October 26th, 2011
The funny thing about learning a new skill is that we often carry our first experiences around with us for years. You might try drawing or you may try learning a new language and without realizing it, the outcome of this first attempt, good or bad, will greatly influence your future mindset.
We all make these subconscious mental notes about a skill when we first try it, but different people deal with these obstacles in different ways. Some welcome the prospect of a challenge and set out to master difficult things, while others accept the outcome as fate and define themselves personally.
For instance, if someone has difficulty attempting drawing, they quickly arrive at the conclusion “I can’t draw!” Rather than putting in the effort to dispel this notion, they make this assumption their reality. This defeatist attitude is the culprit that is stopping us from reaching our full potential.
Thinking about jazz
As musicians, we make the same subconscious mental conclusions about improvisation on a daily basis. The musical skills that are initially difficult we define in our minds as “hard” and the ones that are natural and quickly acquired are, you guessed it: “easy.” In the same fashion, we define ourselves according to these initial experiences.
For example, if reading music proves to be difficult, we label ourselves as bad readers. If at first, learning melodies by ear is challenging, we accept that we have terrible ears and avoid learning anything in this manner. If this task is … Read More
October 23rd, 2011
So you finally transcribed your first solo, but unfortunately, you don’t feel like you’re improving at the rapid rate you’d hoped for. Where did you go wrong?
This is a common situation. I know people that have transcribed hundreds of solos, but little to none of it translates into their playing.
Transcribing whole solos is a lot of work and if you do it right, you can learn a ton. On the other hand if, if you don’t approach it right, you can waste a whole lot of time.
Transcribing is not enough
The main problem people encounter with transcribing whole solos is that they play the solo over and over without pulling it apart. Breaking up the solo to understand its parts is essential.
Imagine you’re a knock-off shop that makes imitation iphones and that your reproductions are so good, that no one can tell the difference. To do that, your shop would have to disassemble many iphones to get into the inner workings of how everything fits together.
That’s the attitude you need to have when transcribing. It’s an attitude of reverse engineering, of disassembling, of understanding how the parts create the whole, and how even smaller elements create the parts.
It’s not notation and analysis, but that can play a role in your process if you like. If it helps you to write it out to understand what’s going on, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I think people’s caution about writing solos down is that people will … Read More
October 21st, 2011
Remember those times in school, where you were assigned a huge project and given a deadline to finish it by? You know, the ones where the teacher threw an enormous assignment at you as soon as you walked into the classroom: “Write a 15 page paper on the history of the French revolution and give a presentation in front of the class…”
In situations like this, you immediately become stressed out. There is this huge sense of urgency with this due date now looming on the horizon and you can’t relax until it’s over. We set out to finish ahead of time, but despite our best efforts, we usually end up procrastinating and doing the work right before the deadline.
With time running out we stay up all night and push ourselves to focus. Out of nowhere comes this incredible work ethic and drive to finish the project on time. At the end, we always end up completing the project and surprising ourselves along the way that we were capable of doing this much work in that little time.
Even though we dread these big projects and frequently put them off until the last minute, there is something very valuable that we discover about ourselves in the process. When we are faced with the pressure of completing a project and there are some serious consequences, we become intently focused and highly motivated.
Goals that at first seemed too big and intimidating, we surprisingly push through and complete. Imagine if you … Read More
October 19th, 2011
As you progress, you feel more confident. You have more language. You can play well over more and more tunes. And you can approach different types of tunes with ease. Still, no matter how much you improve, you will always feel like you’re trying to reach the next level. This is just how it goes.
To me, that’s the best part though. That you get to keep improving. That there is more to learn and explore. That’s the fun of it. It’s like the best novel you ever read that keeps growing in length as you’re reading it. You read the first ten chapters, now there’s twenty, you read twenty, now there’s forty.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving. For many people, this is not so much a gift but a curse. They want to reach a point of closure. A point of termination??? Unfortunately, no matter where you are in your development, you ultimately will always end up at a place where you think to yourself, “Gosh, I’m really bored with everything I’m playing.” The important thing to realize is that this doesn’t just happen to beginner and intermediate players. It happens to everybody, even great players.
We receive countless emails from readers saying that they do transcribe, and they do learn tunes…but that they are bored with what they are currently playing.
Knowing full-well that you’ll be encountering this situation countless times among your journey regardless of your skill level, you need to be ready to handle … Read More
October 17th, 2011
Learning the hard way??
You thought you came here to find an easier way to learn improvisation, right? Well to be honest, the easier way is not always the best way and if you’re in something for the long run, getting things right from the start can save you a lot of time and years of frustration.
Don’t let the title throw you, it’s not actually learning the hard way, it’s just learning, period. Over the years, the term “learning” has slowly come to mean something else. Instead of actually studying and mastering a skill, “learning” has evolved into memorizing the main facts and pieces of a skill; in other words, the goal is proficiency rather than mastery.
When we learn something today, we find the shortcuts that give us the desired results with the least amount of effort. We start with a guide book, an outline, a list of definitions, a cheat sheet, and we can even look up the answers if we get lost. Whatever the task is, we want to be able to perform it well right away. The actual skill is not as important as the end results.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in many cases it’s the most efficient way to learn things. If you want to pass an exam in school, memorize the formulas, the definitions, and the dates, and you’ll pass the test. Traveling to another country? Get a guide book, learn a few key phrases in the native … Read More
October 12th, 2011
Improving at jazz improvisation is a process. It’s an interesting process because it’s both static and dynamic. It’s dynamic in the sense that it constantly involves bringing new ideas, material, and concepts into your playing, keeping you excited, motivated, and passionate about your own playing. And it’s static in the sense that you have to stay with things long enough for them to sink into your subconscious, having the capacity to creatively utilize them in the future.
You know you’re a reviewer if you’re bored with your playing and feel like you’re in a rut. These symptoms indicate that at one point you learned a set amount of information and then stopped expanding your knowledge-base, hence, you’re bored with the same old lines you’re playing.
Most people tend to be reviewers. It has to do with our comfort zone. As we learn something new, our learning curve is straight up and we make giant leaps in progress very rapidly. Then, gradually, our progress slows, until it comes to a screeching halt.
At this point, we practice what we’re good at and ignore the aspects of our playing that need work. Consequently, we’re in a constant state of review. You’d think that the material we review would get more and more solid, but in this completely static mode, our lines and concepts actually get worse. Why is this?
Because our passion goes out the window, we become less and less excited about the stuff we’re playing day in and … Read More
October 10th, 2011
A reader recently asked:
At my college, to get into the lab bands you have to be a really great sight-reader. What are some ways to become a great reader besides just saying “read whatever you can.” I am decent at sight-reading, but I want to take it to that next level. How do I go about doing this?
It goes without saying that sight-reading is an important skill to have as a musician. You sight-read new pieces in your rehearsals, you need it when you sub for a big band, and it’s a dreaded part of the audition process. It is by no means the most important skill to have as a musician, but if you want to be a “working” musician, it is something that you definitely need.
This is a great question, but it’s also one that often gets answered with the vague, apathetic answers that you mentioned. Telling someone to “just sight-read more,” no matter how well-intentioned, is not going to help them improve.
Sight-reading, like many other techniques that we develop as musicians, is a skill – a skill that can be learned and continually improved upon. Rather than putting yourself in a room and trying to blindly improve your sight-reading chops by doing it over and over again, look at the specific elements involved in this skill and work on developing them.
Somehow, we’ve all had this idea put into our heads that sight-reading is this completely new skill that we … Read More
October 7th, 2011
Amateurs phrase in a way that sounds boring and boxy. In contrast, professionals phrase in a way that gives excitement and forward motion to their playing.
In this article I’ll explore some tendencies that I’ve observed in the recordings of my heroes. Of course, your personal observations would result in different conclusions, which is why I highly suggest you transcribe and find tendencies that you observe. One thing to remember as well: These are not rules. They’re just things to be aware of and experiment with.
To illustrate the techniques, I’ll use the following example:
This is not a “bad” line and you will find similar lines throughout the jazz vocabulary, however, what we’re concerned with today is how to phrase in an exciting way and this line in isolation, as depicted, is quite boring. If you were to tag on an idea in front of it, or connect it to something else, immediately it would take on a new life, and that’s exactly what we’ll be talking about: how to take the ordinary and use it like a pro.
Avoid starting phrases on beat one
Amateurs constantly start phrases on beat one. This common way of starting a line allows the listener to easily predict where the next line will start. Consequently, there’s no interest to hold their attention and they stop listening.
Pros, while occasionally starting phrases on beat one, will more often than not start phrases on beats other than one. Instead of the original line, they … Read More
October 4th, 2011
Your mental approach to the things you do can have everything to do with your success or failure. The way that you think about everything from setting goals to learning actual skills directly affects how you will perform any number of tasks. This is especially true when it comes to practicing improvisation.
When we think about our goals in music and how we’re going to accomplish them, we can look at things in one of two ways. We can take a step back and a look at the big picture or we can take a magnifying glass to the task at hand and focus in on all the nitty-gritty details.
Both give us a surprisingly different perspective of the same music and in turn, can be useful in many different ways.
Take a moment to reflect upon your own mindset as you set your goals and head into the practice room. Are you constantly setting your sights on the big picture and the end result of your work or are you focused on the specific details that will lead you to achieving these goals? Maybe you do a little of each, or maybe you’ve never even thought about it at all?
The answer to these questions are more important than you may think and if you’ve been having trouble realizing your goals, the culprit may lie with your mental approach. Even though both approaches are essential for your improvement, there is a specific time and a place for each one, … Read More
September 29th, 2011
In an instant, musical ideas spring to life. You might be transcribing and stumble upon something you like, or perhaps you suddenly play an idea that seemed to come to you from nowhere. I bet this happens all the time. In fact, I’ll bet you come up with something you like nearly every time you practice. What do you do when you discover or create ideas you like?
I used to just play the idea a bunch, thinking, wow…this is a great line. The next day, needless to say, I’d have difficulty remembering the line, and a week later, I’d forget the line entirely.
Keeping a line journal is not only a great way to remember the lines you pick up from transcribing or create yourself, but it’s an essential tool to keep track of the knowledge-base you hope to expand throughout your life.
Whatever it is, write it down
When you’re practicing, you’re in the zone. You don’t want to interrupt it for any reason. This is your time and you want to spend it playing, not writing. That attitude kept me from writing down a lot of things that could have potentially been gems. Sometimes I’ll play something and think, hmmm, that’s kind of nice, but is it nice enough to write down?
Whatever it is, write it down. During your practice, keep manuscript-paper and a pen handy at all times. Consider this your scratch paper where you’ll jot down anything that comes to mind. Knowing that this … Read More