One Brick at a Time: That’s how you build a wall

It’s a new year. I guess that means we should be making some resolutions right about now. New beginnings, a fresh start and all that other good stuff. For most people making “resolutions” translates into sitting down and writing out a list of goals. It’s not a bad exercise to do every now and then and anyways, it feels good seeing those big goals on paper that you’ve always hoped to achieve. But honestly, how often are resolutions actually followed through?

You’ve probably made dozens of resolutions over the past few years. Most of the time these hopeful goals just fall to the wayside and wither away, but every now and then we actually stick with one and complete it.

Have you ever wondered why those goals are the ones that we stick with? When you make those resolutions and set out to pursue these goals do you actually have a choice in the matter or is it a game of chance where you just roll the dice and wait for the results?

To get the answer just take a look in the rear view mirror. Every skill that you posses today is the result of a goal that was successfully accomplished in the past. Whether it’s a sport, a musical instrument or some specialized knowledge that you’ve acquired, these goals weren’t accomplished in one sitting, you worked on them consistently for years.

From your perspective today it can seem like you’ve always had these skills, but they started out with an inspiration and an idea and turned into a defined goal and a disciplined approach to your daily routine.

“I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.”~Anais Nin

Jazz improvisation is no exception to this process. As improvisers, we make goals all the time. Some are conscious goals that we write down on a piece of paper and others are unconscious, formed in our minds as we listen to our favorite records or go to see inspiring live shows. Some goals will take an entire lifetime to achieve and others are made for the next 30 minutes in the practice room.

You’re probably reading this right now because you’re interested in improvement and you’re ready to start pursuing your goal of moving forward as an improviser. But before you rush into the practice room with your new year’s resolutions, there is something that you should consider.

One of the main reasons that our big goals always seem to fall to the wayside is connected directly to our mindset as we get into the practice room. Setting the goal is not the problem – we have the enthusiasm, we have the drive, and we can envision what we want to sound like. It’s the methods that we are using in the practice room that are not producing results.

Changing your practice mindset

If you want to see a difference in the results of the goals you make you’ll have to start by changing your mindset. It’s time to break free of the conquer everything at once mentality. “I need to learn 20 tunes by Friday, I need to transcribe this entire solo today, I have to get through this entire book of patterns…”

Instead, think of your playing like a wall that you are going to spend your entire lifetime building. You’re not going to finish it today, or tomorrow, or even a year from now. However, what you can do on a daily basis is to focus on one piece of that huge goal. Every time you walk into that practice room you’re goal is to add one brick to your “great wall” of improvisation.

When you start out you envision what you want to build, you can imagine the finished product – these are your big goals. However, to start making headway with these goals you need a plan and you need to build it piece by piece.

To do this, focus on one brick at a time. One small piece of your goal, one day at a time.

So what is a brick?

If building a solid wall of musical skills is our goal for improvisation, then what would an individual brick of that wall be? What would that one piece look like that is going to contribute to the whole in a solid way?

An improvisational “brick” in your wall would be a singular device, concept or technique that you add to your playing or musical skill set one piece at a time.

A brick is not a list of twenty tunes. It’s not transcribing an entire solo. It’s not turning on a play-a-long for an hour or quickly running up and down your major scales.

A brick is identifying one specific piece of your goal and spending the time to master it. Focusing intently on that one aspect of your playing until you’ve ingrained it.

Achieving the large goals that you make as an improviser and making noticeable progress boils down to mastering that small step one day at a time.

Every day lay that one brick as perfectly as you can.

Examples in improvisation practice

The things in our practice routine that make the most difference in our playing are often very small. At times they can even seem inconsequential. This is why most players rush past the details and are left wondering why they are at the same musical level they were a year ago.

Spending 30 minutes to learn one melody by ear? Spending 20 minutes working on an articulation?? Spending an hour transcribing and memorizing 8 bars of a solo??? Are you crazy?

Devoting an entire practice session to one small piece of your improvisation can seem ridiculous and it can feel like you’re wasting time. However it’s important to keep in mind that a small skill mastered will be much more beneficial in the long run than skimming over huge amounts of material.

If you focus on and ingrain that one “brick” of information you will have it forever, on the other hand, those big goals hastily approached start to fade as soon as you leave the practice room.

Apply this brick mentality to each aspect of your playing and you’ll start accomplishing more goals than you ever have before. If you take one of these bricks and learn it perfectly, it will become a permanent part of your wall. It will be there tomorrow in the practice room, a week from now at a jam session, or even a year from now as you are performing.

Let’s take one example of applying this “one brick” mindset in your daily practice. It is important to make the distinction between effective practice vs. ineffective practice, between practice that will slowly move you towards your goal vs. pseudo practice that is wasting your time.

Learning Tunes

The first goal that many of us make when we want to become better improvisers or when we want to become more versatile performers is learning tunes. To do this we usually make a list of 10 – 20 tunes. This is a good start to defining your goals and making a plan of action, but the next step is critical to whether you’re going to succeed or not.

Pseudo Practice:

Most players take that list into the practice room and try to tackle all of the tunes as fast as they can. This usually means grabbing a fake book or finding the lead sheets to every tune and playing through each tune in the space of one practice session.

By playing with these tunes over and over again with a play-a-long, they try to visually memorize the melody and chord progression and somehow to improve at improvising over these tunes the next time around. But, that “next time” never comes.


Productive Practice:

The problem with the method above is that you’re never really learning the tune in the first place, just skimming the surface of dozens of tunes.

Instead approach your goal one brick at a time. Start by picking out just one tune and learn the melody by ear. One tune, one melody – that’s it. Spend the time to ingrain that one melody and then figure out the chord progression. Once you’ve done that, then you can move on to the next tune.

When you learn a tune with your ears you also pick up some benefits: ear training, memorization, time and articulation. You can’t get any of these from a piece of paper.

This method also can expose some holes in your musicianship or technique that need to be improved if you want to move forward. If you’re having trouble picking out a phrase of the melody it means that you need to work on some ear training. Start by mastering your intervals.

So you want to learn Rhythm Changes?

Let’s say your resolution for this year is to learn Rhythm changes. A month from now you want to be able to hold your own if someone calls a rhythm changes tune at a jam session. OK, this is definitely an achievable goal, but it is not going to be achieved by grabbing a fake book and a play-a-long and spending a few minutes in the practice room.

Start by breaking up that big goal into individual bricks and then build your wall piece by piece.

Here’s a step by step approach to mastering your goal:

1) Learn the melody by ear

Step one is to learn a melody from a recording that you’ve picked out.

If you’re wondering the best way to learn a melody, check out this article.

Don’t just grab a lead sheet and try to memorize, take the time to actually get the melody in your ear. Sure it may take longer to get that melody down, but this way it will be ingrained in your ear. This step alone will make the difference between the player that always forgets tunes and the player that has the tune memorized right from the beginning.

2) Learn the chord progression

Now take that same recording and this time you’re going to focus on the chord progression. You might even have to break this step up to make a little easier. First focus on the A section or the first 8 bars. Put this recording in to Trascribe! so you can slow down the tempo and hear each chord individually.

Next move on to the bridge and figure out the progression within these 8 bars. If this step gives you some trouble, take a look at this article on how to hear chord changes.

3) Take a solo you like and transcribe one piece of language over the “A” section

Keep in mind that each of these steps is not supposed to be done in one sitting. It may take a few weeks or even a month or more to get all of this together. Remember the goal is to master each step, not to rush through to the next tune on your list as fast as you can.

After you’ve learned the melody and chord progression by ear, it’s time to start gathering some language over rhythm changes. You can take some of Dexter’s lines or maybe something else catches your ear.

Acquiring language is an ongoing process, you always can learn more or develop the language that you have. So start simple and go from there.

4) Transcribe language over the bridge

Now that you’ve got some language together over the A section, it’s time to focus on the bridge. Pick a recording of one of your favorite players and figure out what they are doing over the bridge.

These four steps are a good way to approach any tune that you are trying to learn. What most people try to conquer in one practice session, we’ve taken one tune and spread it out over a week or more. Yes, it takes longer, but this way you are actually retaining information and learning skills that you need.

Trying to tackle the melody, the chord progression, and transcribing language in one practice session can be a goal for down the road. all of these steps will get easier, but only if you start the right way.

Eventually you’ll be able to figure out the melody, chord progression, and even transcribe some language in one practice session.

Change your approach, change your results

Improvement comes down to the way you’re thinking about your goals. Mastering small pieces every day will propel you forward faster than tackling big goals every once in a blue moon. If you’re determined to transcribe that favorite solo, or learn a list of 20 standards, or whatever your goal may be, take it apart and work on it one brick at a time.

As an improviser you want to be able to retain and use the information that you’re learning in the practice room. If you’re totally focused and master each skill one at a time, you’ll carry this information with you wherever you go. That technique you’ve practiced or that language you’ve transcribed or those chord progressions you’ve figured out by ear will be there the next time you find yourself taking a solo, whether it’s a month from now or a year from now.

Walls are built very slowly. We barely notice it when the construction is happening. One brick is slowly added and then another. In the short term it looks like no progress is being made. Then suddenly there it is – a solid wall.

You might’ve already made some musical resolutions this year, or if you haven’t take a quick look here for a few ideas. Before you get into the practice room and before you let another resolution fade away, remember that the quickest way to build a wall is one brick at a time.

So You Want to Keep Improving?

If your goal as a jazz musician is to get better fast and have fun doing it, then make sure to join over 100K Jazzadvice Subscribers by signing up to our FREE newsletter. Each week, we'll send you powerful resources to keep you moving forward in your jazz journey.