September 8th, 2011

Four Ways to Reinvigorate the Practice of Technique

By Eric

We often get stuck in a rut when it comes to practicing technique.

In the practice room we cover the same bases in our efforts to improve our overall technique. We run our major and minor scales in all 12 keys, we practice them in thirds and fourths and fifths, we use jazz articulation, we play with different dynamics, and on and on. These are all essential for improvement, but the problem here is that we often continue practicing these same technical exercises in an identical way, even after we’ve mastered them.

Note: If you aren’t challenging yourself – you’re not going to be improving.

Once you’ve got your scales and patterns together in all 12 keys and have even worked on getting them up to speed, it’s time to take your technique to the next level. Don’t keep playing those same patterns, thinking that they’ll lead you to a new level of technique! Start incorporating articulation, rhythm, time, larger intervals, and chromaticism into the mix to expand your musicianship along with your technical facility.

Technique isn’t only limited to how fast you can push your fingers down on your instrument. Just as important are the technique of rhythm, articulation, and time. When you can combine all of these ideas musically and creatively, you’ll be playing much more interesting lines.

Instead of practicing the same patterns with the same rhythms and articulations over and over again, as you’ll find in many improvisation books, simply alter your approach to these technical war-horses, and you’ll take your playing to an entirely new level.

If you find yourself striving for:

•    an improved sense of time
•    rhythmic awareness, diversity, and control
•    improved articulation
•    intervallic interest in your lines
•    heightened musicality and instrumental facility

Then these exercises are the key to what is missing from your playing.

The qualities listed above are characteristic of the improvising of more advanced musicians. While beginning improvisers just try to “get by” with eighth-note lines and chord tones, seasoned improvisers craft much more compelling lines.

This is a direct result of practicing and incorporating the elements of rhythm, articulation, larger intervals, and chromaticism into daily technical practice. This is something that takes focus in the practice room, but it’s not as daunting as it seems.

As I’ll show you below, you can get these concepts together rather quickly and painlessly by combining them with the technique and scale exercises that you’re already practicing.

Apply all of the devices below to any scale (major, minor, pentatonic, octatonic, altered, synthetic, etc.) that you’re working on in all 12 keys. In addition, practice these scales and intervals in all four directions whether you are ascending or descending: up-up, up-down, down-down, down-up.

1) Rhythm

Rhythmic variety is one thing that seems to be lacking from a lot of people’s playing. The reason is obvious: everyone is so worried about the harmonic aspect of improvising that the rhythmic aspect of the lines becomes an after thought. The result: strings of eighth note lines and very bored listeners.

If you listen to some of your favorite records, you’ll hear that rhythm is much more important than it appears to be. One of the most defining qualities of Bird’s playing is his rhythmic phrasing. His deft use of syncopation, triplets, and accents are as vital to his improvisatory concept as are his harmonic devices.

Yet, most musicians that study his solos only take away the b9’s, #9’s, b5’s, and tri-tone substitutions – only half of the information on the record!

By using the rhythmic exercises shown here, along with the articulation ideas below, you can easily incorporate some rhythmic variety and rhythmic tension into your playing in a very short amount of time.

One of the easiest ways to incorporate some rhythmic interest into your technical practice as well as your solos, is to utilize the triplet. To get an idea of how this sounds, just take a listen to any Charlie Parker solo. Here is a chorus of blues he plays on Bloomido:

As you can see in the excerpt from Bird’s solo above, the triplet rhythms throughout add a rhythmic interest that would be missing from a line composed of purely constant eighth-notes. Look too at how the triplet rhythms are use to lead in to or accentuate specific notes.

To practice incorporating the triplet into your technique, you must first ingrain the feeling of the triplet itself. Start by turning on your metronome; the goal is to feel the metronome on beats two and four, but if at first this is too difficult, feel the time in four quarter notes.

Play your major scales in eighth-note triplets, as shown in the example below with an F Major scale. Begin with harmonic material that is easy and then move onto more difficult areas, as the rhythm is the focus here.

When hearing eighth-note triplets over the metronome becomes comfortable, try playing a scale in thirds using this triplet rhythm. This is trickier than it seems because you are taking a pattern normally in groups of two and putting it into groups of three. In doing so, the accents are shifted throughout the line and the resulting sound is completely different from the original.

Take a look at the example below of an F major scale in thirds (up-down):

Aside from experimenting with groups of triplets, also practice using quintuplets (5 notes). Below is a D harmonic minor scale arpeggiated in sevenths. Again, notice how the grouping of five quarters off-sets the normal four note pattern:

 2) Articulation and note grouping over the bar line

Another way to change up the repetitive practice of technique and scales is to focus on articulation and patterns that go across the bar line. As opposed to the triplet approach above, instead of changing the actual note values, here we’re keeping the eighth-note rhythm the same and changing the articulation.

Again, the sound of the resulting line is surprisingly different from the original exercise. Take a C Major scale ascending and descending in thirds:

Probably something that you’re used to practicing all the time. Now with a slight adjustment, you can create a completely different exercise that has a new level of difficulty. With your articulation, create groups of three notes by tonguing one and slurring to the next two, it should look like this:

As you do this, accent the first note of every group of three. This will turn-around the emphasis of the normal eighth-note pattern and will create a much more interesting line. After a few bars, you start hearing the pattern of three notes across the bar line and the pull of the downbeat is lost.

*Remember to practice this exercise with a metronome to ensure a steady tempo, aiming to feel the time on beats two and four.

Apply this articulation and note-grouping concept to any scale exercise that you’re working on: scales in thirds, fourths, fifths, triads, seventh arpeggios, and so on. See the example below of a C Major scale arpeggiated in sevenths utilizing this technique. Notice that while the rhythm of the exercise is very simple, it’s the articulation and accents that create rhythmic tension – groups of three notes that extend over the bar line:

Just like you can create groups of five notes using quintuplets, you can create groups of five notes through the use of articulation. Take a C Major scale in triads and, using the articulation technique above, create groups of five notes that extend across the bar line:

Keep in mind that you should include any interesting rhythms or articulations that you discover as you’re listening and transcribing. Simply write down the rhythm and incorporate it into your practice exercises.

3) Utilizing larger intervals

Perhaps the biggest trap of continuously playing scale exercises for technique, is that we only gain facility in playing smaller intervals. A simple aspect of improvisation that can greatly add interest to our lines is the use of large intervals.

However, this is not something that comes naturally for many of us. We’ve become accustomed to hearing lines composed of half-steps and whole-steps or major and minor thirds because we are constantly working on scales and arpeggios in the practice room.

To escape these all too common small intervals, we need to create some practice exercises that highlight larger intervals. Try using patterns that include perfect fourths and fifths. The example below in FMaj. uses ascending 5ths and descending 4ths that are separated by whole and half-steps:

Next, work on incorporating 6ths. The example below, also in FMaj., utilizes minor 3rds and 6ths to create a line utilizing larger intervals then we’re normally accustomed to.

In both examples diatonic material is used in an unconventional way to create the larger intervals that are missing from much of the standard way to practice technique. Try creating some of your own exercises that include even larger intervals like major and minor 7ths, octaves, and 9ths.

4) Incorporating chromaticism and enclosures

One thing that happens as we practice the same technical exercises is that we become limited to strict diatonic patterns. Say for instance that you’re arpeggiating the seventh chords of a C Major scale:

By doing this exercise over and over again, you’re limiting yourself to only the notes of the C Major scale. While this is all good technique to have under your fingers, it can’t be applied to your improvisation in a very practical or musical way. One remedy to this pattern of predictability is to incorporate some chromaticism.

Start by using a chromatic approach note for each arpeggio, such as the chromatic lower neighbor:

Or, the chromatic upper neighbor:

Both of these approach notes will add some interest and variety to the common place sound of arpeggiated seventh chords. Another effective device to use is that of enclosures. Play a diatonic step above and a half-step below the first note of each arpeggio:

To take it a step further, add a chromatic upper neighbor to each enclosure – creating a three note lead in to each arpeggio and some rhythmic displacement:

Or, you can even create your own exercises that incorporates both of these concepts. In the example below, I used both enclosures and chromatic approach tones for each interval of a C Major scale in thirds:

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