For a lot of musicians that are working to improve, it is easy to spend most of our practice time working on really complex harmonic and rhythmic concepts while fundamental skills, that we all basically know, are pushed to the back burner. This happens easily if you think about it; after progressing to and achieving an acceptable level of fundamental technique, we often turn our attention to areas that are more exciting or will make us sound hip when we are soloing.
This is probably a result of the way we learn things in the educational system. In situations like these, we are merely introduced to a concept and then find ourselves quickly moving on to the next concept without ever really mastering the first one.
For example, just as we learn about ii-V’s we move on to altered dominants or tri-tone substitutions, our minds always two steps ahead of our technique. In an effort to catch up, the basics of our musicianship are often ignored as we focus solely on these new concepts. The fundamentals are the foundation of everything that we play and to not only maintain them, but improve to a higher level, we must focus on them everyday.
Here are four fundamental areas of your playing to focus on every time you get into the practice room:
Your sound is one of the most powerful tools of expression that you have and one of the first things that a listener will take away from your performance. Think of Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry or Coltrane; for masters like these sound was an integral part of their musical identity. It didn’t matter if they only played a few notes, just hearing that sound was enough to get their message across to the audience.
Your sound encompasses all the aspects of your musicianship and is a direct result of what you are practicing. Focus on sound when you work on technique, ear training, scales or whatever it is that you are shedding in the practice room. In doing this your sound will become ingrained into your personal concept, becoming an essential part of the overall message that you are communicating when you improvise. Ultimately, if your sound is lacking, the other areas of your playing, however hip they are, are really lost on the listener.
2. Time and Articulation
These two aspects of our playing are really intertwined into the flow of our improvised lines. If the articulation is not happening, the time is directly affected and if the time is off, it is just as bad as hearing wrong notes. Time should be a part of nearly every aspect of your practice. When you work on scales, arpeggios and etudes, you should have a metronome going, or when you are reviewing the changes to a tune you are trying to learn, you should be feeling the time go by as you improvise.
In the same sense, everything that we practice should include the articulation we want to achieve when we are performing. As you work out lines, scales and patterns, also include the articulation. Many times it is easy to just focus on the harmonic and technical aspects of an exercise and, forgetting to articulate, end up slurring everything.
Articulation also has a huge effect for wind players on both the physical and musical flow of the line, affecting the air flow and sound of every note, making it an even bigger focus. Simply put, articulation can mean the difference between swinging and not swinging; the difference between an average player and a great improviser.
3. Ear Training
At its basic level, ear training is used to connect the ear, body and mind with the music itself. When we begin to practice ear training we aim to sing lines that we hear played and strive to connect our ears with our instruments. Our ultimate goal as improvisers is to be able play the lines on our horns that we are hearing in our heads, in essence making the instrument an extension of our bodies; a tool for expression that is effective as our voice.
Ear training is often the area that needs the most work for players of all levels and is one of the most essential skills for improvisers. Focusing on this skill everyday, whether through transcription, exercises or simply singing lines, will have a huge impact on your ability to play the lines that you are hearing in your head when you solo.
This is one category that can always use practice because there is always room for improvement. Scales and chords can be used in different ways, paired into different groupings or meters, triads can be combined with unrelated triads to create new sounds, alternate fingerings can be used to create new effects…the possibilities are really endless. Remember, as your harmonic and rhythmic knowledge evolves and expands, so should your technique.
All the above concepts are very simple and some of the first things we learn on an instrument, but they also have the greatest impact on our playing. It is one thing to understand a concept mentally and an entirely different thing to be able to execute it technically. The goal is to master these fundamental areas of your playing, allowing you to free your mind from technique as you solo and let you focus on being creative in the moment.