December 9th, 2011
In talking, practicing, and performing with many musicians over the years, it seems that a number of players are having trouble getting started with improvisation. Even more have a hard time moving forward, but can’t seem to figure out why.
Time is spent in the practice room day after day, yet no results.
There seems to be a hidden trap that many musicians unconsciously enter each day they step into the practice room. It’s something that we’re all susceptible to and a trap that we enter willingly time after time.
We can’t see it because it’s disguised as ambition. It develops as a result of our attempts to uphold an image as a serious improviser and even though we know better, we fall victim to the lure of this pitfall again and again.
Start simple, stay simple
So what is this trap? Why, it’s so simple that it doesn’t even seem like that big of a deal: skipping over the basics.
The main reason that so many players have trouble learning or progressing with improvisation year after year is that they continue to skip over the fundamentals. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t have anything to do with talent or a willingness to get into the practice room, the problem lies with the actual content the practice session itself.
Go to any practice room in any music school and you’ll hear players trying to play as fast as they can on the hardest tunes that they can find. … Read More
December 2nd, 2011
Learning improvisation can be a curious process. Every now and then as we endeavor to educate ourselves musically, we hear bits of advice and pick up words of wisdom from master classes, videos, books, and conversations. Yet, we don’t really listen to these directions or take them to heart.
The truth is that we can’t accept these words of wisdom. Well, at least not until we discover their validity for ourselves. We need to be hit in the gut emotionally and we need to see the light with our own two eyes.
This is the funny thing about human nature. People can tell you repeatedly how to do things, whether it’s how to eat right, how to exercise, or how to play jazz, until they are blue in the face. But, until you change your diet, hit the gym, and start transcribing solos, experiencing these tangible results for yourself, this information has no impact on you.
You have to have that light bulb moment where you realize “Oh yeah, this stuff actually does work…” You need to realize that you’re not some exception to the rules that everyone else is following, these words apply to you and they can help you. You simply need to listen.
For me, this moment came after I moved to New York. All of a sudden I was in a musical environment where the level was extremely high. From seeing my heroes play nightly in clubs to seeing unknown players tearing it up at jam … Read More
November 29th, 2011
“Jazz is about being in the moment”Herbie Hancock
If jazz is all about being in the moment, but all our practice time is dedicated to figuring out what we want to play when we perform, then how are we supposed to be in the moment when we perform?
There’s this strange dichotomy…
On one side, jazz improvisation is very rehearsed. And on the other, it’s very spontaneous. In between these two sides is a ginormous gray area. It’s this gray area in the middle where people get lost.
Trust the process
Jazz is about being in the moment. Like Herbie says, it’s not about playing what you’ve practiced, it’s about here. Now. This moment. That’s what jazz is.
But, why are our efforts in the practice room so thought out, so calculated, so uninspired, when we’re trying to achieve something on stage that sounds as though it were created in the moment?
It seems counter-intuitive: rehearse concepts and language over and over with the goal of improvising in the moment when you perform. Because this sounds so counter-intuitive, most people do not practice this way. They assume that because they are trying to conjure up a purely improvised performance, they should practice this way as well.
This could not be further from the truth. The process of achieving successful results in jazz improvisation is thought-out, repetitive, and slow. As you will read later, there are infinite ways to instill plenty of creativity and spontaneity into this seemingly dry process, … Read More
November 28th, 2011
Imagine that you’re strolling through an art museum on a lazy afternoon. Leisurely, you walk past magnificent paintings, weave between rows of sculpture, and meander through various galleries, each showcasing a bygone era of human artistic accomplishment. By chance, a particular painting catches your eye from across the room.
You’re immediately struck by the realistic landscape, the beckoning expression on the subject’s face, and the story depicted on that weathered canvas. The work triggers emotion, forgotten memories, and a peculiar sense of nostalgia. On some unconscious level you feel a mysterious connection to this work. This is your first impression, that visceral experience of the entire work as a whole felt from the first contact.
For some reason, you are compelled to take a few steps forward to get closer to the painting. As you inch toward the canvas, a subtle shift suddenly occurs. Your eyes open to another plane of visual awareness and a completely different side of the painting becomes the focus. Brush strokes become visible, an expressive palette of natural, earthy colors reveals itself, and curiously, imperfections become readily apparent.
At this level, the ideas and emotions portrayed in the work can not be separated from the artistic technique required to produce it – an actual person painstakingly created this! You can see the specific techniques that were used to create those intriguing visual effects that you experienced from afar. Questions begin to surface in your mind about the technical aspects of the painting: “How did the … Read More
November 20th, 2011
While we typically focus on ways to improve, this article is all about how to be mediocre. Now, chances are you don’t want to be mediocre, so while many of these listed points are tongue-in-cheek, they will provide you with insight into what not to do, if you wish to be better than mediocre.
Mediocre tip #1: Avoid transcribing at all costs
Convince yourself that great players never transcribed and choose to believe that they invented everything they played, straight from their own mind. When teachers or friends suggest that you transcribe, act like you’re above it and reply, “I’m looking to do my own thing.”
Perhaps if you’re in music school though, you’re required to transcribe for an assignment. Make sure you don’t transcribe in the manner we refer to here, but rather just try to write the notes down on paper as quickly as possible. That way you’ll avoid learning any of the language or concepts in the solo, while still being able to talk about what the soloist is doing.
If you really feel the urge to know what someone is playing, search frantically for a transcription of the solo. If you can’t find it online, you could always purchase a book of transcriptions. These are great tools to help you avoid transcribing all together, ensuring you never rise above mediocre.
Mediocre tip #2: Always learn tunes from fake books
Act like it’s impossible to learn tunes off records. Argue that you must learn the authoritative … Read More
November 18th, 2011
Time and again, we’ve stressed on this site that scales are not the secret to jazz improvisation.
However, scales can be beneficial if you practice and apply them in the right way. Once you aurally understand and ingrain the vital aspects of the jazz language (i.e. phrasing, melodic construction, expression, harmonic application, time, articulation, etc.) the scales and theory that you study in the practice room can substantially improve your technique.
Not only that, scales coupled with a deep harmonic knowledge can infinitely expand your options for musical expression.
Whoa, wait a second! So scales are horrible and to be avoided at all costs, but they’re also invaluable for musical expression? I know it’s sounds contradictory, but consider how music is presented in most educational settings. The crux of this matter lies in the way that the majority of musicians view scales.
Most beginning players, amateur improvisers, and even some accomplished musicians see scales as 8 notes that either ascend and descend. That’s it. Not related to musicality or harmonic application, just another exercise to be practiced in all 12 keys because someone told them to. What’s worse, many frustrated improvisers use this limited view of scales as the basis for creating solos over chord progressions.
One of the major problems that people have in learning to improvise is that they turn of their ears and only think of scales in order to come up with a solo. This simply doesn’t work. Scales are for the practice room and should … Read More
November 15th, 2011
In Zen Buddhism there is a concept of the “beginner’s mind“. To quote Wikipedia:
“It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would”
When we begin studying this music, we’re excited and open, but as we progress, we get caught in all sorts of traps and our beginner’s mind is lost.
An excess of information
The number one problem in advancing at jazz improvisation is the vast amount of excess information today. It should be be the opposite. More information on a subject should make it easier. It’s only logical. But what if that information is wrong? What if that information is only one perspective from an infinite amount of possible perspectives?
I’ve taken lessons with many of my favorite musicians today. What’s interesting is that they all had completely different viewpoints about what was important and they all had different ideas of where I should focus my time. Some of the viewpoints were in direct opposition to each other. Who is right and who is wrong?
Nobody is right or wrong. Each one of their suggestions is simply a reflection of their own concept of the music. It’s up to the student to take suggestions and figure out what to work into their own concept and what to filter out.
Something we’ve attempted to do on this site is share things that we’ve learned … Read More
November 14th, 2011
There’s one important idea that we must remember as musicians: When you practice, you create habits.
Think about it, this is essentially the reason that we set out to practice in the first place. By consciously focusing on a single exercise or technique for hours at a time, we ingrain these skills on an unconscious level. Then when the time comes for us to play, we don’t have to think to perform these actions, they’re produced naturally out of habit.
However, like many things in life, this process is not as cut and dry as it appears. For every habit that we consciously set out to create, we also create habits that we’re unaware of, and these habits are the ones that get us into trouble.
Losing your mental focus
In the practice room, it is surprisingly easy to lose focus and to let some bad habits creep in, especially when we’re improvising. At times like this, we are concentrating so hard on making the changes that we forget about playing our instrument. If this sounds all too familiar, don’t worry, this is something that all players struggle with and must learn to overcome.
Over the years, I’ve heard numerous accomplished players sound completely different when they try to improvise. In the practice room they have a great sound and poise as they play their instrument, but when they are faced with improvising a solo over a chord progression they fall apart. Their sound goes out the window, they … Read More
November 11th, 2011
As the article last Wednesday discussed, learning to apply language to tunes is crucial because it puts the language into context, allowing your ears and fingers to gain an understanding of how to integrate the language into your overarching concept. Over time, the language you practice this way will spontaneously materialize in new form, surprising even you.
You’ll naturally change the language, combine it with other things you know, or even use it in a totally different spot than it was originally. That’s what we’re talking about today: using language in a different place than its original harmonic context. There exist many formulas, which once known will seem obvious, that will assist you in transferring a musical idea to a variety of new situations.
Of course you cannot use these formulas blindly. You must fully understand the melodic material you’re working with and experiment with what works best with those specific lines. Some lines will work perfectly with a particular formula, whereas others won’t work at all.
These formulas are intended to get you thinking about common places that you can take a piece of language. Use them as a starting point to discover other transformation points for your language that you can continue to draw from as you acquire more and more language.
Major line: use over the minor chord a minor 3rd down
This would be: F major to D minor. This is one of my favorites because it is so simple and so effective. It works well … Read More
November 9th, 2011
So you’ve transcribed some ii-V lines. You’ve even learned a few solos note for note directly from the record, but, despite your efforts, you’re not seeing the results you expected. Transcribing those lines from your favorite player didn’t transform you into the great improviser that everyone had promised. At the end of the day, improvisation is still just as hard as it was before.
Well, what’s the deal? Is transcription just another useless exercise distracting us from getting better as an improviser?
Not at all. Transcription is just the beginning, a mere introduction to an in-depth process that is vital to your musical improvement. Figuring out the notes of a solo is an important first step, however, if you stop there you’re missing the point.
Sure, you can analyze the notes and chords that you’ve figured out and written down, but ask yourself this simple question: Do you want to be a jazz theorist or a jazz improviser?
If your goal is to improve as an improviser, you need to take this transcribed language to an entirely new level. This may come as a shock to those who’ve subscribed to the belief that writing down solos is the beginning and end of jazz practice. If you want this language to be useful in your solos, you must learn to apply it.
Below are three steps that will allow you take the language that you’ve transcribed and apply it effectively to any musical situation.
I) Do the prep work
The simple … Read More