The Hidden Trap on the Road to Improvement

In talking, practicing, and performing with many musicians over the years, it seems that a number of players are having trouble getting started with improvisation. Even more have a hard time moving forward, but can’t seem to figure out why. Time is spent in the practice room day after day, yet no results. There seems to be a hidden trap that many musicians unconsciously enter each day they step into the practice room. It’s something that we’re all susceptible to and a trap that we enter willingly time after time.

We can’t see it because it’s disguised as ambition. It develops as a result of our attempts to uphold an image as a serious improviser and even though we know better, we fall victim to the lure of this pitfall again and again.

Start simple, stay simple

So what is this trap? Why, it’s so simple that it doesn’t even seem like that big of a deal: skipping over the basics.

The main reason that so many players have trouble learning or progressing with improvisation year after year is that they continue to skip over the fundamentals. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t have anything to do with talent or a willingness to get into the practice room, the problem lies with the actual content the practice session itself.

Go to any practice room in any music school and you’ll hear players trying to play as fast as they can on the hardest tunes that they can find. Rarely do you hear someone taking a piece of language through all 12 keys or slowly working on sound and articulation.

Instead of spending the time to really master a tune, a technical etude, or a line transcribed from a record, the majority of players quickly pass over these so-called “basics” to tackle the ever-enticing advanced or “modern” concepts.

We all want to advance as quickly as possible and in our efforts, we inevitably jump ahead to the most difficult stuff that we can find. Why waste time on the easy stuff? Amateurs work on the basics and pros work on advanced concepts, and we’re aiming to be pros, right?

Even though the flawed logic is obvious in the above statement, it’s is surprisingly easy to fall into this trap.

Think about it, have you gone out and purchased a book on how to improvise with a new chromatic approach before you could even play well diatonically? Have you attempted to work on a tune in 5/4 or 7/4 before you could play over it decently in regular old 4/4? Have you ever tried to reharmonize the changes to a standard or work on playing “outside” before you could improvise proficiently over the normal chord progression?

We may classify ourselves as beginner or intermediate players to the outside world, but if you look closely at the contents of our practice routine, it’s apparent that we think of ourselves being much more advanced then we truly are.

Everyone’s doing it…

If this sounds familiar, relax, you’re normal. It’s natural to want to skip ahead when you’re striving to improve quickly. We do this because we desperately want to sound modern and progressive. However, despite our ambition, we’re unconsciously heading straight for mediocrity. This is something that we can all fall victim to at one point or another for a number of reasons.

At certain points we think we’re more advanced than we actually are and at others we are desperately trying to uphold the image of the hip jazz musician. When someone asks you what you’re working on, it’s a lot cooler to say “Oh, I’m taking the head of Donna Lee through every key, super-imposing Giant Steps changes, and working on playing in 7/4″ than saying ” I’m working on Major chords, developing some language over V7 sounds, and ear training.”

Remember that you are never above the fundamentals.

For some reason practicing slowly, working on simple tunes, and shedding the absolute fundamentals has become stigmatized in the practice room. We don’t want to be caught working on that easy tune or shedding that simple pattern when other players can hear us. This is the obstacle that we must overcome if we want to improve.

It’s OK to work on the fundamentals or even to sound bad in the practice room; keep in mind that your goal is to improve, not to impress the people around you.

What do the pros work on?

If you want to see what works, take a close look at the best out there. What do the masters in any field work on consistently?

It’s the basics. The fundamentals. The construction of a solid, infallible foundation. This is the path that leads to mastery. Pro Golfers work on the rudiments of their swing everyday. Great writers are constantly expanding their vocabulary and refining the structure of their sentences. Walk by an orchestral musician at work in the practice room and you’ll hear long tones, articulation exercises, and extremely slow and focused practice.

This is no coincidence.

Professionals in any field, get to the top by working on the fundamentals everyday, striving to improve in some aspect of their craft. For musicians, this means mastering your sound, your time, and your technique. In the realm of improvisation, this means acquiring some language, mastering the basic chord progressions (ii-V’s), and practicing the hell out of the blues and rhythm changes in all keys.

The funny thing is that most beginners work on difficult things while the pros work on the basics. They haven’t begun to master the basics of instrumental technique, ear training, or harmony, yet they are attempting advanced tunes, complex rhythms, and difficult harmonic concepts.

Testing your limits is one thing, but ignoring the basics is just going to hold you back.

Looking at your practice routine

As mentioned above, it can be very difficult to identify this type of mentality in your own practice. The first step to avoiding this trap is the ability to be honest with yourself and to identify the areas that you’re ignoring. Here are two areas to keep a lookout for in the practice room:

Language and technique

When you are attempting to learn the fundamentals of this music and working to acquire some basic language you must be very selective as to where you start. It may be tempting to get the latest methods and videos on modern improvisation, but are these sources going to teach you what you need?

Take a close look at the resources you’re using to ingrain the technique of improvisation.

A book of hexatonic patterns should not be the first place you look to get a solid foundation in hearing and understanding chord progressions. You are not going to ingrain the basics of the language from a book of transcribed Michael Brecker solos, and a DVD of modern improvisation concepts is not going to teach you the basics of ear training or melodic construction.

Yet, the lure of these resources is ever present.

Take another look at the solos that you’re transcribing. Are you trying to get the basics of the language down by transcribing something way over your head like late Trane or are you starting with solos that you can actually gather language and technique from? Starting simpler than you think, although disappointing for your ego, will provide limitless benefit for you.


What types of tunes are you working on when you practice?

Just as the method in which you practice the technique and language of improvisation is crucial to your development, so too are the tunes, progressions, and forms that you’re working on. Think about the tunes that you’ve been shedding:

Are you spending your practice time barely making it through Giant Steps or Moment’s Notice or are you working on the standards that are pivotal in building a lasting repertoire?

If you still can’t play over a blues why are you attempting tunes that are even more difficult and involved?

It may not seem like it, but the key to these advanced tunes lies in mastering very simple elements of music: V-I, ii-V-I, and incorporating the language that you’ve learned over these sounds. All tunes are constructed from the same basic building blocks, and once you’ve mastered these, improvising will be a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience.

Heading down the right path

Remember the principle of opposites in the practice room: slow leads to fast and simple to complex. Start with the fundamentals and build your foundation. It will always be tempting to ditch the basics for those hip and modern concepts out there, but keep in mind that the fundamentals are a necessary first step.

It’s not glamorous to work on ear training or technique everyday. You aren’t going to impress people by taking a simple line through all 12 keys or by listening to a tune hundreds of times to ingrain the chord progression and melody by ear. But, this is what it takes to learn this music and to eventually reach your goals.

Do you want to sound hip in the practice room or do you actually want to achieve some real progress?

Jumping ahead and working on the hardest stuff you can find is an endless trap in mediocrity that many fall into, so leave that to everyone else. Build your foundation of technique, language and key tunes and you’ll progress faster than you could’ve imagined.