January 10th, 2012

Hey, Do You Know That Tune?

Written by Eric

Hey, Do You Know That Tune?

It’s a question that we get asked all the time on gigs, at jam sessions, and even in our weekly lessons.

As you probably know, it’s not a lot of fun when you are put on the spot and don’t know a tune. In fact, it seems like a lot of the motivation for our practice comes from our efforts to avoid this very experience of getting caught off guard or looking like an unprepared moron.

We try to memorize as many tunes as we can, we make longs lists of standards to learn, we listen to and transcribe various recordings of the greats playing, and in our free time we try to review these melodies and progressions in our heads.

However, even after all the lists, listening sessions, and memorization practice, have you done enough to “know” that tune? Take a second and honestly ask yourself: “How well do I really know these tunes?”

Do you know them well enough to shape interesting original solos? Have you spent enough time in the practice room to be free in performance or do the form and progression feel like shackles weighing you down? Are you doing just enough to fumble through yet another melody and chord progression?

I hear musicians all the time talk about all the tunes they know, but when it comes down to it, the definition of “knowing” a tune ends up being pretty wide. For some, knowing a tune means hearing it once and faking their way … Read More

January 6th, 2012

Visualization One Key At A Time

Written by Forrest

visualize one key at a time

Grab a sheet of paper or take the following quiz mentally and record your response time for each:

  1. What’s a ii V in the key of F# major?
  2. If the V7 of a ii V progression is Ab7, what’s the ii chord?
  3. What’s a iii Vi in the key of Db major?
  4. If the ii chord of a ii V progression is C# minor, what’s the V7 chord?
  5. If the ii V of a key is F- Bb7, what’s the VI7 of the key?

Now, judge your answers based on correctness and speed of response. Did any of them take you more than a split second?

Be honest with yourself. Chances are a couple of these questions took at least a few seconds for you to answer. You may not think that a few seconds is a big deal, I mean, you got the correct answer, right?

The problem is that after even a second of thought we can totally lose our creative focus. The more ingrained these fundamental progressions are, the less we have to think, and the freer we become.

Chord independence

Why is it difficult to quickly conjure some chords, while others are easy? We’re very used to encountering chords in a set way. For example, after A- we expect D7. Or after D7, we expect G major. But even standards mix and match these basic chord progressions.

These slight rearrangements of the chords can shift us just enough to make it so we screw up. For … Read More

January 4th, 2012

The Power of One

Written by Eric

It’s the time of year again when we make ambitious lists of resolutions and let me tell you, 2012 is shaping up to be different. Seriously…all those other years were just practice runs, this year we’re actually going to follow through on our resolutions.

It’s very easy to make hopeful resolutions and music is no exception. For jazz musicians, this means making lists of tunes we want to learn, solos we want to transcribe, and setting lofty practice goals. A year ago, you may recall that we made a list of 100 resolutions for the jazz musicians.

Think back, did you attempt to do any of those resolutions? More importantly did you complete any of them?

You’re not alone if you fell short. The reality is that most of the goals that we set musically are never met, this is just how things work. We get ambitious and set lofty goals for ourselves and then we rush into the practice room.

However, after a few weeks this ambition runs out and frustration slowly sets in and all that we’re left with is this unattainable goal hanging over our heads. So much for setting our sights for the stars.

It’s not a numbers game

For many aspiring musicians, learning to play jazz becomes a numbers game. You need to know more tunes, more ii-V lines, transcribe more solos, have more technique, play it faster, play it higher, etc.

More is better.

This mentality is transferred into the practice room and is … Read More

January 2nd, 2012

The Underlying Purpose of Jazz Language

Written by Forrest

The Underlying Purpose of Jazz Language

Learning language is arguably the most important aspect of learning to improvise.

When you start to use the language you’ve worked on in your solos, you start to realize how powerful it truly is. You feel like a whole new perspective has been opened up to you; that you finally understand. But then, over time, this feeling naturally fades…

Instead of feeling like you’ve figured something out, you now feel like all you’re doing is copying and inserting the same few lines, over and over and over. This can be the most frustrating feeling in the world, especially if you have no idea how to exit this situation and get back to improving. Where do you go from here?

A reader recently wrote to us describing this very situation. He’s grabbed a lot of lines from recordings that he loves and he’s even learned them in all keys. The problem: he feels like all he’s doing is copying and pasting language. He’s so frustrated, he writes, that he could cry. Don’t worry. We’ve all been there. This can be incredibly frustrating and push just about anyone to that point.

So, let’s take this one step at a time.

Making language your own

Before we dive into the underlying purpose of language, there is an important step that you should take with all the language you work on. Take the language and make it your own. Review that article and take it to heart. Get in the habit of asking … Read More

December 30th, 2011

4 Ways to Spark the Creativity and Freedom in Your Improvising

Written by Eric

How creative are you each time you play your instrument?

Think about it for a second…are you truly free when you improvise?

As creative improvising musicians, these are questions that we should all ask ourselves from time to time. We all know that hours of repetition, memorization, and imitation are the groundwork for learning improvisation, but there is a catch here. This essential process that we stoically endure each day in the practice room doesn’t naturally lend itself to free, spontaneous thinking.

In fact, it’s quite easy to get boxed into the safe confines of our daily routine; the same tunes, the same language, even the same practice schedule.

In our improvised solos, supposedly our most free and creative moment as musicians, we rely all too often on the “musical crutches” of playing within a group. The drummer will keep the time, the pianist will play the changes, the horn player has the melody, and someone else will keep track of the form, right?

We get away with not using our ears, with not counting or knowing the form of the tune, with “kind of” knowing the changes, and with relying on our good old licks to get us through a solo. Sounds like someone who’s trying to survive a performance instead of someone that’s aiming for creativity.

Rarely do we hold ourselves responsible for each and every aspect of the music. This all too common fact, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t change things.

Here are four exercises to … Read More

December 28th, 2011

Never Be Overwhelmed Again

Written by Forrest

In today’s world, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. We live in a time of excess information and much of it is misleading. But supposing you’ve separated the good stuff from the stack, it still feels like there’s so much to learn.

Take this site for instance. I’d like to think that we have a ton of excellent information here, and receiving daily notes of thanks from readers affirms my assumption. But, meandering through the pages, it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed. Just as you thought you had a handle on everything, you realize, wait…I need to learn that…and that…and that…and…eventually, you feel so overwhelmed that instead of choosing action, you choose inaction. You do nothing.

That’s what happens when we feel overwhelmed. We shut down. Nothing is possible and we stop progressing.

But, it’s quite easy to rid yourself of this madness. Feeling overwhelmed is nothing but an inability to see the big picture. When you see how information is logically grouped together and how these groups are inter-related, your brain can understand on a conceptual and emotional level that the subject at hand is approachable in a structured and simple fashion.

The power of logical groupings

Depending on who you ask, there are roughly 640 muscles in the human body. Imagine if a body builder had to focus on each one of these muscles each time he went to the gym. In about two minutes, he’d get frustrated, overwhelmed, and leave.

Of course no body builder would ever think … Read More

December 26th, 2011

Developing Musicality: Applying Scales vs. Applying Language

Written by Eric

A recurring theme on this site seems to be language – acquiring, practicing, and applying the jazz language.There is a reason behind all the repetition, however. Language is a very powerful concept when it comes to improvisation and it’s an idea that can drastically change your mentality about the music.

But, even before you get to the idea of acquiring, applying, and transforming pieces of language, there is a much more basic issue at hand here: Why should you even learn language in the first place?

When you get down to it, no one is requiring you to learn lines from the records or to imitate the style of a famous musician. There is no mandatory rule that you have to improvise in a certain way and you can easily create solos with the “right notes” using memorized scales. So why bother spending that extra time to learn someone else’s solos and language?

It all boils down to musicality. What is it that defines the musicality in your playing? Where do you learn musicality without imitation or listening? Musicality is the reason you play music in the first place. Without emotion, style, and shape those chords and scales would be, well, just chords and scales.

If I had to name the one thing that improved my playing more than anything else, the thing that made me finally “get it” when it came to improvising, it would have to be language. Before I began to transcribe solos and study … Read More

December 15th, 2011

Playing Colors, Imitating Movies, & Watching TV: Bizarre Jazz Improvisation Techniques

Written by Forrest

Bizarre Techniques

What if you could approach something in a completely new way than you’ve ever done before? What would happen? Perhaps an entire world of possibility exists from this new angle, but how do you get there?

Trying completely outlandish, almost silly techniques can spawn immense creativity and improvement in one’s ability. In all art-forms, it’s those who were willing to try something new and go against the grain that defined a new level, pushing the art-form to new heights. Not only in art, but also in sports, entertainment, and even in science this holds true.

The only way to make these new discoveries is to take on a new perspective. Implementing techniques that seem slightly bizarre is one way to remove your current filters, and give a 180 to your entire concept.

Being influenced by objects

I remember one afternoon in a combo rehearsal, Cecil Bridgewater suddenly stopped the entire group, starkly looked at me and said, “Forrest. Play your shirt.” I gazed back in confusion. Play my shirt? What the heck does that mean? Seriously, what does he want me to play??!!

Cecil Bridgewater

I looked down at my shirt. It displayed two silhouetted figures in the night. A dark yet vibrant magenta light emanated from the edge of each outline.

I looked back up at Cecil and the band, counted them off, and began to play. I didn’t think about chords, although I knew perfectly where I was in the form. I didn’t focus on any sort of harmonic concept. … Read More

December 14th, 2011

Playing the Music of Now

Written by Eric

Oftentimes, we get pushed down a very narrow, prescribed path when it comes to learning and performing jazz. Without question, we get complacent with the established rules of others whether it’s the guidelines of an educational program, the expectations of the people around us, or the limits of a label for the music.

We get sucked into a mindset that is not particularly true and one that’s not our own. After years of this, it can be eye opening just to remember that you can determine what it is that you want to get out of this music.

“What are my goals with improvisation?” Do you want to sound good at the local jam session, to play like Charlie Parker, to express yourself creatively, to develop your own voice in this music, to simply play music with others?

The possibilities are endless and we all have our reasons and goals when it comes to learning improvisation. Some of us have very high ambitions and work diligently everyday to improve, while some of us pursue improvisation as a hobby, simply for the fun of it.

If you look very closely, however, the true reason that we’re all drawn to this form of expression is not merely an external one. From the professional to the layman, there is an inherent satisfaction in creating in the moment; creating your own sound, expressing your personal view, and playing the sound of your time.

The music that is created in the moment. This is … Read More

December 11th, 2011

Harmonic Anticipation: A simple technique to break free

Written by Forrest

Harmonic Anticipation

Many times when we’re soloing we get boxed in so to speak. We think that when we’re on a particular chord, we must play that chord and that chord only. We have tunnel vision and there exists little possibility.

One technique that dramatically relieves this boxed in sound and mindset is harmonic anticipation.

Anticipating a chord is quite easy: you simply anticipate the chord that you’re moving to by playing it before you arrive at it:


Anticipation is such a powerful technique because it achieves so much with so little. Just by playing the chord that you’re going to a little earlier, you’ll create a sense of forward motion, over the bar-line phrasing, and a feeling of excitement in your lines

How anticipation can help you

Like I was saying, we often feel boxed in by the chord changes. For example, here’s a sample of how someone playing over a Bird Blues may solo.

Bird Blues Boring

Pretty boring, huh? It sounds unnatural and boxy. Now, let’s take that same example and throw in some anticipation:

Bird Blues Anticipation

This is the same example except for the slightly modified resolution at the end of the line from G7 to C major. Now it’s a bit extreme to anticipate every chord, but you should hear and understand right away how much more exciting this line became from simply anticipating each chord by a beat.

Utilizing anticipation within your lines yields a more natural feel that can be heard and felt right away. And it’s easy to start … Read More

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