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

December 30th, 2011

4 Ways to Spark the Creativity and Freedom in Your Improvising

Written by Eric

How creative are you each time you play your instrument?

Think about it for a second…are you truly free when you improvise?

As creative improvising musicians, these are questions that we should all ask ourselves from time to time. We all know that hours of repetition, memorization, and imitation are the groundwork for learning improvisation, but there is a catch here. This essential process that we stoically endure each day in the practice room doesn’t naturally lend itself to free, spontaneous thinking.

In fact, it’s quite easy to get boxed into the safe confines of our daily routine; the same tunes, the same language, even the same practice schedule.

In our improvised solos, supposedly our most free and creative moment as musicians, we rely all too often on the “musical crutches” of playing within a group. The drummer will keep the time, the pianist will play the changes, the horn player has the melody, and someone else will keep track of the form, right?

We get away with not using our ears, with not counting or knowing the form of the tune, with “kind of” knowing the changes, and with relying on our good old licks to get us through a solo. Sounds like someone who’s trying to survive a performance instead of someone that’s aiming for creativity.

Rarely do we hold ourselves responsible for each and every aspect of the music. This all too common fact, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t change things.

Here are four exercises to … Read More

December 28th, 2011

Never Be Overwhelmed Again

Written by Forrest

In today’s world, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. We live in a time of excess information and much of it is misleading. But supposing you’ve separated the good stuff from the stack, it still feels like there’s so much to learn.

Take this site for instance. I’d like to think that we have a ton of excellent information here, and receiving daily notes of thanks from readers affirms my assumption. But, meandering through the pages, it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed. Just as you thought you had a handle on everything, you realize, wait…I need to learn that…and that…and that…and…eventually, you feel so overwhelmed that instead of choosing action, you choose inaction. You do nothing.

That’s what happens when we feel overwhelmed. We shut down. Nothing is possible and we stop progressing.

But, it’s quite easy to rid yourself of this madness. Feeling overwhelmed is nothing but an inability to see the big picture. When you see how information is logically grouped together and how these groups are inter-related, your brain can understand on a conceptual and emotional level that the subject at hand is approachable in a structured and simple fashion.

The power of logical groupings

Depending on who you ask, there are roughly 640 muscles in the human body. Imagine if a body builder had to focus on each one of these muscles each time he went to the gym. In about two minutes, he’d get frustrated, overwhelmed, and leave.

Of course no body builder would ever think … Read More

December 26th, 2011

Developing Musicality: Applying Scales vs. Applying Language

Written by Eric

A recurring theme on this site seems to be language – acquiring, practicing, and applying the jazz language.There is a reason behind all the repetition, however. Language is a very powerful concept when it comes to improvisation and it’s an idea that can drastically change your mentality about the music.

But, even before you get to the idea of acquiring, applying, and transforming pieces of language, there is a much more basic issue at hand here: Why should you even learn language in the first place?

When you get down to it, no one is requiring you to learn lines from the records or to imitate the style of a famous musician. There is no mandatory rule that you have to improvise in a certain way and you can easily create solos with the “right notes” using memorized scales. So why bother spending that extra time to learn someone else’s solos and language?

It all boils down to musicality. What is it that defines the musicality in your playing? Where do you learn musicality without imitation or listening? Musicality is the reason you play music in the first place. Without emotion, style, and shape those chords and scales would be, well, just chords and scales.

If I had to name the one thing that improved my playing more than anything else, the thing that made me finally “get it” when it came to improvising, it would have to be language. Before I began to transcribe solos and study … Read More

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