May 6th, 2011

Learning to Let Go: Achieving your optimum performance mindset

Written by Forrest

Learning to Let Go

When I think about what it means to “let go,” detailed scenes from Hollywood hits come to mind. Scenes like Neo in The Matrix learning that “there is no spoon,” and Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai being taught to think “No mind.”

There’s a good reason these type of scenes take place in so many films: to achieve our potential in activities that occur in the moment (things like combat, public speaking, and improvising), we must surrender to the moment. Film writers know that this message plays an important role in reality and that we relate to it on an intimate level, hence they include it in many movies.

Like Neo in The Matrix and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, we too can learn to control our thoughts and free our mind to make way for our creativity.

Letting go: performance versus practice

Too much conscious thought during performance impedes our ability to perform at our optimum level. For this reason, it’s important to learn how to not think so much while we perform.

Believe it or not, this skill is something that we actually all tend to do quite naturally. How many times have you gone to the practice room and just played for hours with no specific direction? If you answered “yes”, then you’re human.

The problem is that when you’re alone in the practice room, for the bulk of your practice session, it’s the wrong time to play with the let-go-mindset. At the end … Read More

May 4th, 2011

The Lost Art of Looking for Nuance

Written by Eric

Let’s face it.

As improvising musicians, we’ve become obsessed with notes.

Obsessed with harmony, chords, and scales. Which scales to use over which chord progressions, which diminished scales to play over dominant chords, how to play “outside,” how to play “inside,” which chords can be substituted for others…We even reduce entire sounds, full of infinite sonorities, down to measly scales: “Oh, G7 #9, you just gotta play an altered scale, works every time!”

Even when we get on the right track and begin to transcribe solos from our favorite records, it can be easy to forget that we’re looking for more than just the notes. It’s through this process of imitation that we absorb the styles of our heroes and begin to create our own sound, but this involves much more than simply determining the pitches in a solo or conducting a theoretical analysis.

Looking beyond the notes

Countless transcription books have reduced entire solos down to mere shadows of what the recording presents. The actual pitches of the solo are only one piece of the valuable information available on the record. You can get the notes from the page, but what about the articulation, time, tone, touch, volume, accents, feel, idiomatic effects, or other “intangibles” of the solo that can’t be represented in print?

It’s hidden within these intangibles that you’ll find the true musicality of the solo. The subtle aspects of expression that make it personal, intriguing, and emotional. The daring excitement of Elvin, McCoy and Jimmy Garrison … Read More

May 2nd, 2011

Hearing in Color: Chord tones in context

Written by Forrest

Hearing in Color

Every chord tone has its own unique sound, its own unique color. Learning to hear these colors brings these sounds to life.

Match piano pitches accurately

The first step toward hearing these colors is to hear a sound, repeat it in your minds ear, and accurately reproduce it with your voice on your first try.

Go to the piano. Play a note near middle C, or wherever you can sing comfortably within your range. Clearly hear the note resonate in your mind.

Think about singing that pitch and prepare your vocal chords. Get them precisely where they need to be to sing the note. Your goal is to sing the note perfectly the first time. You don’t want to be sharp or flat. You want to be absolutely dead center on your first attempt.

Sing the note, paying close attention that you’re truly right on with the pitch.

Spend 15 minutes a day for a few weeks at this exercise and no matter how poor your singing, you’ll notice dramatic improvement at hitting the center of a note on your first try.

Understand chord tone colors

The second step in hearing these chord tone colors is to clearly understand what they are. It’s a difficult thing to describe. It’s like trying to describe the color green. I could say things like lush or nature, but how closely does that depict the color green? There’s no real tangible way that I could possibly describe to someone what green actually looks like.… Read More

April 29th, 2011

Basic Bebop Reharmonization

Written by Eric

If you took a quick survey and asked a few people to describe the components of bebop, you might come up with some answers like: “fast tempos, lots of notes, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, b9’s, b5’s, altered dominants, diminished scales.

While all of these are true of the music, one of the most overlooked, but surprisingly simple devices of bebop is that of super-imposing chords over existing changes.

Aside from the essential rhythmic and melodic characteristics of the music, the practice of reharmonizing common chord changes, whether implied melodically by the soloist or explicitly stated harmonically by the rhythm section, was crucial to the innovations of bebop.

Dizzy Gillespie talks about this concept in his book with Al Fraser, To Be, or Not…To Bop:

We found out what the composers were doing by analyzing these tunes, and then added substitute chords to songs like “Night and Day,” “How High the Moon,” “Lover,” “What is this Thing Called Love,” and “Whispering.” When we borrowed from a standard, we added and substituted so many chords that most people didn’t know what song we really were playing. “How High the Moon” became “Ornithology” and “What is this Thing Called Love” became “Hot House.” … That was our thing in bebop, putting in substitutions. (p.207)

Many of the reharmonization techniques of the musicians of the 1940’s centered around super-imposing or substituting progressions, most commonly through the use of ii-V7’s, over the existing progressions of traditional standards. These traditional pop-tunes were predominantly … Read More

April 27th, 2011

Exploring Space

Written by Forrest

Exploring Space

Music is the space between the notes-Claude Debussy

The use of space is what defines our lines. Learning how to control our use of space allows us to define our lines precisely how we want to. To gain this control, we must focus our attention on where we rest.

Most of our practice time is spent playing and not resting. For many, it’s actually difficult not to play. It’s difficult simply because we haven’t spent time on it. The following exercises will focus on three areas of the use of space:

  • Using space after a line
  • Using space before a line
  • Using space within a line

Diligently practicing using space in these three different ways will expand the way you hear and play.

Using space after a line

The simplest use of space is the use of space directly after a line. Space after a line gives the idea definition and provides a logical breaking point for your next idea to begin; it gives the idea room to breathe and echo in the mind of the listener.

Sometimes we get so carried away playing idea after idea that every line runs into the next, making it sound like a run-on-sentence and then you add more material and maybe you add more  and no there will not be any space or even a comma just more more more material that runs and goes and bleeds into the next idea and..

We do not want to sound like that. Using space … Read More

April 25th, 2011

Dizzy Gillespie’s Prerequisites for Successful Jazz Musicians

Written by Eric
Over the years, in learning this music and working on improvisation, I've encountered a lot of educational information: how to learn, how to practice, which scales to use, how to learn bebop in a week, etc. Looking back, the hardest part can be deciding which method is best or which information to trust. Sometimes the best bet for getting the "real" information is to go directly to the source, the words of the masters. Whether you come across these words in books, interviews, masterclasses, or even in person, be sure take these words seriously. If someone is playing at the highest level, then you can be sure that they know a thing or two about how to learn this music. Even a comment or remark in passing can carry great weight and might just be the insight you need to get your playing to the next level. One book I've been checking out recently is To Be, or Not...To Bop by Dizzy Gillespie. Along with biographical details and recollections from other notable musicians, are some passages with valuable musical insight. One such item, is a list of essential qualifications for jazz musicians, a musical "to-do list" for all improvisers. Any words of wisdom from the masters of this music is worth taking a look at and this list is no exception....Read More
April 22nd, 2011

Concept Application: a Framework for Practicing Tunes

Written by Forrest

Concept Application

We often talk about jazz language and how a primary way to integrate it into your playing is by applying that language to specific parts of tunes. By forcing yourself to use some piece of language over a tune in predetermined spots, your ear and your fingers learn how to put that piece of language into context. Gradually, the piece of language becomes something you can hear, access, and alter at will. It becomes a part of you.

Applying language like this is one way to work on tunes, but you can also apply general concepts to specific parts of tunes. I’ll label this idea as “concept application.” Pretty sophisticated, I know 😉

We get loads of emails everyday asking about how to learn tunes, how to solo better, and how to hear more clearly. The tactic of concept application seems to have slipped right by most people. It’s actually very simple and you probably already use it some of the time. All it means is taking some sort of concept and applying it to specific parts of a tune.

The latter part of this is where most people go wrong. They work on a concept in “isolation-mode” and never learn to apply it to tunes. For instance, maybe you’ve worked on some cool rhythmic idea or some sort of harmonic alteration, but it hasn’t revealed itself when you go to improvise. Did you ever apply it to a tune you’re working on? What good is a concept that doesn’t … Read More

April 20th, 2011

Building Your Repertoire Part II: 10 Key Tunes

Written by Eric

In a recent post: A Blueprint for Building Your Repertoire, I outlined some ideas to ponder while creating a repertoire of tunes. Concepts like how to learn, listen to, and how to approach the Great American songbook as you prepare to build your own repertoire.

However, the real work begins when you get into the practice room and start learning these tunes one by one. As I mentioned in the previous post, you don’t have to start over every time you learn a new tune. Many of the songs that are standards are related in some way, whether it’s a similar harmonic progression, form, or melodic construction.

For this article, I’ll expand on the ideas of form and harmonic construction and their use in the standard jazz repertoire.

Looking at form

Many jazz standards are written within the same common forms: 12 bar blues, 32 bar AABA, and 32 bar ABAC. If you understand the construction of these forms and can hear the different sections, your work at learning all these tunes will be significantly easier.


One of the most common forms for jazz standards is the 32 bar AABA format, 8 bar A sections and an 8 bar bridge. An immediately recognizable example of this form is the chord progression rhythm changes:

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Some other common 32 bar tunes in AABA are: Confirmation, Body and Soul, Easy Living, Have you Met Miss Jones, I Mean You, Lazy Bird, A Night in Tunisia, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, Read More

April 18th, 2011

Learning to Be Your Own Teacher

Written by Forrest

Learning to Be Your Own Teacher

The difference between many subjects and jazz improvisation is that the latter has no single correct and well-defined path. Every person takes a different route depending how they learn, how they hear, what they want to sound like, and countless other factors. Because we all are shooting for different musical goals and have different ways of approaching them, in learning this art form, we’re not only the student, but also the teacher.

We cannot look to our teachers to hold our hand along the way or tell us specifically what we need to know. Especially in this world, it’s not their job to hold us accountable, spoon-feed us the knowledge we want to know, or organize our daily practice time. Great teachers are there to inspire you. To give you a new perspective on something you’ve never quite understood or to simply point you in the right direction. The rest is up to you.

Learning to be your own teacher means learning to:

  • Be honest with yourself and determine your weaknesses
  • Structure your time toward improving in weak areas
  • Critique your progress and hold yourself accountable

Learn to identify your weaknesses

If you can learn to be honest with yourself and determine what you’re not good at, then you can develop a plan to improve. No worries if there are large gaps in your playing. No matter how good you get, you will always feel you’re not good enough at something, but that’s the fun of it.

These opportunities to … Read More

April 17th, 2011

3 Steps to Freedom In All 12 Keys

Written by Eric

The ability to play fluently in all 12 keys is essential for every improviser.

Initially, it may seem like you rarely play in certain keys or even that it’s just not necessary to play in every key. So why bother with twelve keys, right? If you look carefully, however, many common standards that are in “easy” keys have ii-V’s in “hard keys” (F#, B, C#, etc.) hidden throughout the progressions.

For instance, you may think you aren’t going to play in B Major that often, but check out the bridge to Cherokee – a ii-V in B Major every time. If you’re fluent in all 12 keys this will be no problem, but if you’ve ignored unfamiliar keys, you’re going to be faking it in this spot like a lot of other people. Don’t accept mediocrity! And regardless, who knows when someone will call a tune in a different key or bring in an original that has six sharps in the key signature.

Becoming proficient in all 12 keys requires much more than simply knowing your major scales. As an improviser, you need to be able to develop ideas and navigate progressions in a split second, without thinking about fingerings or what the next note is going to be. This is a large undertaking that will take hours in the woodshed, but is necessary for any serious musician at some point in their development.

There are three steps to mastering any key. If you finally want to have freedom in … Read More

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