January 12th, 2011

Fast Tempos Made Easy

Written by Forrest

fast tempos

Here’s a recent query from a reader struggling with fast tempos:

Hi, I’m a saxophone player in Toronto. What might you recommend in terms of practice techniques to play on blistering fast tempos?

When it comes to fast tempos, we could all be better. Want to play fast? Start slow.

Slow over fast tempos

No matter how counter-intuitive it seems, you must first learn how to play slow melodic lines over fast tempos. These slow melodic lines consist primarily of half-notes and quarter-notes. Even when you’re not playing over fast tempos, resist the temptation to work more on playing fast than slow. Do not make the mistake of thinking that fast notes are more important than slow notes.

To play interesting slow melodic lines over fast tempos, think in larger units of time. Hearing in larger chunks of time will help you relax. How do you typically feel playing fast tunes? Frantic? Up-tight? Behind? To play confidently over quick tempos, you want to feel comfortable and relaxed.

Supposing we’re in 4, Rather than feeling every beat (1-2-3-4), feel just beat 1 of every measure. As each measure flies by, think to yourself “1…1…1…1…”

Or if the tune is really burning, think in even larger groups; feel only beat 1 every two measures. So for four measures where normally you’d feel 1-2-3-4  1-2-3-4  1-2-3-4  1-2-3-4, you would feel just 1 – – – – – – – 1 – – – – – – – .

Listen to Bud Powell play … Read More

January 10th, 2011

Speaking to the Listener: 4 Ways to Perform More Effectively

Written by Eric

We’ve all seen concerts that have affected us greatly and left a lasting impression on our musical perception and even our lives. Performances that seem to transcend the stage into another form of communication and stick with us long after the show has ended. It’s as if certain groups or performers have an uncanny ability to take complete control of an audience’s attention, communicating with the listener on multiple levels. But how does one get to this level? What does it take to make this much of an impact on listeners? What was it about those groups that made them special?

The answer lies with the rules of communication between a performer and a listener. When it comes to communicating ideas, there is no better source to look at then the techniques of great speakers. Accomplished speakers have the ability to move audiences, from the individual listener to large groups of people. Throughout history important speeches and noteworthy speakers have facilitated change through the power of language and incited movements through the tactful delivery of a message. The actual power lies in taking an idea or message and crafting it in such a way that it will have an impact upon whomever may be listening.

Speaking to an audience is essentially a type of performance, akin to improvising, in which a message is delivered through the use of a language to the listener. In both public speaking and improvising, the goal is the same – to effect the listener with … Read More

January 7th, 2011

Transcribing is NOT Transcribing: How This Misnomer Has Led You Astray

Written by Eric


transitive verb

a: to make a written copy of

b: to make a copy of (dictated or recorded matter) in longhand or on a machine

c: to paraphrase or summarize in writing

d: to represent (sound) by means of phonetic symbols

This is the definition I found for the word transcribe when I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary recently. I was curious to get to the bottom of what transcribing actually meant, a word that I had heard for years as I was learning to improvise.

Ever since I became interested in jazz, transcribing solos was continuously touted as the “secret” to learning improvisation. Jazz musicians and educators constantly talked about transcribing, but it seemed that there was a conflict in what was actually meant by the word transcribe, as well as the reason behind doing it.

Throughout the years I’ve met amazing improvisers that claimed they’ve never transcribed a solo and have come across others that say they’ve transcribed hundreds of solos. I’ve had teachers that didn’t write solos down, but had numerous solos memorized to the point where they could sing them without their instruments. On the other hand, I’ve encountered players that had dozens of solos written down, but didn’t seem to retain any of it or improve by doing so. So who is right and why are there so many discrepancies if everyone is “transcribing”?

Even though we may not always believe it, the words and language that … Read More

January 4th, 2011

Mythbusting the Top 5 Myths About Jazz Improvisation

Written by Forrest

Jazz Myth

In no particular order, here are five myths we’re going to dispel for you right now:

Myth #1
When it comes to improvising, you either got it or you don’t

This is complete bullsh*t, yet I’ve heard countless people claim this fallacy. The ability to improvise is a skill, just like anything else you want to excel at. It takes focus, passion, and understanding of how to improve.

Don’t buy into the idea that being great at improvising is a skill only permissible by a lucky and privileged few. The people that sound great put in years of focused practice every day, striving to improve. Sure, some people have more natural talent to begin with than others, but as one progresses, talent subsides and pure perspiration takes over. There’s no substitute for perseverance.

Myth #2
You need to know 1000 tunes

Check out a dozen recordings by the same performer and you’ll soon realize they have their favorite jazz standards that they’ve recorded time and time again. Miles Davis recorded many of the same standards over and over throughout his career, including: In Your Own Sweet Way, Tune Up, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Four.

It’s better to be able to sound exquisite on 10 standards than to simply know and get through 100 tunes. What’s the point of “knowing” a bunch of tunes if you can’t sound how you want to sound on them? Aim to Know 10 tunes to the point where you would feel comfortable recording them and … Read More

January 1st, 2011

100 New Years Resloution Ideas to Get You Amped For 2011

Written by Forrest

new years resolutions

Stuck in the same monotonous pattern? Not excited about playing lately? It’s time to start with a clean slate and welcome in the new year feeling motivated.

Here’s 100 ideas to reinvigorate your energy for the music. Read through the list and pick one that gets you excited. Then, just do it.

  1. Transcribe your first solo
  2. Learn one tune straight from the record
  3. Practice at least 30 minutes daily
  4. Learn a tune in all keys
  5. Read a biography of a famous jazz musician
  6. Learn basic piano voicings
  7. Write your first tune
  8. Learn a ii V line in all keys
  9. Learn a simple blues head in all keys
  10. Visualize every night before you go to bed
  11. Master all your intervals
  12. Learn to play in 3
  13. Play well over “Cherokee
  14. Learn to stay focused while you practice
  15. Transcribe a solo of someone who doesn’t play your instrument
  16. Commit to 15 minutes of daily ear training
  17. Practice at least an hour daily
  18. Find a new favorite musician on your instrument
  19. Do something athletic everyday
  20. Read Thinking in Jazz by Paul Berliner
  21. Replace the stupid videos you watch on youtube with classic jazz recordings
  22. Learn a chorus of a transcribed solo in all keys
  23. Seek out new music everyday
  24. Learn a bebop head like “Confirmation” in all keys
  25. Play duo with a drummer
  26. Listen to classical music
  27. Work out simple melodies like ‘Happy Birthday” on your horn by ear
  28. Master the key of F# major
  29. Learn how to hear
Read More
December 30th, 2010

Hearing Time: Rhythmic Ear Training

Written by Eric

Hearing time: Rhythmic ear training

On this site we frequently write about the benefits of ear training for improvising, with  good reason. Hearing and singing intervals, melodies, chord progressions, etc. is one area of daily practice that will directly affect your improvising for the better. However, ear training isn’t only limited to improving your harmonic sensitivity. Developing rhythmic awareness and the ability to internalize all aspects of time can also be improved through ear training exercises.

The concept of time for improvisers is just as important as navigating the intricacies of a chord progression. Although this may seem obvious, it’s a fact that is largely ignored by harmonic players, especially in educational settings. The reality is, a soloist who plays with bad time, whether it’s rushing, accenting weird beats, or just plan not swinging, might as well be playing wrong notes. The end result is the same: a negative effect on the listener.

Improving your time and rhythmic awareness requires daily practice. Just because you aren’t a drummer, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be focusing on rhythmic concepts in the practice room. In fact, it means that you should be concentrating on time even more. Attaining rhythmic freedom is an achievable goal and the path there starts with training our ears to hear time in the same way that we hear melodies.

Hear it, internalize it, don’t think about it

The reason we practice ear training is to internalize the sound of what we’re trying to play, so when we’re improvising, it’s one less thing … Read More

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

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