The process of learning to improvise is a journey.
A long and rewarding journey and one that is punctuated by a series of milestones.
This can be hard to see from that comfy seat inside of your practice room, but take a step back from your daily routine and look at the path that brought you to where you are today.
You played your first notes, you learned your first scale, you learned your first tune, you figured out the inner workings of a chord progression, you learned your first ii-V- I line, you transcribed your first solo…
As you begin your musical journey these milestones are huge and transform you at a personal level. Your first notes on your instrument turned you into a musician. Your first solo over that chord progression made you an improviser.
These leaps forward changed your identity and set you apart from everyone around you. However the better you get, the harder it is to . More effort and determination is required to make even the smallest step forward.
But even the small steps forward are essential to your improvement. This musical path that you’re on can be as long or short as you want it to be. Your destination can be the sound that you hear on your favorite records or maybe you just want to be better than you were last week.
Whatever your aspirations, this path to your goal is paved with many milestones…
Despite what everyone thinks, being creative isn’t easy. You don’t just suddenly find yourself with talent one day and immediately start creating great works of art. It takes years of hard work to develop artistic skills and once you have these skills, it’s no guarantee that your artistic vision will always find a way to express itself.
Creative people of all types encounter a block at some point in their work. There are a number of outside sources that can cause this block: nerves, pressure, fear, exhaustion, etc. But, the ones that really hold us up are the obstacles that come from within ourselves.
We’ve all heard of writer’s block, however creative troubles don’t just affect that desperate writer struggling to start the first word of that first sentence, they affect artists of all types. The dejected composer sitting at the piano amid a mountain of blank staff paper. The sleep deprived painter with a glazed-over look, staring at a hopelessly blank canvas.
And familiar to all of us, the struggling improviser running through the chord progression to All the Things for the bazillionth time searching for a new line, a new sound, a new approach…anything new to play.
Sometimes this is the way it is, you just hit a wall.
Being inventive, imaginative, and spontaneous on a daily basis isn’t easy and when you finally hit that wall it can be a huge hurdle to get over it. No ideas, frustration, boredom, and a complete creative standstill.
Feel every beat. Subdvide. Hear every note. Concentrate on every single detail.
There are dozens of different ways to describe the process of slow practice, yet it seems that the majority of successful musicians in any genre are saying “practice slowly!”
Every teacher that I’ve ever had, from classical players to lead trumpet players to accomplished improvisers, has stressed the importance of focused slow practice. I’ve heard it in masterclasses, I’ve read about it in books, and I’ve watched it in video clips.
It doesn’t matter if you’re working on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto or figuring out how to solo over Confirmation, s-l-o-w p-r-a-c-t-i-c-e is oddly enough the quickest way to your goal. Check out the great Itzhak Perlman discussing the benefits of slow practice:
I guess it makes sense, right? The slower you go and the more time you have to process information, the easier it is to learn something. And the faster you learn something, the more efficient you’ll be at improving and achieving your goals.
There’s a sort of contradictory, Yin and Yang quality to all of this that you have to come to terms with. To play fast, you must practice slowly. To play the high notes, you must first master the low notes. To innovate you must assimilate the past. These phrases are easy to remember and have a nice ring to them, but practicing in this fashion is another story.
Number one, it’s counter-intuitive and two, it’s flat out hard … Read More
I first heard these words from the great pianist Harold Mabern. Walking through the practice rooms at school one day, as was usually the case, a group of eager students was huddled around him as he told a story. An impromptu musical lesson that didn’t involve scales or chords, but just as valuable – maybe even more so.
This man probably has two stories for every tune he knows and he literally knows a thousand tunes. To hear one of them was to get closer to the music, the history you’ve only read about in books, your musical idols from Lee Morgan and Miles to George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard.
But, there was something about that particular phrase that stood out for me: smart people music.
If you’ve ever spent any time around this legendary musician, chances are you might have even heard him say this phrase and more importantly, if you’ve ever tried to play jazz or improvise, you know he’s not kidding around!
It’s no secret that it takes brains to play jazz. The typical improviser is determined, focused, dedicated, well-rounded, and studied…and that’s just a list of what it takes to get some basic instrumental technique and music theory down.
Getting up on stage in front of an audience and improvising in real time demands the utmost from both your intellectual and your physical senses. It’s an understatement that you need to be intelligent to survive in that … Read More
This is a box. This is your mind in a box. Many people’s minds never leave the box. Why?
Thinking creatively is something we all do naturally. It’s our instinctive and ordinary way of being. To be creative is nothing less than being human. You can’t help but be creative.
But back to the box. Why? Why do we tend to stay within our capacity, within our own perception of what’s possible, within a dull dark lifeless box?
Simply put, it’s difficult to escape the box that is the accepted social norm, the seemingly permanent reality of things. While being creative is our natural state, perhaps going against the grain is not. Let’s view this idea from a biological standpoint.
If you’re a deer and you suddenly notice each and every one of your deer friends frantically charging in a particular direction, you best join the herd or chance getting consumed by a ferocious hungry lion. Join the herd or get eaten. Hmmmm. I think I’ll chill and eat some more grass…ummm NO!! I don’t think so. I’ll join the herd and try to blend in best I can. My survival depends on it.
Our pre-programmed biological tendencies pervade every part of our life from how we think to how we interact with others. In terms of interacting with others, we have a desire to be accepted. A desire to fit in. To fit in it’s only natural that we act accordingly with what others are doing. In the interest … Read More
It’s already May and before you know it those lazy months of summer are going to sneak up on you. And just as quickly they’ll be gone, leaving you wishing you had more hours in the day to devote to your music. Before you find yourself in this all too familiar situation, here’s a quick question to ponder: What exactly do you want to accomplish musically this summer?
If you’re not sure and you have yet to give it any thought, chances are you aren’t going to get as much accomplished as you could as an improviser.
For many musicians the summer months are a time when we lose our drive and end up getting rusty. I mean it makes sense, why stay inside a dreary practice room working on ii-V’s all day when you can be outside enjoying the sun and warm weather. However, chucking your practice routine out the window for the entire summer can leave you musically stagnant or worse by the time the fall rolls around.
The encouraging news is that you don’t have to lock yourself up like a prisoner in a dark practice room to see improvement. With a little planning, the summer months are a time when you can take advantage of some extra practice time and still get out and be a normal human being.
You might be a student looking to transform your playing for the next school year, a player looking to capitalize on a few extra hours of daylight, … Read More
Each day when you get your instrument out of its case and set out to practice improvisation, your goal is to play the right notes. Whether it’s playing with great technique and great sound or finding the best line to play over that new tune, you’re looking for the fastest way to sound good over all those chords that you stumble upon.
Lucky for us, the right notes have been laid out for us in theory books and on the pages of play-a-long tracks. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself: “Why exactly are those notes the “right notes?”
What is it that makes them right and the other notes wrong? Are we just following the rules of music theory on blind faith or are those “right notes” right because we hear them that way?
Music theory is important in understanding the inner workings of harmony, but the true test of the “right notes”comes with your ear. What does it sound like? The interesting aspect of music is that this “sound” is different for every person. Listening is a truly subjective endeavor. What one person hears as pleasing, another person can find unlistenable, even unbearable.
Sometimes it has to do with personal taste, but more often not it has to do with exposure and experience. I remember the first time I listened to Schoenberg’s Pirot Lunaire:
If there is one thing about playing jazz that’s shrouded in mystery, it is improvisation.
Improvisation exists in other types of music, even in musical traditions from the far reaches of the globe, but in jazz it goes much deeper. It is somehow vitally tied to the spirit of the music, and it’s not just musicians who recognize the power of the improvised solo. This essence has been captured in everything from literature to movies to pop culture.
There is something alluring about the idea of the jazz musician; a creative soul channeling the intangible through their instrument, essentially creating something out of nothing.
However, despite all of the attention, we still can’t seem to define this creative endeavor. You can get a degree in jazz studies, you can study the philosophy behind improvisation and creativity, and you can even scan the brains of improvising musicians to discover the secret pathways of the mind in its most creative state, but there still seem to be more questions than answers.
Alas, improvising continues to remain an elusive mystery.
As musicians hard at work developing this skill in the practice room, we often get lost in the music. It can be all too easy to lose the ability to look at the music objectively from an outside perspective and after some time, we’re no longer able to hear music with a naive untrained ear.
We become part of the music and suddenly we see the world in a different way. It’s … Read More
One of the questions we’ve been getting a lot lately is where to start learning jazz improvisation. There’s so much information out there, that knowing where to start is a complete nightmare.
If I could start again today, I’d ignore nearly all the information out there in terms of method books and do my best to learn this music the same way that the greats learned. They didn’t have books filled with transcriptions of their favorite players. They didn’t have real-books or fake-books packed with sheet music of tunes. And they certainly didn’t have play-along records that they could pop in and jam with.
They learned from the recordings of their heroes, coupled with playing with others.
In other words, people were learning how to play jazz long before any of this material existed and they certainly sounded just fine 😉 Sure, the convenience of playing with a play-along record when you have no one to jam with can be fun and beneficial, but in my experience, as well as observing countless other musicians’ experiences, nearly all these resources distract you from the pathway that will get you where you want to go.
Where to start
Here’s a checklist to get you started learning jazz improvisation. If you simply go through the checklist, you’ll be well on your … Read More
As an improviser, you can transcribe solos. You can improve your technique. You can listen to your favorite recordings for hours each day. You can practically live in your practice room.
But, no matter what you do or how much time you spend, at the end of the day you still have to deal with tunes. Despite all your hard work and preparation, there are still those tunes you don’t know. Lot’s of them. Hundreds of tunes. How exactly are you going to learn all these tunes?
The truth is that you aren’t going to know every tune ever written. Try as they might, no one does, not even the greatest players out there. However what you can do is slowly but steadily add tunes to your repertoire, one by one.
Each day you can make a little headway. This is the mark of a great player. Aim to know more tunes this week than you did last week. Work tirelessly on your ears and playing what you hear, so you can figure out the tunes you don’t know. Strive to learn something new everyday.
Expanding your repertoire is something that every improviser must deal with, it’s a process that never ends. However, this process of learning tunes doesn’t have to be a recurring nightmare that’s constantly holding you back and preventing you from going out and playing. It can be simple, even fun.
Here are three things that you can do in your daily practice to make the process … Read More
We are Forrest and Eric. We’ve learned from a ton of great musicians (Mulgrew Miller, Rich Perry and many more). We are sharing anything that continues to inspire us as musicians and creative individuals alike. Enjoy.
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