December 22nd, 2010

How to Practice Improvisation Less and Improve More

Written by Forrest

A reader recently wrote in the following question:

I used to play classical guitar, then stopped for a couple of years, and am now trying to teach myself jazz guitar. Here’s the thing:  I’m a college student.  Between classes, homework, and work,  it’s hard to get in practice time.  What would you recommend working on the most if I only have maybe 30-45 minutes a day? Sometimes it’s difficult knowing where to start/what to do…

I think most people can relate to this reader’s question. Being crunched for time is just how it is these days. Not to worry. You can still make huge positive leaps in your playing with very little time.

Scope and depth

The concept of scope and depth relates to how broad and deep a selection of anything may be. With regards to practicing, scope has to do with how many topics we choose to cover during any given practice session and depth describes how deeply we study each of these particular topics.

Most people’s practice sessions tend to be broad in scope and shallow in depth. For instance, they’ll attempt to tackle tone exercises, dozens of scales in all keys, five new tunes, and what ever else they can cram into an hour! On top of that, the method they approach each of these topics with may be completely inefficient. For example, most people tend to learn new tunes from play-along recordings as opposed to learning them off the record, or they make one of … Read More

December 17th, 2010

How to Hear Chord Changes

Written by Eric

A reader recently wrote:

I was reading your “6 mistakes” article and was intrigued by the first rule. I would be more than happy to toss my lousy sixth edition real book, but have some questions about learning tunes by ear. When I’m blowing through changes or learning licks, it all comes down to the chords. So I depend on the changes in the book.  On recordings, a lot of the time all I can hear is the linear solo, and can’t hear the changes in the rhythm section.  So when I learn a standard by ear, how should I approach figuring out the changes?

This is a great question and one that I’ve often struggled with myself. Sure, it’s simple enough to get the melody from a record without looking at a book, but deciphering all the chord changes can be another story. Whether it’s because of a poorly recorded track, a fast tempo, or just flat-out inexperience, taking the time to figure out each chord to a standard can be frustrating.

So why not look up the changes in a real book?

A chart in the real book represents just one version of a tune taken from one recording. That chart  may have been based on substituted chord changes, a different key, or even an embellished melody. You have no way of knowing unless you check out the record for yourself. Many times, I have learned a tune from a book only to realize too late … Read More

December 16th, 2010

Great Jazz Ears: How to Get a Vivid Aural Imagination

Written by Forrest

The extent to which your aural imagination is developed, largely determines: the quality of lines you play, how you play those lines (articulation, swing feel, inflection), and the sound you play with. Nothing has such an impact on your playing than your aural imagination. If there were a secret to improvising, developing your aural imagination would be it.

Ok, ok. I didn’t say oral imagination. You’ll have to go to the other 98% of the internet for that. Get your mind out of the gutter 😉

When we go to improvise, we draw from a well of knowledge. This well is filled with things we’ve practiced, listened to, or studied theoretically. The stuff, though, that actually emerges during improvisation is the stuff that we can really hear. Want to change the way you sound? Change the way you hear.

The way we hear is the most neglected aspect of practicing improvisation. We simply expect to have great ears. The problem: great ears don’t just happen. They are something that are consciously developed over years and years of practice. But what does it even mean to have great ears and a vivid aural imagination?

We all hear differently. However, many traits of great ears can easily be identified. The ability to:

  • Hear and sing intervals
  • Hear and sing specific chord tones while a chord plays in the background
  • Hear and sing the roots of a progression
  • Hear a line from a recording and retain it. Slow it down in the mind.
Read More
December 8th, 2010

6 Disastrous Mistakes You’re Making in Learning to Improvise

Written by Eric


Learning to improvise is a life long pursuit.

Constantly, we’re bombarded with information on how to improve. From the teachers that give us private lessons, to friends who recommend their personal practice routines, it seems there is improvement information coming from every direction! We’ll even purchase expensive books and videos, searching for  “the secret” (that must exist, right?) to improving as an improviser.

With all of these “authorities” and methods on the correct way to improvise, it can be difficult to ascertain what actually works. Everyone has their own style of learning, so naturally, there isn’t one method that works for all musicians. Rather than searching for the best way to acquire information, it can be more effective to filter out what doesn’t work.

Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at the way I learned to improvise, there is pivotal advice I wish I had followed and certain methods I should have avoided, had I known better.

Here are six common mistakes I made in learning to improvise that you don’t have to make:

1. Learning tunes out of a Real Book

real book trash

For years, when I would want to learn a tune, I would immediately grab my real book and look up the melody and chord changes. This made sense to me at the time because the information I needed was right there on the page. I learned nearly every song this way. Consequently, on gigs I would depend solely on the real book to get through a set. Even though … Read More

December 3rd, 2010

Transposition Made Easy

Written by Eric

Transposition is a skill that all musicians will need at some point in their careers. Whether you play a transposing instrument or an instrument in concert pitch, there are inevitably going to be times that call for reading music or soloing from chord changes that are not in your key.

Trumpet players, saxophone players, and other transposing instruments are frequently asked to read from lead sheets that are in concert pitch, especially in small group settings. Even if you do happen to play a C instrument, the ability to transpose is a skill that will serve you well.

Whatever the case, transposing is a skill that must be developed in the practice room and refined on the band stand. Just like any other technique that you cultivate on your instrument, you must have a methodical and dedicated approach to see improvement.

Transposing intervals

Bb Instruments to C

Trumpet players, tenor players, and other Bb instruments transpose up a whole step to play written music in C. Let’s say you have an F major scale:

When you are transposing, you should see the notes a whole step above the written music as shown below:

Get in the habit of seeing a note and being able to think of the note a whole step up automatically. A good way to practice this is to take a piece of music that you are working on to the piano. Play the written notes at the same time as the note you are transposing to.… Read More

November 30th, 2010

3 More Gems From Harold Mabern

Written by Forrest

In my first 3 Gems Harold Mabern Told Me, we learned how much Harold stresses: Relying on your ear, Being greedy for the music, and The difference between inspiration and motivation. Here’s 3 more to dwell on.

1.) Good music is good music

Harold would play all sorts of tunes in my lessons. Sometimes it was a straight-ahead jazz tune and sometimes it was a pop tune. It didn’t matter who wrote it, who performed it, or what the general public thought about it.

Often, he would take a pop tune and create his own arrangement, transforming it into a work of art. Don’t discriminate against non-jazz music. Trust your ear and figure out what makes particular music appeal to you. Good music = Good music.

2.) Learn your standards in all keys

Take tunes from the jazz-standard-repertoire and learn them in all keys. Some standards Harold loves and plays are not so familiar by many people today. Tunes like, “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and “Let’s face the Music and Dance.”

You can tell when Harold plays these tunes that he has a connection with them; that he’s fallen in love with them. That’s how you should feel about the tunes you’re playing. So find some standards you like, develop a relationship with them, and learn them in all keys.

3.) Understand where players came from

In our combo rehearsals, Harold would write a few players on the chalk board and say “Who influenced all of … Read More

November 24th, 2010

How To Practice Scales For Speed

Written by Forrest

Practice Scales for Speed

Several readers have written us lately asking how to practice scales. Simply practicing them is not difficult, but attaining a high level of speed and accuracy, while keeping your sound consistent throughout all registers is quite a task. This article assumes you are familiar with the 12 keys and the scale qualities of major, minor (natural, harmonic, and melodic), whole tone, and diminished.

Typical scale practice

Most college jazz programs, as well as most books, have a standard way they have their students practice. While effective, their prescribed method can be greatly improved upon for more rapidly acquiring the speed we all desire. Here’s what they say:

  • Practice your major, minor ( all 3…natural, harmonic, & melodic), whole-tone, and diminished scales
  • In all keys
  • Full range of your instrument
  • From root to as high as you can go, back down to as low as you can go, and then back up the root
  • One mode up, the next down and so on (up and down)
  • The scale in diatonic 3rds (up and down)
  • In diatonic 4ths (up and down)
  • In diatonic triads (up and down)
  • In diatonic seventh chords (up and down)

Here are simple examples in the key of C:

Basic scale practice prescribed by books and colleges


Seems simple enough, right? Sure, it sounds easy, but that’s a whole lot of work. I can tell you from experience, trying to tackle your scales this way is overwhelming, tiresome, and inefficient.

Yes, eventually you’ll want to be able to … Read More

November 22nd, 2010

5 Ways to Practice Anywhere

Written by Eric

One of the most frustrating feelings I have, is to get to the end of the day and realize that I haven’t practiced enough, or even worse, that I haven’t even touched my instrument. Whether it’s because of appointments, travel, school, or work commitments, it seems like there is always something getting in the way of our daily practice. However, just because we find ourselves away from our instruments, doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice practice time. Here are five easy ways to take control and turn that otherwise wasted time into useful practice time:

1. Visualization

The practice of visualization is used by people in all types of professions. Athletes visualize themselves performing at their peak before game time, politicians visualize themselves giving great speeches, and even surgeons mentally rehearse every aspect of a procedure before operating on a patient.

As musicians, we can also use this process to our advantage. Not only can we visualize a perfect performance, we can use this method to actually practice and reinforce techniques outside of the practice room. Scales, chord progressions, and even a transcribed solo that you have been learning, can improve by using visualization.

If you are still wondering what visualization is, read this article on visualization now for a step by step process on how to mentally practice for jazz improvisation. You can do these exercises while you are laying in bed before you fall asleep or any other downtime you have during the day.

Try picking a … Read More

November 12th, 2010

50 Jazz Education Clips That Rock

Written by Forrest
Here's a collection of some of the best jazz improvisation educational video clips I've found. They include: Pat Martino, Jerry Bergonzi, Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker, Hal Galper, Joshua Redman, Bill Evans, John Scofield, Chris Potter, Billy Taylor, Joe Henderson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson, Terence Blanchard, Walter Bishop Jr., and Kenny Werner. Enjoy!

Pat Martino explains some killer substitutions

...Read More
November 10th, 2010

Overcoming Obstacles in Transcription

Written by Eric


Whether it be figuring out difficult double-time passages, navigating advanced technical lines, or even finding the motivation to do it everyday, transcribing can be difficult.

Transcribing, while essential to learning to play the jazz language, is often one of the most demanding tasks to complete on a regular basis for improvisers. Two readers recently asked questions regarding the difficulties of transcribing. One reader writes:

“I wanted to transcribe a Wes Montgomery solo and there are some moments where I can’t hear what he is playing. What should I do, try another solo? Also, how do I overcome moments when I am not in the mood for practicing?”

Slow it down, hear & sing every note

I know this feeling well: beginning a transcription, making progress quickly, and then reaching a point where you just can’t figure out the notes. As a result, your concentration quickly falls apart and frustration ensues. At times like these, do not move onto another solo, especially if you really love the solo. In most solos there is a section that is difficult to transcribe, whether it is a fast double time section or a track of poor recording quality. Stick with it.

In these cases, I use a program to slow down the recording so I can precisely hear what the soloist is playing note by note. Don’t be afraid to slow the recording way down or feel that you’re cheating by doing so. Once you’ve slowed it down, hear every note in your mind.… Read More

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