Learning to Be Your Own Teacher

The difference between many subjects and jazz improvisation is that the latter has no single correct and well-defined path. Every person takes a different route depending how they learn, how they hear, what they want to sound like, and countless other factors. Because we all are shooting for different musical goals and have different ways of approaching them, in learning this art form, we’re not only the student, but also the teacher.

We cannot look to our teachers to hold our hand along the way or tell us specifically what we need to know. Especially in this world, it’s not their job to hold us accountable, spoon-feed us the knowledge we want to know, or organize our daily practice time. Great teachers are there to inspire you. To give you a new perspective on something you’ve never quite understood or to simply point you in the right direction. The rest is up to you.

Learning to be your own teacher means learning to:

  • Be honest with yourself and determine your weaknesses
  • Structure your time toward improving in weak areas
  • Critique your progress and hold yourself accountable

Learn to identify your weaknesses

If you can learn to be honest with yourself and determine what you’re not good at, then you can develop a plan to improve. No worries if there are large gaps in your playing. No matter how good you get, you will always feel you’re not good enough at something, but that’s the fun of it.

These opportunities to improve provide us with a lifetime full of learning and interesting challenges. We should feel lucky that we have something to constantly work at and dedicate our time to. Something that expands our mind and develops us further as a person too. Something that keeps us from ever getting bored.

So, how do we easily identify our weaknesses? I’ll outline a process in just a minute, but first lets list a few of the major weaknesses we may encounter:

  • Difficulty over certain chords/Deficiencies in language for certain chords
  • Difficulty over specific tune types/Deficiencies in language over those tune types
  • Difficulty in specific keys/Deficiencies in language in specific keys
  • Difficulty with specific tempos
  • Difficulty with particular time signatures

Although there are many others, these constitute a large portion of weaknesses you may come across. You’ll notice that I listed difficulty with chords as analogous to having deficiencies in jazz language for those particular chords. The reason being, we have trouble with a chord because we do not have a concept, a model to base our understanding of what to play in that situation. The same can be said for all the weaknesses listed.

If we had a firm understanding of language for all chords, tune types, keys, tempos, and time signatures, we’d be pretty strong in all these areas. This example makes it clear how closely language is connected to successful improvisation.

Now that we know what we’re looking for, how do we find it? One simple way is to freely play on a standard for several choruses and note where any weak points emerge. For instance, play a few choruses on Confirmation. Where did you fumble? Where did you play the same thing every chorus? What part of the tune did you completely clam up on?

If you can’t remember, simply repeat the exercise and be more aware of where you stumble. Chances are you’ll make the same mistakes again. That’s why, in general, it’s not a good idea to freely play with play-alongs as a major part of your practice routine; you’re just reinforcing bad habits. Make sure you’re using play-alongs effectively.

So, for example, maybe I played Confirmation, and during every ‘A’ section I had trouble creating a line that smoothly went through the first four measures of the changes. And, perhaps during the first ‘A’ section in particular, I played the same thing in measure 7 (the II dominant chord, G7) every chorus. And one more thing, the second part of the bridge (the ii V I in Db) gave me trouble. Ok, now that I’ve listed my weaknesses, it’s time to re-write them out in terms of what I lack.

Weakness #1 – Can’t create a smooth line in the first four bars of the ‘A’ sections – This means I lack a concept of how to approach the major chord in bar 1, and I don’t have an understanding of how to approach one-measure ii Vs descending in whole steps. If I specifically had trouble in bar 2, it could further indicate that I lack language over one-measure minor ii Vs.

Weakness #2 – I played the same thing every chorus in measure 7 (G7) – Simple. I lack language over dominant chords and consequently, have very little to play when I encounter them.

Weakness #3 – The second part of the bridge gave me trouble (ii V I in Db) – Again, simple. I haven’t worked on ii V Is in all keys, hence I stumble on this more obscure key.

The same process can be used to identify the other weaknesses listed, just use other tunes. To find weaknesses with tune types, use tunes from various styles: a ballad like Body and Soul, or a modal tune like Impressions. To discover weaknesses with particular time signatures, try Someday My Prince Will Come. Or for fast tempos,  use Cherokee.

Don’t get carried away and waste your time freely playing over a play-along. Use it as a means to determine your weakness and to develop a plan to improve in that area, which brings us to how to structure your time toward improving in these weak areas.

Structure your time toward improving in weak areas

Learning to structure your own time is a skill few have mastered. There’s endless ways to do attempt to do so. What you practice is up to you and should be based upon your weaknesses discovered through the fore-mentioned process. I suggest writing out a practice plan with time allotments next to each topic. It might look something like this:

Practice Plan, week of April 18th, 2011

Tone exercises – 5 minutes

Instrumental technique – 10 minutes

A piece of jazz language in all keys – 15 minutes

Learn to use the language I just worked on over the first 8 bars to All The Things You Are – 30 minutes

Work on transcribing Dexter Gordon on a blues – 30 minutes

Writing out a weekly plan like this sample will force you to articulate what you need to work on and give you the structure you need when you go to practice. To further investigate structuring your time, you may be interested in Combating the enemies of progress and Keeping focused by using spaced learning and time-boxing.

Critique your progress and hold yourself accountable

Critiquing your progress is another important part of being your own teacher. We’re are own worst critic, so be nice, but be fair. Review what you intended to practice for the week, your practice plan, and objectively evaluate how you worked your plan. Did you put in the time allotments you initially assigned yourself? Did you further your knowledge in each part of the plan? Do you feel more comfortable in each area you worked on?

For example, if I critiqued my sample plan given in the previous time structuring section, I might ask myself:

  • Did my sound get closer to what I desire in a saxophone sound?
  • Do my fingers feel fluid on the instrument?
  • Did I master the piece of jazz language in all keys and situations?
  • Can I use that piece of language effectively as a springboard for my own creativity on the first 8 bars of All The Things You Are?
  • Did I make ample progress on committing a Dexter Gordon solo to memory?

So You Want to Keep Improving?

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