June 27th, 2011

Finding a Fresh Approach to Playing the Same Old Tunes

Written by Eric

Repetition. It’s one part of learning to improvise that’s par for the course. We practice scales over and over again until the technique is securely in our fingers, we spend hours repeatedly working out ii-V7 lines that we’ve transcribed, and we memorize the melodies and chord changes to numerous tunes until we can play them in our sleep.

The great part about all of this repetition is that when we finally have something ingrained into our ears and fingers, we can play it anywhere, especially under pressure.

However, the one drawback with this type of practice is that it’s extremely easy to get stuck in a rut. If you aren’t continually incorporating new language into your playing and searching for new creative approaches to those familiar progressions, you’ll be left with your same old musical approach – and this can be a problem.

In the past I would find myself frustrated, bored, and completely out of ideas on the standards I was practicing. It seemed like I couldn’t think of any new ideas to use over the chord progressions and that I was playing the same stuff over and over again. Although, this didn’t happen without reason. Looking back, the way I approached these tunes mentally and technically contributed significantly to how I played over them.

In the practice room I would play a melody, reading from a page in the real book, the same exact way every time. Instead of getting out the recording, I would turn on play-a-longs … Read More

June 24th, 2011

10 Ways to Make a Line Your Own

Written by Forrest

make your own

So you’ve transcribed some lines and you’re learning them in all keys. You’ve even started to apply them to tunes you’re working on, but after several weeks, the line you transcribed which started out as sounding magical to you, now sounds boring. And on top of that, you’re playing that same line everywhere.

Don’t fret. If you’re familiar with this described situation, you’re on the right track. However, it’s at this point that most people stop.

Once you’re comfortable with the line in all keys and are using it in your playing, it’s time to take the line to the next level: transitioning the line from a simple and uncreative cut-and-paste-element, to something you truly own. Something that inspires your creativity within. It’s time to make it your own.

Making a line your own

“The creative act does not create something out of nothing. It uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, [and] skills.”Arthur Koestler

Copying a line from one of your heroes and reproducing it is just a starting point to learning the jazz language. The goal: to hear, understand, and build upon these lines, combining them with other lines and concepts to produce something your own.

Making lines begins just from playing them over and over. There are some lines I’ve learned that sound completely different when I play them than when I listen to the original source of where they came from. These differences are the result of my sound, articulation, time concept, … Read More

June 22nd, 2011

Scales Are Not the Secret Short-Cut to Jazz Improvisation

Written by Eric

When you first began to learn how to improvise, if you studied out of a book on jazz improvisation or took a lesson on how to solo over chord changes, chances are the first thing you encountered were scales. Memorizing lists of scales from Major and minor to diminished and octatonic. Knowing which scales work with which chords. It can seem like the practice of scales never ends. This philosophy has become so entrenched within the art of learning improvisation that it is hard to avoid thinking about scales.

Numerous jazz education resources today highlight scales as the method to mastering how to play over chord progressions and improvising like your heroes. Because of this, many students believe that studying scales alone is the answer to reaching their goals. You may have even thought to yourself as I often did: “If I only get all my scales together, then I’ll solve my difficulties with improvisation.”

We get a lot of questions about practicing scales and how they relate to improvisation all the time: How should I use scales when I’m soloing? What’s the best way to practice scales? Do I even need to know my scales in order to improvise?

If you’ve read any of the articles on this site, you know that thinking about a major, minor, or any other type of scale while you’re improvising is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the musicianship and harmonic understanding that go into creating a great solo.… Read More

June 17th, 2011

How Thoughtful Off Time Can Help You Become The Player You Wish To Be

Written by Forrest

Taking Time Off

Daily practice is the key to growing into the player you wish to become. Everyday, building upon the knowledge you learned the previous day, moving forward, getting closer and closer…that’s the goal.

But what if with each day, you’re just more and more frustrated? What if you’re simply bored with your sound and most everything you play? We’ve received dozens of emails about people feeling this way, unmotivated and uninspired.

While daily practice is a must, practicing with such a negative mindset  will cause more damage than improvement. You’ll be ingraining a sound you don’t like, with lines you’re not fond of, playing in a manner that is simply not you.

Want to play the way you want to play, playing with a sound and vocabulary that constitutes your ideal? If done thoughtfully and intentionally, taking time away from your instrument can actually help you achieve this. It can give you the much needed time to stop and reflect on what you truly want to sound like. And when you return to daily practicing, you can start with a clean slate, as if you reset yourself, starting anew and feeling re-energized.

Taking time off

Should you really take time off? For how long? If you do, won’t you lose everything you’ve worked on? These are all valid questions and things to think about before you decide to put down your horn for a bit. As with everything having to do with learning this music, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

From my … Read More

June 15th, 2011

Before You Transcribe or Learn Tunes…

Written by Eric

“Learn tunes. Transcribe solos.”

The instructions for aspiring jazz musicians are pretty much the same everywhere you go.

You want to play longer lines and master tricky chord progressions?

“Learn tunes and transcribe solos.”

Need more technique and better ears?

You get the idea.

We receive this advice from our teachers, friends, and from our musical heroes in master classes and interviews. Hearing these instructions repeatedly, we try to shape our practice sessions around these four words. It’s good advice, but how exactly do you transcribe and what is the best method to learning tunes?

As I started out with these instructions myself, I immediately went out and got a real book and some books of transcribed solos and got to work on becoming a jazz star. The only problem is that how you go about these tasks is gravely important. My idea of transcribing solos and learning tunes was not exactly accurate and this led to years of frustration.

Along with knowing that we should transcribe and learn tunes, we need some instruction on how to achieve these tasks and what skills are involved. Before you rush into the practice room with these words fresh in your mind, take a second to think about how you are going to go about completing these two tasks and more importantly, why you are transcribing and learning tunes in the first place.

Before you learn tunes

Make sure you’re clear on what “knowing” a tune actually entails. Do you have the notes … Read More

June 13th, 2011

Learn New Material by Total Immersion

Written by Forrest

full immersion

One thing you always want to be doing is learning new material. New lines, new tunes, new concepts…there’s always something new to learn.

We preach the mantra Quality Over Quantity in practically everything we write. So, while it’s true you always want to learn new things, the idea is to judiciously select what you want to learn and truly master it, rather than attempting to learn a ton, in a half-assed manner.

The way we approach practicing is closely tied to successfully integrating new material and techniques into our playing.

Breaking new material into smaller tasks

The first step to learning something new is breaking this new thing into smaller tasks that you can easily conceptualize and approach. I always use this tactic when learning tunes.

Take a tune and rather than trying to tackle the entire 32 bars, instead tell yourself, “I’m just going to learn the first 8 measures, and really get to know them inside and out.” That’s all you worry about. The first 8 measures.

You pretend that, for now, the rest of the tune doesn’t exist. Once you master those 8 bars over a period of several hours, days, or even months (it doesn’t matter how long it takes. What matters is true ownership), then you move onto the next 8 bars.

The nice thing about most jazz standards is that they are comprised of only two distinct sections: the A and B sections. This makes it very simple. Once you’ve mastered the first 8 … Read More

June 9th, 2011

Clark Terry’s 3 Steps to Learning Improvisation

Written by Eric

Clark Terry is one of the living legends of this music.

He has played with every big name in jazz over the last half-century from the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, to Ella Fitzgerald…the list could go on forever. With such a rich performing career spanning over six decades, he continues to play with today’s top musicians and inspire up and coming improvisers.

During school, I was lucky enough to have an impromptu lesson with the trumpet master. One night after a rehearsal for a gig, Clark came in unannounced to the practice rooms at our school looking to impart some wisdom to some aspiring musicians. Before I knew it I was sitting inches from Clark Terry’s bell and he was teaching me a tune by ear.

That sound that I had listened to for years on record was coming out of a horn a foot away from me. It was an experience that I will always remember. I don’t know what was more impressive, the fact that I was sitting down with a jazz legend or that Clark, age of 89, came into the music school practice rooms around 10 at night to hang out with students for free.

Pretty amazing, but then again Clark Terry has been dedicated to educating young jazz musicians for decades. He mentored a young Miles Davis and encouraged Quincy Jones as he was starting out as an arranger and trumpet player. With a track record like that, it’s … Read More

June 6th, 2011

Two-Five Substitutions in a Flash

Written by Forrest

Everybody wants to play “outside” the chord changes. They think there is something mysterious about getting outside the changes. In my experience, the phenomenal players that I’ve studied with along with the legendary players I’ve learned from on recordings, approach playing outside the harmony much in the same way they approach playing inside the harmony: they play over specific chords.

Playing other chords instead of the original chords is often called superimposition. Superimposing these substitutions on-top of the original set of chord changes allows you to keep a logical structure to your lines, while escaping the typical path.

An easy entry point to utilizing these substitutions is over ii Vs. It’s quite simple. Instead of playing the ii V in the original changes, you’ll instead play a ii V from a different key. The important thing to remember is: you still have to resolve the ii V to the original key and you have to engage your ear to make it sound right. Theoretical concepts can give you ideas of what to play, but then you must use your ear to tailor the concept for that particular situation.

Where these substitutions come from

The 3 substitutions presented in this article occur time and time again in the standard jazz repertoire; they are devices that composers have used for centuries to add tension directly before a resolution point (V7 to I).

The first substitution is simply what jazz educators call the “backdoor ii V” (iv-  bVII7  I ). And you can … Read More

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

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