Why The Fastest Way To Build Your Jazz Skills Doesn’t Require Scales or Chords

When you think about the things that’ll make you a better improviser, your mind probably goes right to music theory…The scales, the chords, the diminished patterns & the ii-V licks. If only you knew more of this stuff you’d finally sound great.

You’re not alone in thinking this. Take a peek inside any modern jazz method or at the syllabus for an improvisation class and you’ll suddenly be sinking in an ocean of music theory terminology and rules.

But if you’re looking for the specific techniques that’ll lead you to an amazing solo, a new ii-V lick or a fancy pattern isn’t going to do the trick. In fact, the best thing you can do to improve your skills doesn’t have to do with music theory at all…

The truth is a new book of transcribed solos isn’t going to solve your problems. And a collection of pentatonic patterns isn’t going to make you a better soloist. If you want to improve, you must learn how to master the information that you already have.

Right now, you have access to a wealth of musical information at the click of a button – hundreds of recordings, interviews with master musicians, and transcribed solos. There’s a catch though…

The hard part today isn’t finding information, it’s learning how to practice it. You can have the musical secret to success in your hands – the exact lines of Charlie Parker or the harmonic approach of John Coltrane

But unless you know how to ingrain this information, unless you know how to absorb it into your technique, and unless you know how to implement it in your solos, it’s useless.

That’s why in today’s lesson we’re going to switch from thinking about what to practice to the mindset of how to practice. Below, we’ll dig into 5 simple concepts for the practice room that’ll transform your musical skills.

Let’s get started…

1) Consistency is the key

A consistent practice routine is essential to improving at any skill.

Makes sense. If you want to achieve results, you gotta show up and do the work. It’s the players that put in the time everyday that improve faster than those that casually practice once or twice a week.

But it’s not that simple…

Consistency doesn’t just mean physically being in the practice room on a regular basis, it means being consistent with the content of your practice.

If you’re serious about reaching your goals as a musician, you need to tackle the same lines, the same tricky chord progressions, and the same tunes day after day until you master them.

However, with the overwhelming amount of theory info out there, this is easier said than done. It’s why many of us simply scratch the surface with the fundamentals of improvisation rather than mastering the details.

You’re physically spending time in the practice room on a regular basis, yet you’re not making meaningful progress. This is where things need to change…

Applying a consistent approach to your routine

If you look at the practice habits of great musicians, you’ll find a focus on quality over quantity – mastery over memorization. Instead of singular practice sessions devoted to mastering fundamentals, things like technique, harmony, and musicality are approached consistently over time.

Aim to do the same with the essentials of jazz improvisation in your own routine.

Let’s say that your goal is to build repertoire by learning more tunes. Rather than trying to memorize a long list of tunes every six months, select a few tunes to work on each day, aiming for mastery.

Every time you walk into the practice room, devote a portion of your session to learning the melodies, figuring out the chords, analyzing the harmony, and developing solo ideas. Check out how we applied this process to the tune It Could Happen to You.

Consistent practice on the same content will help you efficiently develop essential musical skills. The same process should be applied to technique, sound, learning language, improvising over minor chords, ear training, etc. 

If you want to achieve a big goal, it’s not what you do today or tomorrow that matters most, it’s what you do on a Thursday night a few weeks from now. Are you sticking with your goals or relying on random practice?

Progress is slow and often frustrating…but this is exactly where consistency will pay off. Stick with it, trust the process, and keep showing up!

2) Find (and sustain) Your Focus

You hear the word “focus” all the time. And for good reason – if you’re not focused when you practice, you’re simply wasting your time.

It doesn’t matter if you’re building technique, learning a jazz standard, or just running through a few warm-up exercises

But you already know this. The question you should be asking yourself is this: What does focusing actually mean?

Is focusing opening your eyes wide and staring intently at the notes on the page? Is it locking yourself in a room for an hour with your instrument? Or is it something more…

Focusing can be distilled into one simple concept: Eliminating distractions so you can achieve a state of optimal awareness.

Every time you step into the practice room you need to cultivate a mental and physical awareness on the task at hand. For anything that you practice, aim to know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re going to do it.

However, sustained focus can be more elusive than you might think…

When you enter the practice room you have to contend with myriad distractions that can break your focus and sabotage your productivity. These distractions can be external: constantly checking your phone, your downstairs neighbor banging on the wall, the awareness that your peers can hear you, a sticky key on your instrument.

Or they could be internalmental distractions like stress, anxiety about a performance, nerves, pressure to improve, frustration or boredom with a tune or solo

Any of these things can disrupt your focus and left unchecked, they can create a sub-par practice session before you even play a single note.

“You can do more in 10 minutes of focused practice than in an hour of sighing and moaning.”- Wynton Marsalis

The key is learning how to prevent and eliminate these distractions so you can approach the content of your practice with a clear and focused mind.

Let’s start by looking at the way you practice. Over the course of a normal day…

  • Do you jump right into your practice routine and start playing without thinking?
  • Are you anxious or fearful with certain pieces or techniques that you have to perform? Are you bored or frustrated with the fundamentals that you are practicing?
  • Do you feel deflated when you can’t do a technique or fail?
  • Do you find yourself worried about mistakes or sounding bad or the feeling of whether or not you are “good?”

If you answered yes to any of these, you are normal musician. And like the rest of us you’d benefit from finding more focus in the practice room…

Resetting Your Focus

Focus must begin the moment you enter the practice room – before you even touch your instrument. If you’re stressing about an upcoming performance or are worried about how you’ll sound to other people it’s already over.

So how do you achieve better focus? Here are a few things that will help you improve:

  • Try a few minutes of quiet meditation before your practice, clearing your mind and aligning your goals.
  • Become aware of your mindset and your physical body. Think about your posture and breathing and aim for a relaxed, focused mindset. This should be your optimal state.
  •  Before any exercise, tune or scale, visualize the ideal way you’d like to play it – hearing and seeing the desired result in your mind.
  • If you slip up or revert to old habits during the course of your practice stop, refocus, and try again.

And if you’re looking for a more in-depth approach, check out our course Reprogramming the Musical Mind to reset your approach to your instrument.

III) Stop Practicing, Start Learning

Practice, practice, practice – it’s what you’re supposed to do as a musician.

And for most musicians, time in the practice room has become a little predictable. An endless review of the same exercises, the same licks, the same warm-ups, and the same solos…for years on end.

This is fine if you want to maintain a proficient level of musicianship, however if you want to develop new skills and improve, practice as usual isn’t going to cut it.

Stop looking to external sources to find improvement – taking pre-existing practice routines and waiting for an “ah-ha” moment to happen. Hoping that a set of scales, that jamming with a play-a-long track, or repeating an etude will suddenly make you into a better player.

At some point, you need to look internally to create improvement. You need to make your own goals, assess your own skills, and figure out what you need to do to achieve those goals.

The tricky part about learning jazz improvisation is that it isn’t a cut and dry skill. There’s no set path in getting from point A to point B. To improve you have to face the unknown and find your way.

This requires learning.

There need to be times in your practice session where you’re trying a new technique, attempting a skill that you don’t have, and transcribing lines and learning tunes where you are clueless about the harmony…

Along the way your job is to figure out what you it will take for you to perform it.

Your musical strengths and weaknesses are unique to you. In order to improve you must craft your own practice plan around the skills that you need to develop.

This also means that failure and mistakes are going to be part of the learning process. Maybe you can’t articulate like Freddie Hubbard yet, maybe those high notes are just out of reach, but you are slowly trying, gaining the necessary skills, and re-adjusting your approach.

Sure, truly learning new skills is harder than sticking to the exercises and practice routine you’re comfortable with…but it’s the one way you are going to realize your musical goals.

IV) Master the Little Details

We all have big goals…

To sound great over Giant Steps, to have a killing high range, to play fast tempos, to have great ears…

But here’s the catch: You can’t just skip from the starting line directly to the finish line. You can’t jump from knowing a few major scales to playing double-time lines on Cherokee.

For every big goal that you have as a musician, there are dozens of little steps that you have to master along the way before you reach the finish line. And this is easy to forget…

The problem a lot of players have is that they are trying to tackle things that are too complex, too quickly. Jumping right into ii-V’s and chord progressions without having language over the basic sounds, focusing on chord substitutions and advanced patterns without a basic melodic foundation.

The counterintuitive aspect of trying to improve as a musician, is that these complex goals are only achieved through a succession of tiny goals that need to be mastered first.

For instance, let’s say your goal is to solo over Rhythm Changes

Before you turn on a play-a-long or jump right into a Sonny Stitt solo, determine what the components of that big goal are that you need to master first? For Rhythm Changes you might ask :

  • Do you have techniques or language for the I-VI-ii-V progression?
  • Look at the bridge. Do you have language and melodic techniques for Dominant chords?
  • Do you understand the harmony, but your instrumental technique or the tempo is holding you back?

The next step you take all depends on your skill level and experience…

If you’re starting out you may need to develop your ears, you may need to isolate each chord and develop melodic techniques. Or maybe you have a solid foundation, but need to transcribe more language…

If you just attempt that big goal right away, it’s going to feel impossible. And you’re going to get frustrated and may even give up. The key is taking the smart approach from the beginning.

V) Improvising requires practice

You practice your scales, develop technique in all keys, transcribe solos, work on the jazz language, and memorize a list of jazz standards…

All so you’re confident and well prepared to take a great solo.

But when you get on stage or show up at a jam session, things don’t exactly work out. You feel like you’re playing the same lines over and over again, you run out of ideas.

You’re not being creative…

This is because you haven’t actually practiced improvising. In the practice room you’ve only worked on the background elements of taking a solo without ever putting them to the test.

You see, improvising is a skill that you need to practice.

In addition to all those scales and chords that you practice, you also need to focus the skill of creating music in the moment. Playing an idea, developing that idea, reacting to other musicians.

This is an easy fix – get into the habit of improvising as much as you can. The more you do it, the better you’ll become. Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Practice improvising melodies with a drone tone
  • Play tunes unaccompanied, freely playing the melody and improvising over the progression
  • Improvise ideas with a metronome. Pick a scale, a chord, or a melodic fragment and create & develop ideas with it in time
  • And get out there and play with other musicians!

Remember, if you’re just running scales, perfecting licks, and memorizing tunes, you’re not going to be prepared when you get up to take a solo and have to create in the moment. Practice the art of improvising too!

Better Practice = Improvement

There is a ton of information out there on how to become a better musician…

But the way you approach this musical information in the practice room is more important than the specific type of scale, pattern, or melodic method that you choose to use.

The sooner you learn to ingrain information effectively, the sooner you’ll improve your musical skills.

Give it a try by implementing these 5 concepts into your daily practice routine:

  • Be consistent with the content of your practice routine
  • Eliminate distractions so you can focus 100% of your attention
  • Learn new skills, don’t just practice the stuff you already know
  • Break down big goals into smaller pieces and master the details
  • And remember that improvising takes practice too!

Within a few days you’ll find yourself getting more out of your practice time, seeing progress and building skills. And over time, creating better habits, improving more quickly and finally breaking through your musical barriers.