April 7th, 2011

Piano Basics: Necessary Skills for the Non-Pianist

Written by Eric

At some point in your musical journey, regardless of what instrument you play, you’ll find yourself in front of that 88-keyed beast we call a piano. This can be a daunting task for many musicians. Often times, one of the biggest fears or stumbling blocks for non-pianists is that of comping chord changes. This simply doesn’t have to be the case.

By knowing a few simple devices and spending some time at the keyboard every day, the piano can become an incredibly valuable tool in your musical development. Remember that on any single voice instrument, while you can arpeggiate a chord to approximate chordal structures, you can’t play chords – plain and simple. This is where some proficiency at the piano will come in handy.

At minimum, you should have the ability to look at a lead sheet or recall a memorized tune and be able to play the chords in root position. By learning this skill, you’ll have an easy way to hear the harmonic progression of any tune you are learning, plus, you’ll be able to see all of the notes laid out neatly in front of you.

Where to start

We’ve all had different experiences with the piano. Maybe you’ve never played a note or perhaps you’ve had some basic lessons years ago. It’s never too late to get together some simple piano chops, regardless of your skill level. Here are a few practice ideas and voicing options to help you on your way:

Root position voicingsRead More

April 4th, 2011

Combating The Enemies of Progress

Written by Forrest

Combating the enemies of progress

We have met the enemy and he is us.-Pogo

We all want to get better and we always will. There’s never a point where a musician thinks, “Well, I think I’m good enough now. Guess that’s it.”

What’s stopping us? What’s holding us back from becoming the player we wish to be? The only thing standing in our way is our self. Learn to recognize and combat these enemies of progress and you’ll be well on your way toward steady improvement.


Laziness is the number one enemy of progress. Why practice when you could plop down on the couch, flip on your 36 inch hd flat screen, and scarf down some Doritos? The mind and body seek comfort and all too often it can be very easy to succumb to this natural urge.

Combat laziness by:

Committing to daily minimums

Set a daily minimum for your daily practice time, ear training session, or anything else you’re working on. Make a commitment to yourself to meet your daily minimum for a given task everyday. Only commit to what you can truly achieve. If you can only commit to twenty minutes a day of practice, set that as your daily minimum.

Meet it everyday. If one day you’re feeling great and you have extra time, you’ll just want to continue because it feels so good to practice. Other days when you’re not so into it, meet your daily minimum and then call it quits.

Habit integration

Our habits make up … Read More

March 30th, 2011

5 Essential Skills for the Performing Improviser

Written by Eric
Many times we forget about the musical skills that we should be developing until it's way too late. Right in the middle of a gig you're put on the spot and in a moment of panic, you realize "$@!*, I should've been getting this together in the practice room!" The bottom line is that when you're put on the spot, you need to have something to play. In order to not only survive, but flourish in these situations, you must start incorporating certain skills and techniques into your daily practice routine. Here are 5 essential skills you'll need as a performing improviser and some solutions on how to start developing them in the practice room:

1) Figuring out the melody and chord changes to unfamiliar tunes

This is probably the most important skill an improviser can have - using your ears to navigate unfamiliar musical situations. If it hasn't happened already, it's inevitable that you'll find yourself on a gig where a tune is called that you don't know. In these situations, you need to be able to quickly figure out the melody, key, and chord progression to the tune in order to get by. Solution: The obvious culprit here is your ear. If you have trouble hearing intervals and identifying chords at home, when you get onto the bandstand you're going to be in trouble. Focus on some fundamental ear training exercises and once you become comfortable with these, work on hearing chord changes. As you begin to improve your ear, try testing yourself by putting on a record with tunes that you've never heard before. Challenge yourself to get the melody and changes as quickly as possible - try to get to the point of figuring out the tune after one focused listening. ...Read More
March 24th, 2011

Fundamental Ear Training: Seventh Chords

Written by Forrest

Seventh Chords

In our first article of Fundamental Ear Training Exercises, we covered how to choose an ear training partner, the correct mindset to approach ear training with, and  exercises about singing & hearing intervals, harmonic intervals, and triads.

After you feel you’ve got a pretty good handle on everything presented in that previous article, it’s time to explore seventh chords. The easiest way to approach this group of chords is by focusing on just root position chords that contain a root, a third, a fifth, and a seventh.

No ninths, elevenths, or thirteenths to worry about just yet. Look for that in the next part of this series. However, we will be making alterations to the 5th, which in a sense is making alterations to the 11th and 13th (b5 is equal to #11 and #5 is equal to b13. See my notes for major 7b5 chords about why the b5 can be different that the #11).

Since we’re only concerned with seventh chords in root position containing chord tones 1357, there are 12 seventh chords that we’re going to hone in on:

Major seventh, Major seventh b5, Major seventh +5, Sus major seventh

Minor seventh, Minor major seventh, Half diminished seventh (aka minor seven flat five), Fully diminished seventh

Dominant seventh, Dominant seventh b5, Dominant seventh +5, and Sus dominant seventh


Seventh Chords

Notes on each seventh chord

Go to the piano and play these 12 chords. Work on hearing the intricacies of each chord.

There are some little tricks … Read More

March 22nd, 2011

The Path to Finding Your Own Voice

Written by Eric

The notion of being original and innovative goes hand-in-hand with the idea of improvisation. The inspired act of being in the moment, creating on the fly with others in a group setting, and ultimately developing an original voice are all central ideas when it comes to jazz and improvisation.

Musicians everywhere, from beginning improvisers struggling to navigate foreign chord changes to seasoned improvisers striving to incorporate new concepts into their playing, are working to create a musical identity. It’s the simple idea of developing your own musical concept and unique approach that is shared by all as a motivating force.

The only problem is that developing a unique voice in jazz is anything but simple.

Through our immersion into the music, we aspire to follow in the footsteps of those who developed their own style and in turn, were revered for their originality and innovation. We achieve this through listening, transcription, and concentrated practice, but this alone does not guarantee innovation or musical recognition.

The outcome of this obsession with uniqueness and individuality, though, is that a novice improviser will often make attaining a personal musical concept the initial goal of their musical pursuit, sometimes sacrificing the understanding of fundamental concepts or even avoiding transcription to ensure this. It’s important to remember, however, that an approach without study or a model to follow, regardless of how unique, is ultimately headed nowhere.

A natural response to sound

For centuries, the most inquisitive minds have noted the magical and mysterious effect of … Read More

March 18th, 2011

Jazz Education Blunders

Written by Forrest

Jazz Education Blunders

Jazz education has steadily become increasingly popular and for good reason: playing jazz is fun! In an attempt to make jazz improvisation accessible to everyone, much of the learning material has been reduced and packaged in a manner to get people playing at a mediocre level more quickly. The problem is that these methods get you to mediocre, but not much further.

Many of these concepts have made their way into the mainstay of jazz education. They’re being taught even through the college level, world-wide.

Remember the trite phrase “Don’t believe everything you read”? In terms of learning jazz, this couldn’t be more true. And it could be said in addition, “Don’t believe everything people tell you.” Why do you think we reference recordings so much and constantly urge our readers to go listen and transcribe for themselves? Don’t even take our word blindly. Do your own homework. But seriously, please continue to read our articles 😉

It’s our goal to guide you in the process of figuring this stuff out for yourself by sharing our experience, not to tell you what’s necessarily right for you, because ultimately in learning this art, you have to be your own teacher.

Without further adieu, jazz education blunders that cost me years of frustration, that I could have stayed away from if I had simply stopped looking for how to play jazz and started listening instead.

Giving scales a higher importance than chords

In terms of jazz standards and bebop tunes, chords are … Read More

March 16th, 2011

How Transcribing One Solo Can Entirely Change Your Approach To Improvising

Written by Eric

On this site we’ve talked about transcribing numerous times. From the reasons you should be transcribing solos to the best method of transcription…even to the different definitions of transcription for jazz musicians. Knowing why you’re transcribing and how to do it are vital to improving as an improviser.

The most important aspect of the transcription process, however, is what you do with that language once you’ve figured out the notes by ear.

There is an attitude among some musicians and educators that you must transcribe as many solos as possible in order to improve. More is better. If you’ve transcribed two solos, you need to do ten; if you’ve transcribed ten, you need to hurry up, get your act together and do twenty.

When you get down to it, great leaps in knowledge can truly be accomplished through one transcription. Simply transcribing as many solos as you can and quickly moving on to the next won’t guarantee success and is likely overwhelm and frustrate you. Sure, you are transcribing a lot, but are you absorbing any of the language that you’re pulling from the records?

Less is more

It’s a simple idea: If you need language (ii-V’s, longer lines, etc.), you need to transcribe solos, but the belief that you’ll dramatically improve by transcribing a ton of solos is misguided. To see improvement, you actually need to develop the language you’re transcribing, not just mechanically figuring out notes and moving on to the next solo.

The transcription process is … Read More

March 8th, 2011

The Difference Between Jazz Licks and Language

Written by Forrest

Licks Versus Language

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.

Jazz Licks

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

From the Outside Looking In: Perspective in Jazz Improvisation

Written by Eric

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

Develop a Stronger Sense of Time: Using a Metronome on 2 & 4

Written by Forrest

Strong sense of time

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

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