to apply concepts to your playing that will morph the language you’ve learned into something new.
Enclosure is one such concept that can transform your stale lines into something exciting and inspired.
Enclosure is quite simple. In its most basic form, a chord tone is selected and the surrounding notes below and above are inserted before the chord tone. The inserted notes can be related chromatically, diatonically, or both. In the examples below, the first is enclosed diatonically (within the key of C) and the second chromatically (it just so happens that the 4th lies a half step above the 3rd, making this diatonically related note chromatic as well)
You hear enclosure used everywhere, especially when bebop was at its height. Charlie Parker loved this device and used it all the time. Listen closely to his solo on Kim and you’ll instantly hear it:… Read More