March 8th, 2011
Jazz musicians and educators constantly discuss the topic of licks. They debate questions such as: Should you learn them? Is it okay to play them over and over? Does it matter where you get these licks from? And a handful of other topics.
If you’re discussing licks, you’ve already missed the boat. You don’t want to know a single lick. You want to know language.
Although many interpretations of a lick exist, I’m going to give you my best definition based upon how I’ve most commonly heard the word used and applied to jazz knowledge.
It’s a melodic line that an improviser has acquired for the means of reproducing it note-for-note in their improvised solo. The line may have been learned from a recording, but most likely it was acquired through printed material, or other secondary sources. The line may have been briefly played in all keys, however, more often than not a lick is limited to one key.
That’s all there is to a lick. You don’t know how to vary it rhythmically or approach it with a group of notes. You can’t alter the line or combine it with other lines you know. The concepts you have practiced cannot be applied to this static entity. Nothing affects it. It fits in one spot and it stays there for it’s measly life. Starting to understand what I mean by a lick?
Here’s an analogy.
Suppose you’re traveling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. … Read More
March 5th, 2011
Perspective is a powerful tool.
At times it serves as an unexpected wake-up call, uncovering a glimpse of hidden possibilities. A catalyst prodding us to get to the next level through a renewed work ethic.
At others, it makes us step back and take a look at the big picture. Momentarily forcing us out of our daily routine and narrow world-view with a healthy dose of reality.
A powerful tool in both cases, perspective is often forgotten about until it’s experienced and seldom controlled. It’s very easy to get stuck in a certain mindset where we focus only on our shortcomings and musical barriers or dwell solely upon the talent and success of others. Wherever you may be in your musical development, a change in perspective can help you to overcome an obstacle and put you back on the right track.
From a master’s perspective
One memory that continues to remain with me from grad school, are the words of Mulgrew Miller as he addressed the student body at the beginning of the semester:
“Throw the key away! Go into the practice room and throw away the key. If I could do it all over again, I wish I would have practiced more. Just gone into the practice room and thrown the key away.”~Mulgrew Miller
I remember sitting there shocked. Here was one of the best pianists, or improvisers for that matter, on the planet saying he wished he would have practiced more. A musician with more technique, harmonic … Read More
March 1st, 2011
The harmonic and melodic aspects of practicing jazz improvisation take up the bulk of our time. Consequently, developing a strong sense of time falls by the wayside. I’m as guilty as anyone else, thinking that somehow, it would just take care of itself. Unfortunately, things don’t work that way.
The people who have “great time” did not arrive there by chance. They focused intently on achieving a deep understanding and a working knowledge of time through hours of dedicated practice. Use the following steps and you’ll be well on your way.
Step 1: Learn to hear metronome clicks as 2 and 4
Set your metronome to 60 bpm. After a click goes by say out-loud, “1.” So, it will go something like this: “click”…”1”. This forces your ear to hear the next click of the metronome as beat 2.
Next, try verbalizing all the beats. After a click, say “1” and then during the next click say “2.” Then say “3,” followed by saying “4” in unison with the click of the metronome. Looks like this: Hear a click…then say “1”, Hear a click while simultaneously saying “2”…Say “3”…Hear a click while simultaneously saying “4.”
Once you get confident verbalizing with the clicks, move the voice to your mind. So, instead of saying each beat number, hear the numbers and clicks in your mind. Practice hearing the beat numbers and clicks in your mind until it is second nature to hear the clicks on 2 and 4.
Gradually, increase the … Read More
February 22nd, 2011
One of the biggest obstacles for musicians working to improve as improvisers lies in the development of a solid daily practice routine. We all know we should get into the practice room and diligently spend hours toiling away, but how that time is spent is crucial to seeing musical development.
In our daily practice, we frequently we run into barriers to progress: struggling to figure out the best method of practice, frustration as to why the content of a practice routine is not leading to improvement, or even finding motivation to set foot into the practice room.
When you get to the bottom of it, the key to creating quality practice won’t be found by looking for an external excuse. The true culprit lies in overcoming the opponent within ourselves. We don’t consciously prevent ourselves from improving, but the daily habits that we create determine our rate of improvement as a musician.
Whether it’s laziness, procrastination, a defeatist mindset, or an unwillingness to confront problem areas, there are a number of factors that can prevent improvement and the eventual realization of your goals. Finding a method to turn this cycle around will make all the difference in the results of your practice time.
Setting specific goals
Having goals leads to the achievement of goals, it’s as simple as that. Without having a defined objective, your time in the practice room, how ever well spent, will ultimately be leading you astray. In order to stop this routine of unfocused practice, create … Read More
February 18th, 2011
Keep your eyes on the stars but keep your feet on the ground.Theodore Roosevelt
The fundamentals of ear training are largely glossed over. Developing one’s ear is seen as a linear track: learn your intervals, then your triads…and so on. But developing your ear is not a linear pursuit. Like improvisation, it’s a quest of constantly pushing forward, while simultaneously strengthening your roots.
Choose your ear training partner wisely
Finding someone to practice ear training with makes it more beneficial and more fun. Find someone around your level and who is willing to practice with you at least three times a week. Ideally, you’d have a roommate or neighbor who’s willing to practice daily.
The most important aspect of choosing someone to practice ear training with has to do with attitude. You want to work with someone that will not criticize or judge you because you make mistakes. And similarly, you should adopt an attitude of understanding and respect for the current level of the person you’re working with.
I’ve practiced with people before where I’ve felt that if I said the wrong answer, they would think less of me as a musician, or make fun of me because I screwed up a basic exercise. This situation will cripple your learning, rendering your ear training sessions virtually useless.
Choose your ear training partner wisely. Aim to develop a relationship of mutual encouragement … Read More
February 15th, 2011
After hours spent practicing technique: endless articulation, tone, range, and fingering exercises, are you still not matching up to what you’re hearing on your favorite records? Are those same étude books and exercises you’ve been working on for years still not cutting it?
It can be very discouraging when you don’t see any improvement in your improvising and technique even though you’ve been diligently practicing exercises designed to make you better. The problem is not that you’re practicing exercises to improve, but rather that the content of your practice routine isn’t matching your goal of what you want to sound like.
If you want to sound like your favorite musician, why are you relying on études and exercises out of books to get you there? Learn the technique from the source. This is not to say that you should abandon crucial practice on your instrument for tone, fingering, articulation, etc., but if you are relying solely on these sources to reach your goal, you’re going to be working for a very long time.
Transcribe for technique
Everyone talks about transcribing to learn lines and copying language from the greats, but one invaluable benefit that is often overlooked is the advance in technique that goes hand-in-hand with learning solos by ear. Think back to the last solo that you transcribed. After learning the solo and playing it along with the record, did you notice that you had more technique or were able to play in a way that you were unable … Read More
February 14th, 2011
Ever spend a lot of time learning a tune, only to realize that you’ve completely forgotten it a few weeks later?
When you’re not achieving your desired results in pretty much anything, check your methods. What’s your process? What’s your approach? After detailing your current methods, you can then easily modify them to realign yourself with your goals.
If your current method of learning a tune is: find the Aebersold play-along track, flip it on, read the written music and go on like that for hours, days, or even years hoping for the best, just stop now. While there are countless ways to use play-alongs effectively, this is not one of them.
I’m not going to dwell on this point because I say it in nearly every article: learn the tune from the recordings. I know it’s difficult. I know it takes time. I know sometimes you can’t hear what chord it is or what the bass player is playing.
For any given tune, dozens of recordings exist. On any given track, dozens of courses go by. There are plenty of opportunities to figure out what’s going on harmonically, rhythmically, and melodically in virtually any tune.
This article could end here. It could end here because if you spent a significant time to learn a tune off the record in this manner, you would have the ability to easily recall that tune. Sure, you may have to think about it for a minute, or clear your mind and hear … Read More
February 10th, 2011
A reader recently asked:
I was wondering about how to play over altered dominant chords. What are some strategies for playing over Dominant 7 #9 chords, specifically.
This question comes up frequently for many improvisers. It seems like everyone has a “fail safe” scale or lick that they use exclusively every time they see an altered dominant chord. With all this conflicting information flying around, trying to understand what actually works can be especially confusing.
Whether it is a V7#9, a V7#11, or a V7 Alt., you ultimately need to study the ins-and-outs of these chords in order to develop your own approach.
Traditionally, the V7#9 chord or altered dominant chord occurs in a minor ii-V progression. Instead of the ii-V7 of a major progression, a minor ii-V contains a half-diminished ii chord and an altered V7 chord (b9, #9, b13, or #11 depending on the voicing). For example, look at a minor ii-V in C minor:
Improvisers, however, have been altering V7 chords in all progressions, major and minor alike, for quite some time now. Therefore, any dominant chord that you come across, whether it is part of a ii-V or standing alone, is pretty much fair game for alteration. The first step to navigating this chord is to familiarize yourself with it’s unique character.
Be able to identify the sound
The V7#9 chord is a very versatile sound, meaning that you can take one of many harmonic approaches to play over it. In order to fully utilize the … Read More
February 7th, 2011
A recent question from a reader inquired about the blues in all keys:
I'm a sax player and have been working through the blues in all keys for the past few months, and was wondering if you guys had any tips, tricks, or any advice?
We've all heard it time and time again: Learn the blues in all keys. It seems like a daunting task, but with these tips, you'll be well on your way.
Understand and Visualize the components of a Blues
Before you even learn to play on a blues in one key, it helps immensely to understand all the components of a blues. What do I mean by components? By components, I'm pertaining to the harmonic building blocks of the progression. For a typical blues, they consist of:
- I dominant
- IV dominant
- ii V
- iii Vi
- iii Vi ii V (which is essentially covered by the previous 2 components, but lets be thorough)
The next step is to visualize each one of these components in relation to its tonic, in all keys. Here's the process...Read More
February 3rd, 2011
Learning how to improvise can be overwhelming.
There is an enormous gap in knowledge that you must overcome as soon as you decide that you want to play jazz. Before you even improvise a single note, you have to contend with over 100 years of musical history, from Louis Armstrong all the way up to the innovators of today. Hundreds of tunes to learn, dozens of masters to study and transcribe, famous solos to memorize and internalize, etc., all just to get to a proficient level. Where does one even begin with what seems like endless information?
One amount of information that is finite, however, are the four basic types of chords that you’ll encounter most frequently: Major, Minor, Dominant, and Half-diminished. If you think about it, these four chords are the building blocks of the majority of standards that you’ll come across. Dominant 7th chords comprise the harmonic body of blues tunes and the bridge to rhythm changes, Major 7 chords begin and end the chord progressions of countless standards, while minor and half-diminished chords are the first piece to the ever present ii-V progression.
You can quickly see how beneficial it is to focus intently on these sounds. If you can develop language over these four basic chords in all 12 keys, you will have improvisatory material for all occasions. Of course, there are many other types of chords (Major7#11, V7#5, sus chords, minor-major 7, diminished, augmented, etc.), but these are all essentially variations … Read More