5 Jazz Survival Skills: Do You Have Them?

You’ve seen it on TV or maybe you’ve even done it yourself. Trekking into the wilderness alone, armed with just a few essential tools and your own courage. Find your own shelter, find your own food, find your way out. You vs. Nature. To make it out alive, you need a few tools that will ensure your survival: a knife, a flashlight, some fire-starter, some waterproof clothing, etc. With these few items you’ll be able to build a fire, find your way in the dark, build a shelter and stay dry, and gut a fish.

However, the most important thing that you need to bring on your trip can’t be put into a back pack – Survival skills.

The best preparation you can have are the skills and knowledge that come with years of study, practice, and real-world experience. Knowledge of what plants are edible, how to stay warm, how to catch food, how to determine direction, and what to do when things turn dangerous. Tools or no tools, these skills are what will ultimately save your life out there.

Anyone venturing into the wilderness cannot predict what they’ll encounter out there (sudden storms, threatening wildlife, unforeseen accidents…). But, you can be prepared for the unknown by developing certain skills that will ensure your survival.

The same is true for jazz musicians.

Jazz survival skills

Yes, there are indeed jazz “survival” skills. Certain techniques and proficiencies that you need to have in order to survive and thrive in any musical situation. (Now, hopefully nothing you encounter musically will be life-threatening, although I don’t know what kind of jam sessions you go to).

Just like the volatile nature of the wilderness, you can’t predict every thing that you’ll encounter on the bandstand. However, you can prepare yourself musically, and this begins in the practice room.

Here are 5 jazz survival skills that will prepare you for success in any musical situation:

1) Training your ear

Your ears are your most important tool as an improviser. They’re equivalent to that trusty knife that you carry with you into the back country – the one tool that can get you out of any situation you might find yourself in.

You may not have every chord progression memorized or have every melody down perfectly, but if you have developed your ears to the point that you can hear any chord progression and quickly figure out melodies, you’ll be able to survive musically as a performing improviser.

Focus on ear training exercises that cover hearing intervals, lines, chord qualities, and chord progressions. Along with hearing and identifying these sounds, you must be able to sing in order to truly master them. If you’ve practiced the ability to hear in a variety of situations then you’ll be much more successful when you are asked to play a tune that you’re unfamiliar with.

2) Developing language

Acquiring musical language is a skill that not many people talk about. You hear a lot about scales, chord tones and diminished patterns, but surprisingly little about the benefit that comes with developing the language that you’ve transcribed from your favorite solos. The truth of the matter is that this language is an essential part of not only cultivating your own sound, style, and concept, but a huge factor in actually sounding coherent and musical over chord progressions.

It’s one thing to play the “correct” notes or scales over a chord or progression and it’s an entirely different thing to play musical ideas and phrases that originate from the music itself. You should be focusing on the latter. Improvising is not a theoretical mental exercise, it’s a way to communicate to the listener through sound, and the way you do this is with language.

3) Fluency in all 12 keys

The one thing that can cause a soloist to crash and burn faster than anything else is improvising in a “hard” key. Somebody calls a tune in F# and suddenly you panic and realize that you have nothing to play. Don’t let this happen to you.

Be prepared. Strive to become fluent in all 12 keys. There aren’t “hard” and “easy” keys, just keys that you haven’t practiced or developed yet. This takes discipline and time, plain and simple.

The good news is that this process is directly related to developing the language that you’ve transcribed. If you have learned those lines in all 12 keys, then you automatically have something to play in every key.

4) Building a repertoire of tunes

One part of preparing yourself for the musical wilderness means building up a base of useful standards in your repertoire.  This is a daunting task for many musicians because the number of jazz standards out there can seem infinite. However, you don’t have to know every tune ever written – and the reality is that no musician knows every tune out there.

One thing that helps is that certain standards are played much more than others and many of these standards are very closely related. By knowing some key tunes (Blues, Rhythm Changes, All the Things, Cherokee, Stella, etc.) and being able to hear common chord progressions you’ll be able to navigate the changes to the majority of standards out there.

Learning new tunes should be a part of your daily practice. Start slowly and focus on one tune at a time. Every great musician that I know is constantly working on learning new tunes and adding them to their repertoire. If you get into the habit of continually learning and memorizing new standards, before you know it you’ll have a pretty sizable repertoire.

5) Instrumental technique

For serious adventurers, all the survival skills in the world won’t make a difference if their body is not in shape enough to handle the stress of the outdoors. The same is true for improvisers. You could have all the theoretical knowledge in the world, know hundreds of tunes, and have great ears, but if you can’t translate that to your instrument, no one will want to listen to you.

Nobody wants to hear a mediocre sound, poor intonation, or choppy articulation. Maintaining and improving tone quality, intonation, articulation, and overall technique is a daily effort. Don’t let these important aspects of your musical expression fall to the wayside.

Much of the time we are so focused on learning concepts or practicing methods that aren’t necessary or even beneficial to our improvement as improvisers. We study advanced harmonic concepts or theoretical substitutions when we should be building and strengthening the foundation of our musical ability.

Even though these skills look basic, these are the exact things that the masters of this music spent their lives working on. If you get these five “survival” skills together you’ll have the essential building blocks of any successful improviser.