January 24th, 2011

How to Use ii Vs to Activate Static Progressions

Written by Forrest

Activate Static Progressions

ii Vs comprise the bulk of jazz chord progressions. They define a sense of tension and release that prevails throughout all western music. A key to understanding how to give your lines a sense of harmonic motion, lies in knowing where to insert a ii V into a static progression.

Activating static measures in a blues using ii Vs

When most people go to blow over a blues, they improvise on changes that look something like the example below.

Basic Blues

This is pretty basic and strictly playing these changes will limit your lines tremendously.

Most jazz charts notate a blues with some added chords that I’m sure you’re familiar with. The chords typically added to most blues charts give the progression much more forward motion. See how the inserted chords push harmonically forward, resolving to a target chord?

More Active Blues Chords

Yes, in most cases these changes are written in charts as I’m sure you’re aware of, however, understanding this concept is crucial to understanding how to insert ii Vs in specific places that are not written in charts, giving a sense of harmonic motion to rather stagnant progressions.

Before moving on, understand that:

  • The added ii Vs aim for a target chord (E -7b5  A7 is headed for D- etc.)
  • You can insert and play over these progressions regardless of whether the rhythm section plays these changes.
  • You must play a line over these inserted changes that expresses their harmony. Keep it simple.

Ok, looking at the previous example of typical blues changes … Read More

January 21st, 2011

The Music of Thelonious Monk: 10 Tunes You Need To Know

Written by Eric

There are certain composers in the jazz tradition that have such a uniquely personal style that their compositions seem to take on a life of their own, becoming part of the jazz pantheon long after the lifetime of the writer. Composers like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, and especially Thelonious Monk come immediately to mind. Monk’s tunes, exceptionally unique at the time – not unlike the man himself, have become beloved and frequently played jazz standards with the passage of time.

Everyone has probably played Straight No Chaser or Blue Monk at one time or another, but the music of Thelonious Monk runs much deeper than these frequently called blues heads. Many of the compositions of Monk are now standards and as numerous musicians continue to play his music, more tunes are being rediscovered and added to the standard songbook of the modern jazz musician. If you are serious about jazz, the musical contribution of Monk is one that can not be ignored.

Like many of the innovators in this music, Monk’s music spanned across generations of musicians, even as the music underwent drastic changes. Today, his music continues to inspire and captivate musicians and listeners alike from all parts of the world. If you’ve just discovered the music of Monk, the best thing to do is to immerse yourself in his records and absorb the distinct style of this musical innovator. If you don’t already have the albums below, do yourself a favor by clicking on the album … Read More

January 19th, 2011

10 Visualization Exercises To Boost Your Chord Progression Recall

Written by Forrest


If I asked you to name a iii VI ii V in the key of F#, how quickly could you conjure up the answer? If the time it takes you to think through that progression in your mind takes more than a millisecond, chances are you’re going to have a hell of a time playing over it. Common progressions like iii VI ii Vs must be so ingrained into your brain, that you don’t have to think to name them. You just know them. Visualizing these progressions daily will greatly improve your recall of common chord progressions, making it easier to think and play in all keys.

For the following 10 exercises, visualize just the chord symbols. Keep the chord symbol as simple as possible, for instance, do not visualize the “7” in a minor seventh chord or any alterations on dominants. This will help you “see” more quickly in all keys without cluttering the progression in your mind’s eye.

The goal is to clearly see in your mind’s eye a concise picture of the chord symbols for each progression in all keys.

1.) ii V I I

Start with a simple two-five progression, resolving to the tonic for two measure. Do the key of C, then move down in half steps until you’ve visualized the chord symbols in all the keys.

Two Five One

2.) ii V I

Now do a one-measure two-five resolving to the tonic for a bar. It should be easy after exercise #1. Continue through all the keys.… Read More

January 18th, 2011

3 Reasons Why You Should Sing Everyday

Written by Eric

Have you ever wondered why great pianists, guitarists, bassists, and drummers often sing along as they improvise? Ever noticed how many of the best horn players also happen to be great singers? Great musicians all over, seem to have developed the ability to sing somewhere along the way, whether they’ve had formal training or not. For all of us, from the musical innovator to the weekend music lover, singing is a natural part of musical development and artistic expression. The voice is in fact our first instrument and one that everyone can play. For serious musicians, though, the voice is a crucial part of our technique and one that can always be improved upon.

One concept that is not often talked about, yet immensely important, is the gap between our ears and what is coming out of our instruments. The fact is that what is easily understood aurally, rarely is translated to our instruments without any work. Internalizing this music takes hours of repeated listening and imitation until it finally appears in our day to day playing. As improvisers, we rely heavily on our ears to hear the music going on around us, but this is only a small part of developing our ears to their full potential. The real skill comes not in simple identification of intervals and chords, but in the ability to recreate what we hear instantaneously – singing.

Singing a musical idea naturally creates a strong physical connection between our ears and the sounds that we’re … Read More

January 12th, 2011

Fast Tempos Made Easy

Written by Forrest

fast tempos

Here’s a recent query from a reader struggling with fast tempos:

Hi, I’m a saxophone player in Toronto. What might you recommend in terms of practice techniques to play on blistering fast tempos?

When it comes to fast tempos, we could all be better. Want to play fast? Start slow.

Slow over fast tempos

No matter how counter-intuitive it seems, you must first learn how to play slow melodic lines over fast tempos. These slow melodic lines consist primarily of half-notes and quarter-notes. Even when you’re not playing over fast tempos, resist the temptation to work more on playing fast than slow. Do not make the mistake of thinking that fast notes are more important than slow notes.

To play interesting slow melodic lines over fast tempos, think in larger units of time. Hearing in larger chunks of time will help you relax. How do you typically feel playing fast tunes? Frantic? Up-tight? Behind? To play confidently over quick tempos, you want to feel comfortable and relaxed.

Supposing we’re in 4, Rather than feeling every beat (1-2-3-4), feel just beat 1 of every measure. As each measure flies by, think to yourself “1…1…1…1…”

Or if the tune is really burning, think in even larger groups; feel only beat 1 every two measures. So for four measures where normally you’d feel 1-2-3-4  1-2-3-4  1-2-3-4  1-2-3-4, you would feel just 1 – – – – – – – 1 – – – – – – – .

Listen to Bud Powell play … Read More

January 10th, 2011

Speaking to the Listener: 4 Ways to Perform More Effectively

Written by Eric

We’ve all seen concerts that have affected us greatly and left a lasting impression on our musical perception and even our lives. Performances that seem to transcend the stage into another form of communication and stick with us long after the show has ended. It’s as if certain groups or performers have an uncanny ability to take complete control of an audience’s attention, communicating with the listener on multiple levels. But how does one get to this level? What does it take to make this much of an impact on listeners? What was it about those groups that made them special?

The answer lies with the rules of communication between a performer and a listener. When it comes to communicating ideas, there is no better source to look at then the techniques of great speakers. Accomplished speakers have the ability to move audiences, from the individual listener to large groups of people. Throughout history important speeches and noteworthy speakers have facilitated change through the power of language and incited movements through the tactful delivery of a message. The actual power lies in taking an idea or message and crafting it in such a way that it will have an impact upon whomever may be listening.

Speaking to an audience is essentially a type of performance, akin to improvising, in which a message is delivered through the use of a language to the listener. In both public speaking and improvising, the goal is the same – to effect the listener with … Read More

January 7th, 2011

Transcribing is NOT Transcribing: How This Misnomer Has Led You Astray

Written by Eric


transitive verb

a: to make a written copy of

b: to make a copy of (dictated or recorded matter) in longhand or on a machine

c: to paraphrase or summarize in writing

d: to represent (sound) by means of phonetic symbols

This is the definition I found for the word transcribe when I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary recently. I was curious to get to the bottom of what transcribing actually meant, a word that I had heard for years as I was learning to improvise.

Ever since I became interested in jazz, transcribing solos was continuously touted as the “secret” to learning improvisation. Jazz musicians and educators constantly talked about transcribing, but it seemed that there was a conflict in what was actually meant by the word transcribe, as well as the reason behind doing it.

Throughout the years I’ve met amazing improvisers that claimed they’ve never transcribed a solo and have come across others that say they’ve transcribed hundreds of solos. I’ve had teachers that didn’t write solos down, but had numerous solos memorized to the point where they could sing them without their instruments. On the other hand, I’ve encountered players that had dozens of solos written down, but didn’t seem to retain any of it or improve by doing so. So who is right and why are there so many discrepancies if everyone is “transcribing”?

Even though we may not always believe it, the words and language that … Read More

January 4th, 2011

Mythbusting the Top 5 Myths About Jazz Improvisation

Written by Forrest

Jazz Myth

In no particular order, here are five myths we’re going to dispel for you right now:

Myth #1
When it comes to improvising, you either got it or you don’t

This is complete bullsh*t, yet I’ve heard countless people claim this fallacy. The ability to improvise is a skill, just like anything else you want to excel at. It takes focus, passion, and understanding of how to improve.

Don’t buy into the idea that being great at improvising is a skill only permissible by a lucky and privileged few. The people that sound great put in years of focused practice every day, striving to improve. Sure, some people have more natural talent to begin with than others, but as one progresses, talent subsides and pure perspiration takes over. There’s no substitute for perseverance.

Myth #2
You need to know 1000 tunes

Check out a dozen recordings by the same performer and you’ll soon realize they have their favorite jazz standards that they’ve recorded time and time again. Miles Davis recorded many of the same standards over and over throughout his career, including: In Your Own Sweet Way, Tune Up, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Four.

It’s better to be able to sound exquisite on 10 standards than to simply know and get through 100 tunes. What’s the point of “knowing” a bunch of tunes if you can’t sound how you want to sound on them? Aim to Know 10 tunes to the point where you would feel comfortable recording them and … Read More

January 1st, 2011

100 New Years Resloution Ideas to Get You Amped For 2011

Written by Forrest

new years resolutions

Stuck in the same monotonous pattern? Not excited about playing lately? It’s time to start with a clean slate and welcome in the new year feeling motivated.

Here’s 100 ideas to reinvigorate your energy for the music. Read through the list and pick one that gets you excited. Then, just do it.

  1. Transcribe your first solo
  2. Learn one tune straight from the record
  3. Practice at least 30 minutes daily
  4. Learn a tune in all keys
  5. Read a biography of a famous jazz musician
  6. Learn basic piano voicings
  7. Write your first tune
  8. Learn a ii V line in all keys
  9. Learn a simple blues head in all keys
  10. Visualize every night before you go to bed
  11. Master all your intervals
  12. Learn to play in 3
  13. Play well over “Cherokee
  14. Learn to stay focused while you practice
  15. Transcribe a solo of someone who doesn’t play your instrument
  16. Commit to 15 minutes of daily ear training
  17. Practice at least an hour daily
  18. Find a new favorite musician on your instrument
  19. Do something athletic everyday
  20. Read Thinking in Jazz by Paul Berliner
  21. Replace the stupid videos you watch on youtube with classic jazz recordings
  22. Learn a chorus of a transcribed solo in all keys
  23. Seek out new music everyday
  24. Learn a bebop head like “Confirmation” in all keys
  25. Play duo with a drummer
  26. Listen to classical music
  27. Work out simple melodies like ‘Happy Birthday” on your horn by ear
  28. Master the key of F# major
  29. Learn how to hear
Read More
December 30th, 2010

Hearing Time: Rhythmic Ear Training

Written by Eric

Hearing time: Rhythmic ear training

On this site we frequently write about the benefits of ear training for improvising, with  good reason. Hearing and singing intervals, melodies, chord progressions, etc. is one area of daily practice that will directly affect your improvising for the better. However, ear training isn’t only limited to improving your harmonic sensitivity. Developing rhythmic awareness and the ability to internalize all aspects of time can also be improved through ear training exercises.

The concept of time for improvisers is just as important as navigating the intricacies of a chord progression. Although this may seem obvious, it’s a fact that is largely ignored by harmonic players, especially in educational settings. The reality is, a soloist who plays with bad time, whether it’s rushing, accenting weird beats, or just plan not swinging, might as well be playing wrong notes. The end result is the same: a negative effect on the listener.

Improving your time and rhythmic awareness requires daily practice. Just because you aren’t a drummer, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be focusing on rhythmic concepts in the practice room. In fact, it means that you should be concentrating on time even more. Attaining rhythmic freedom is an achievable goal and the path there starts with training our ears to hear time in the same way that we hear melodies.

Hear it, internalize it, don’t think about it

The reason we practice ear training is to internalize the sound of what we’re trying to play, so when we’re improvising, it’s one less thing … Read More

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