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 … Read More
August 23rd, 2011
“Play what you’re hearing in your head!”
These are the instructions that numerous books, videos, and educators tell us as we struggle to figure out how to play over chord progressions. The only problem in situations like these is, as beginners, we aren’t hearing anything in our heads.
Think back to the first time that you tried to improvise a line over a chord progression. If you were anything like me, you were frantically looking for the “right” notes to play and using the one scale that you memorized to find them. When you are learning to improvise, you are too busy racking your brain for scales and avoiding “wrong” notes, to use your ears or hear anything.
Sure, it gets easier as you progress as an improviser: you learn many more scales, memorize chord progressions, transcribe solos, and figure out harmonic patterns. However, whether you like to admit it or not, with all of these tools that you pick up, you are still relying heavily on a mental knowledge of the music.
The bottom line here is that the majority of us aren’t using our ears nearly enough as we improvise. If you continually feel like improvising has become a repetitive exercise or that you keep returning to the same patterns and licks as you play over tunes, then this article is for you.
Confronting the gap between our ears and our minds
It’s a simple fact, it is much easier to understand a concept mentally than to actually … Read More
August 22nd, 2011
Why is it so difficult to learn jazz standards even when we have access to so much information about each and every one? We can bring up recordings with a few clicks of mouse via Youtube, we can find plenty of fakebooks with the chords and melody written out for us if we’re too lazy to learn them from recordings, and we can even slow down anything that’s too fast for us in programs like Transcribe.
With all these resources at our disposal and even using them, how is it that we still have trouble with the jazz standard repertoire? It comes down to one main thing: we’re bored with standards.
Why we’re bored with standards
The jazz standards come from the “Great American Songbook.” Essentially, songs that infiltrated Broadway musicals and popular movies of the past were adopted and modified by jazz composers and performers to create versions of a tune for the jazz idiom.
Why was it so easy and natural for the legends of this music to learn these songs? Simply put, because it was the pop music of their time. For instance, Charlie Parker was born in 1920. Body and Soul was written in 1930, All The Things You Are in 1939, and Stella By Starlight in 1944. So Parker was 10, 19, and 24, when these three standards came out. He grew up with this music! Not growing up the music you’re going to play is a huge disadvantage.
Chances are, you … Read More
August 18th, 2011
Learning to improvise is a path with many steps leading to many different levels.
Contrary to the belief held by some that improvising is a talent, or even a skill allowed to only a special few, the truth is much simpler. Time and again we must tackle new concepts and tirelessly practice them until we have them in our ears and fingers. The wondrous aspect of learning improvisation is that it is a process that never ends – you can always improve and there will always be another level to strive for.
The difficult part, however, comes in pushing yourself to get to that next level.
In the process of learning to improvise, we immediately make big jumps in skill level. We go from knowing a few major scales to understanding chord structures, from hearing basic chord progressions to playing improvised lines over entire tunes. Eventually we transcribe a solo and begin to think about the concepts of phrasing, motivic development, sound, time, and articulation.
All of these steps are huge and it truly feels great when we accomplish them. We go from dealing with music superficially to actually creating something meaningful and personal. With each level, a whole new world of sound and possibilities is discovered.
As we become more advanced technically and more sophisticated harmonically however, it takes more and more work to break through to the next level. Despite our previous successes, roadblocks inevitably pop up in the way of our improvement: we get lazy, complacent with … Read More
August 17th, 2011
We practice long tones. We work on two-five progressions until our fingers bleed. We work on new ideas and concepts. The work is mostly enjoyable, sometimes frustrating, and hopefully productive. But what is all this diligent dedication for?
Tunes. What else is there?
Everything we do is to play tunes in the way we so desire. Think about it. Nobody cares how great you sound on a G7 chord, but if the G7 is part of a tune, then it matters. It sounds so simple yet I’m not convinced that most people have connected the dots on this subtle fact: All the hard work we do is for the purpose of playing music in the form of tunes.
The standard way of thinking about tunes is that they are this separate entity, a chore, a task in isolation to tackle, just like anything else we practice. From this mindset, people transcribe a solo, they practice the hell out of licks, they even work on developing their own vocabulary…but…they never connect all these things with the tunes they are working on.
If the ideas and techniques you’re practicing are not available to you when you go to perform a tune, what’s the point of practicing them? The goal is to have everything available to you, as if every single thing you’ve ever worked on is a piece of ammo at your disposal ready to be fired at will when you perform a tune.
Everything is connected
Why for most of us … Read More
August 15th, 2011
There exists a hidden trap on the path of learning improvisation.
One that you can fall into without even realizing it.
In music school practice rooms, jam sessions, and even in the performance hall, the art of improvisation can frequently devolve into a petty competition. Rather than sharing information and focusing on musicality, some musicians aim to “cut” other players or show off their technical or harmonic prowess.
Instead of an atmosphere of mutual learning and musicality, it becomes every man or woman for themselves. As a result, other musicians squander musical information and keep their ideas to themselves because they feel it will put them ahead in the game, when in fact it does just the opposite.
What they’re missing
If you keep your musical knowledge and discoveries hidden away in the hopes of staying one step ahead of the competition, you are setting yourself up for disaster. Not only are you promoting musical stagnation, but you are effectively stunting your own growth as an improviser.
When someone relies on a “secret lick” to sound hip or a trick technique to wow the crowd, the search for new ideas and influences comes to a standstill. Instead of continually learning, transcribing and experimenting with new harmonies, you return again and again to these stale ideas.
Because so much attention is paid to holding onto these licks and preventing the success of rival players, nothing is left to focus on finding new information. This is not a recipe for success.
If … Read More
August 12th, 2011
In 6 Disastrous Mistakes You’re Making In Learning To Improvise, we detailed some pitfalls that cause people to waste tons of time and cause years of frustration. Here’s six more that will hinder success if you let them:
1.) Ignoring the fundamentals
Why are you trying to superimpose Giant Steps changes over a 7/8 tune in F# while playing hexatonics in groupings of five, when you have trouble with ii Vs in all keys?
It’s terribly tempting to skip over the fundamentals and practice all these esoteric concepts that you think all the hip and modern players of today are implementing, but the truth is that you’ll sound much more modern if you have strong fundamentals. Why? Because the so-called “advanced” concepts are simply slight variations of simple fundamental concepts.
For example, take tritone substitution. In theory, it’s very simple. You just substitute a dominant chord with a dominant chord a tritone away, yet how many people sound great when they do this?
It’s not easy because to do it effectively you have to be super solid over regular ii Vs, which comprise more than 80% of jazz standard chord progressions. That being said, if you were strong on ii Vs, uber confident, and sounded great on them, then tritone-subs would take very little time to add to your arsenal.
Get back to those fundamentals. You’ll be glad you did.
2.) Forgetting to develop a clear swing-feel
I can hear the voice of a typical jazz-education-model for swing echoing … Read More
August 9th, 2011
Ever feel like you sound mechanical, predictable, and boring like a robot? Nobody wants to sound like a robot. We're human. We have thoughts, ideas, emotions...and we want to express these things in our music.
How do we break out of this rigid playing style and feel free when we play? Here are 5 steps of actions you can take to sound more natural.
1.) Surrender to the moment
"Jazz is about being in the moment"Herbie Hancock
Everything you practice. Lines. Chords. Concepts. The second you go to perform jazz you must free your mind from all of this and let the music emerge naturally. If you've done your homework, it will show.
Be prepared by internalizing the harmony of the tunes you're performing, listening and transcribing
what your heroes played on them, learning language
, training your ear
...but when it comes time to play, listen more intently than you ever have. Lead the rhythm section and at the same time, respond to their playing....Read More
August 8th, 2011
“Hey, did you just hear that? Look, did you just see that? Wait, can you feel that? What’s that smell?”
On a daily basis our senses are bombarded with information.
Sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations come at us from every angle, vying for a precious scrap of our cognitive awareness.
Despite our best efforts, we simply can’t take in all of this information. It’s true that we can experience a multitude of stimuli at once, but focusing our mind and differentiating between these stimuli requires a very special skill – attention.
The famed psychologist William James describes attention as such:
Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.
Attention is essential for taking in information, but it comes at a cost: we can only focus our attention on one piece of information at a time. It’s only by ignoring other streams of incoming information that we can actually process the small piece of information that we’re focusing on.
Think back to the last time you were in a crowded room at a loud party. Groups of colorfully … Read More