6 More Mistakes You’re Making In Learning to Improvise

In 6 Disastrous Mistakes You’re Making In Learning To Improvise, we detailed some pitfalls that cause people to waste tons of time and cause years of frustration.

Let’s get right into it…here are six more mistakes that will hinder your musical success if you let them…

1.) Ignoring the fundamentals

Why are you trying to superimpose Giant Steps changes over a 7/8 tune in F# while playing hexatonics in groupings of five, when you have trouble with ii Vs in all keys?

It’s terribly tempting to skip over the fundamentals and practice all these esoteric concepts that you think all the hip and modern players of today are implementing, but the truth is that you’ll sound much more modern if you have strong fundamentals. Why? Because the so-called “advanced” concepts are simply slight variations of simple fundamental concepts.

For example, take tritone substitution. In theory, it’s very simple. You just substitute a dominant chord with a dominant chord a tritone away, yet how many people sound great when they do this?

It’s not easy because to do it effectively you have to be super solid over regular ii Vs, which comprise more than 80% of jazz standard chord progressions. That being said, if you were strong on ii Vs, uber confident, and sounded great on them, then tritone-subs would take very little time to add to your arsenal.

Get back to those fundamentals. You’ll be glad you did.

2.) Forgetting to develop a clear swing-feel

I can hear the voice of a typical jazz-education-model for swing echoing in my mind… “Okay, you gotta work on your swing feel. Doo-DAh-Doo-DAh-Doo-DAh. Come on, accent the upbeats by tonguing them! And make those downbeats longer than the upbeats! That’s swing!”

John Coltrane swings. Cannonball Adderley Swings. Miles Davis swings. Are they all doing the same thing? Can you even define what swing actually is?

It cannot be defined accurately in words or written notes. Listening to each one of these players, their particular concept of swing radiates through the air for all to hear. Find the players whose swing concept best matches your taste and start imitating, transcribing, and studying. Don’t keep trying to practice the swing-feel-concept as watered down by books or theories. Go to the source, listen, and absorb.

 3.) Glossing over “easy” tunes

What people call “Easy” tunes are typically ones like All the Things You Are, What Is This Thing Called Love, or Have You Met Miss Jones. How many people can you recall playing over these tunes in a manner that just blew you away? Yeah, not so many.

People seem to think these tunes are easy, but very few can make a beautiful clear melodic statement on any of them.

Sure, Monk tunes and Wayne tunes are “harder” in the sense that they have more obscure chords and less familiar progressions (and they have their own challenges by the way), however, the harmony to many of these tunes is so intricate and lovely, that it automatically creates interest in your solo. With “easy” tunes as mentioned prior, you don’t have anything helping you out. It’s all on you.

4.) Not connecting your ears to your instrument

Your lines should not be determined by what your fingers are comfortable playing. Hear what you want to play, and aim to play what you’re hearing. Your instrument is like an amplifier for what you’re singing in your mind.

So much of the time we forget that playing is so interconnected with what’s happening in our mind’s ear. We let our fingers flail all over, letting them create melodies at random.

Listen closely to the voice singing in your mind and keep those fingers from going on autopilot.

5.) Letting others determine what kind of player you become

Only you truly know how you wish to sound. We get countless emails every week asking us, “Who should I transcribe?” or “What solo should I learn?” Why keep looking outward for the answers to these questions when they lie inward?

You know who you’d love to sound most like. So, you know who you should transcribe. If it’s too advanced, figure out where that particular player came from, their roots, and scope out recordings of those players to transcribe.

In an interview in the NY Times, outstanding tenor saxophonist Mark Turner talked about how he spent time with the recordings of the various pioneers of his instrument, but when he discovered Warne Marsh, he was blown away.

Most tenor players even today have barely checked out Warne Marsh, but Mark spent years studying his music because it affected him personally. Consequently, Mark has developed a sound and concept quite unique from other tenor players today.

Don’t transcribe someone because you should. Work on solos and ideas that resonate with you. It’s your unique approach to music at stake. Make your own decisions and spend time with the music you love.

6.) Practicing things  you’re good at and ignoring the things you suck at

When you stop and think why you play poorly over a certain chord, key, style, or tempo, it probably is quite simple: You haven’t worked on it.

The next time you find yourself down-in-the-dumps, complaining that you suck at something, ask yourself, “Have I spent concerted effort working to improve in this area?” The answer will be a resounding “No.”

Start by clearly identifying the problem. Often we think we know what the problem is, but we’re not actually identifying the problem, we’re identifying a symptom.

For instance, You might think you have a problem playing fast. But, in actuality, you lack language at all tempos which makes playing fast a near impossibility, causing you to run up and down scales endlessly and sound boring; the symptom is playing fast, but the true problem is lack of language.

Once you’ve figured out the problem, develop a practice strategy to improve. Write it down, complete with exercises, time allotments, and things to remember. Then, work your plan while keeping a log of your progress. Soon, you’ll wonder how you were ever unable to execute the skill you now have.

Just like the 6 Disastrous Mistakes You’re Making In Learning To Improvise, these 6 points will save you a tremendous amount of time if you give them the attention and reflective thought they deserve. Do some honest yet kind critiquing of yourself to keep away from any of these mistakes, keeping on track and constantly improving toward your musical goals.