June 3rd, 2011

Seeking Out Words of Wisdom

Written by Eric

In practicing improvisation, one common pitfall that we run into is expecting to find the secrets of jazz all by ourselves. We gather our books and recordings and head into the practice room determined to overcome the difficulties of improvisation with an army of one. What’s the big deal, you taught yourself Spanish, so how hard could jazz be?

Eventually, we encounter the inevitable – we get frustrated with our progress, hit a wall with our ear training skill or harmonic knowledge, and lose motivation. Not to worry. You are not alone.

While it is necessary to spend hours in the practice room by yourself studying records and working on instrumental technique, we can’t figure everything out for ourselves – we need some sort of guidance. If you look at the history of jazz, the best improvisers had mentors and studied intently under the guidance of their heroes. This is easier than it sounds. There are resources all around us – we just have to seek them out.

Looking for guidance

We have opportunities to talk to and take lessons with great musicians everywhere. Learn to take advantage of these situations. Find the players that you admire and aspire to sound like. These players may be local heroes that you see every week or huge names in jazz that you only have access to through interviews. Find out what makes them tick. What specifically did they practice? How long did it take them to get where they are today? Who … Read More

May 30th, 2011

FAQ: The questions we get over and over

Written by Forrest

Frequently Asked Questions

We get hundreds of questions every month. We do our best to answer as many as we possibly can and write articles about the most provocative ones. Below are answers to the most common questions, pointing you to the many articles that will help resolve the question. Enjoy.

Who should I transcribe?

Transcribing is an extremely personal process. I remember asking one of the great tenor saxophonist of today a similar question when I was 19. He told me that no one can tell you who to transcribe because that’s essentially who you’re going to be influenced by the most. He asked me who I listened to a lot. Who could I not get enough of. And said, “That’s who you should transcribe.”

Hopefully that gives you a better understanding of what transcribing means to your  development and how important it is you make your own decisions about it. Everybody’s list of who to transcribe would be completely different because we all have differing ideas of what we want to sound like and what kind of language we want to absorb.

Refer to these articles:

I’m learning language but now I feel like I’m just playing practiced material. How do I get beyond this?

Learning language often starts out like this. You memorize … Read More

May 27th, 2011

5 Jazz Survival Skills: Do You Have Them?

Written by Eric

You’ve seen it on TV or maybe you’ve even done it yourself. Trekking into the wilderness alone, armed with just a few essential tools and your own courage. Find your own shelter, find your own food, find your way out. You vs. Nature.

To make it out alive, you need a few tools that will ensure your survival: a knife, a flashlight, some fire-starter, some waterproof clothing, etc. With these few items you’ll be able to build a fire, find your way in the dark, build a shelter and stay dry, and gut a fish.

However, the most important thing that you need to bring on your trip can’t be put into a back pack – Survival skills.

The best preparation you can have are the skills and knowledge that come with years of study, practice, and real-world experience. Knowledge of what plants are edible, how to stay warm, how to catch food, how to determine direction, and what to do when things turn dangerous. Tools or no tools, these skills are what will ultimately save your life out there.

Anyone venturing into the wilderness cannot predict what they’ll encounter out there (sudden storms, threatening wildlife, unforeseen accidents…). But, you can be prepared for the unknown by developing certain skills that will ensure your survival.

The same is true for jazz musicians.

Jazz survival skills

Yes, there are indeed jazz “survival” skills. Certain techniques and proficiencies that you need to have in order to survive and thrive in any musical … Read More

May 23rd, 2011

Too Much Information…Not Enough Knowledge

Written by Eric

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…~ Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate

Let’s be honest, we’re pretty lucky as jazz musicians in this day and age. As a musician interested in jazz in the year 2011, you have access to more recordings and resources related to learning this music than any previous generation of improvisers struggling to learn how to play over chord changes.

This is the age of information after all. By clicking a button, you can look up virtually anything you desire to know. With sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, Google Books, and countless other resources, you have thousands of years of knowledge at your fingertips. The only thing slowing you down on your path to infinite knowledge is the speed of your internet connection.

For musicians, the resources available online are vast: you can download virtually any recording or song that you want, you can watch videos of the masters, past and present, on YouTube, you can look up chord progressions in countless fakebooks, you can read interviews with notable musicians… You can even watch live performances online from New York jazz clubs like Smalls and hear archived shows of some the best players in the world.

But, is this overabundance information really helping us improve as improvisers?

Too much of a good thing

As it turns out, instant access to a plethora of information can be both a blessing and a curse. With a computer we have access to limitless information, but … Read More

May 20th, 2011

How Rock Climbing Taught Me How to Approach Improvisation

Written by Forrest

Rock Climbing and Music

The torrential rain won’t stop. Day after day it pours, keeping us inside. After an epic winter, the weather lightens up and the sun soaks up the moisture on the rocks. Finally, rock climbing season is in full swing. I make the trek up to the boulders, chalk up my hands, and go to town.

I know what you’re thinking. What does rock climbing have to do with learning how to improvise? Am I even at the right site? What the heck is he talking about? Relax. You’re at the right site. This is a site about jazz improvisation. But learning how to improvise is not so cut and dry. And many aspects of your life will provide surprising insight into how to approach your musical endeavors.

I’ve been an avid rock climber since I was in my early teens. The serenity of nature combined with the superhero-feeling of ascending vertical towers of rock; there’s nothing quite like it.

Steadily improving at this deceptively cerebral activity has led me to some unique ideas about how to approach learning improvisation. No need to be a climber or to even have known that it was a sport to gain value from these points. And perhaps it will inspire you to look to other parts of your life for alternate perspectives on how to learn this music.

Returning to a solid base

The endless rain I described at the beginning of this article accurately describes the weather of this past year in much … Read More

May 18th, 2011

Why Jazz Education Doesn’t Fit the Mold

Written by Eric

One thing we’re all accustomed to in this day and age is results with a limited amount of work. From daily tasks to larger life goals, this mentality has been ingrained into our collective mindset. Put in a set amount of effort and time and you’ll reach your goal, getting the exact results you’ve envisioned. This attitude especially holds true for our educational system.

You spend four years in high school and with a minimal amount of work, you get a diploma. You are now a high school graduate. Next step, college. Pick a major, complete each course, pass your finals, and now you’re ready for the job market. This is the typical model for most jobs, every step of the way there are minimum requirements and goals to meet. Once you’ve jumped through these hoops, you’ve accomplished your goal.

However, as jazz musicians, we don’t exactly fit into this system.

Jazz education

This model is not conducive for creating innovative jazz musicians, yet this is how the jazz education system is set up. While nearly every other discipline has adopted a collegiate degree system to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for a profession in a field, this does not have the same success for jazz musicians.

The reality of the matter is that the skills needed to develop as a mature improviser can’t be acquired in a single course or even over the years it takes to complete a music program – you need to spend your entire … Read More

May 16th, 2011

Two Five Progressions Made Easy

Written by Forrest

Two Five Progressions

The ii V progression makes up the vast majority of chord changes within the jazz standard repertoire. Much of our success or failure as improvisors comes from being able to navigate this deceptively simple progression.

Learning how to play over ii Vs is actually much easier than you think. The mistake most people make is they try to play over them using theoretical knowledge instead of utilizing language and their ear. You’ll notice that in this article I won’t be talking about 7 to 3 resolutions, dorian & mixolydian scales, or anything in that vein.

These types of things are excellent points of theory to know, but in reality provide little help compared to the knowledge you’ll gleam from transcribing. Use theory to supplement what you learn from studying how the music sounds.

Get ii V language

Everything starts with a model. Observing a definitive way of how to do something.

Listen to one of your heroes on a tune you know the chord changes to. Take note of where all the ii Vs occur in the tune. Focus in on those areas and listen for a line that grabs your fancy. If you have a program like Transcribe, loop the line and listen to it carefully to make sure it’s something you genuinely like. Do not neglect how important this is.

Many people have been writing in lately about who they should transcribe, asking specifically for us to tell them what solos and what musicians they should … Read More

May 13th, 2011

Why You Need Your Whole Brain to Improvise

Written by Eric

You’ve probably heard of the popular theory that when it comes to thinking, people are either left brained or right brained; they’re either analytically predisposed or intuitively creative. The rationale is that artistic proclivity originates from the right hemisphere, whereas logic and reasoning skills arise from the left hemisphere. This philosophy has influenced educational methods, test preparation, psychology, and even the self-help industry.

A cut and dry method, it makes it very easy to classify people. You’re either technically oriented or artistically inclined. No in-betweens. Great artists must be right brained and great scientists and mathematicians must be left brained, right?

Well, not really. It’s simple to put things into black and white for the purpose of the theory, however the human mind is anything but simple. Many of the great discoveries and achievements in the sciences as well as the arts were facilitated by people that utilized and combined both ways of thinking.

Would Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork be possible if he had no technical or analytical faculties? Would his engineering feats and inventions exist without a forward thinking imagination? Would Einstein have come up with his theory of relativity if he relied on facts and figures alone?

As musicians and artists, we’re supposed to be right-brained-creative and intuitive, but is this the only way that we are capable of thinking? More and more, it’s becoming clear that the skills expected of modern improvisers require the qualities and colaboration of both sides of the brain.

Right brain vs. left

Read More
May 11th, 2011

5 Overlooked Skills That Matter More Than Any Line You’ll Ever Play

Written by Forrest

5 Overlooked Skills

There are certain components to playing jazz that must be happening for any line to sound good. These overlooked skills are what make a line shine. If you get these things together, suddenly you’ll realize that everything you play sounds a whole lot better.

Achieving solid intonation

For some reason, jazzers feel that intonation is of secondary importance. This is a huge mistake. I’m not quite sure how they came to this conclusion, but I do understand it because when I was a freshman in college I remember having a similar attitude.

“Intonation???!!!! Why the hell do I need to worry about that?!!! I want to know what Kenny Garret’s playing, not how to keep an “A” in tune.” I remember arguing with my awesome teacher Art Bouton over these issues, claiming that things like intonation didn’t matter that much, and that a saxophone should never be used to play classical music.

Art was 100% correct and I was an ignorant 18 year old. Intonation matters more than any cool idea you could ever play and a great way to work on things like intonation is by practicing classical etudes with a tuner.

So why does intonation matter so much? If you’re not in tune, major thirds are not major thirds and perfect fourths end up being not-so-perfect. For any line to lay correctly against the harmony, these intervals must be accurate.

Use your tuner for more than just tuning-up at the beginning of your practice session. Put it on … Read More

May 9th, 2011

Do You Know Your Four Triads?

Written by Eric

In the recent article Hearing in Color, Forrest discussed the technique of how to develop hearing individual chord tones in the context of triads and 7th chords. Just as the individual chord tones in a chord have identifiable colors, the chords themselves have distinct sonorities that set them apart from one another.

The key to mastering these chords is to build upon information that we already have or pieces that are manageable. Instead of trying to tackle complex chords right off the bat in your ear training practice, it’s much more efficient and beneficial to start with the building blocks of any chord – the triad.

As jazz harmony has progressed, simple harmonies have evolved into some pretty complex sounds. This was accomplished by adding 7ths, b9ths, #9ths, 11ths, etc. to basic triads. At the heart of any chord lies a triad. Chords like V7#5, minor-Major 7, and Major 7#5 sound complex and look hard to figure out, but when you take away the upper chord tones, you’re left with just a triad. The trick to hearing and improvising over these chords lies in developing the ability to aurally identify the four basic triads.

The four basic triads

There’s only four triads: Major, Minor, Augmented, and Diminished. These four triad types are the basis for nearly every chord you’ll encounter. If you can immediately identify these four triads, once you add 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths to the triad, it will be significantly easier to navigate these sounds. … Read More

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