The Power of One

It’s the time of year again when we make ambitious lists of resolutions and let me tell you, this year is shaping up to be different. Seriously‚Ķall those other years were just practice runs, this year we’re actually going to follow through on our resolutions.

It’s very easy to make hopeful resolutions, and music is no exception. For jazz musicians, this means making lists of tunes we want to learn, solos we want to transcribe, and setting lofty practice goals. You may even recall that we made a list of 100 resolutions for jazz musicians.

Think back, did you attempt to do any of those resolutions? More importantly did you complete any of them?

You’re not alone if you fell short. The reality is that most of the goals that we set musically are never met, this is just how things work. We get ambitious and set lofty goals for ourselves and then we rush into the practice room.

However, after a few weeks this ambition runs out and frustration slowly sets in, and all that we’re left with is this unattainable goal hanging over our heads. So much for setting our sights for the stars.

It’s not a numbers game

For many aspiring musicians, learning to play jazz becomes a numbers game. You need to know more tunes, more ii-V lines, transcribe more solos, have more technique, play it faster, play it higher, etc.

More is better.

This mentality is transferred into the practice room and is reflected in our goal setting process. We make long lists of tunes to learn. We ambitiously pick out dozens of solos to transcribe. We want to sound like our heroes as quickly as possible.

Strangely, the more unrealistic and unattainable these goals, the better we feel about making them.

When we eventually get into the shed and get to work on accomplishing our goals, we quickly get overwhelmed and end up abandoning ship. This more is better mentality may work for some for some goals in our life, however, when it comes to practicing improvisation, this mindset falls way short.

People don’t care how many tunes you know or how many solos you’ve transcribed when they listen to you. They want to hear music.

If you know a bunch of melodies, but can’t improvise well over any of those tunes, good luck getting someone to listen to you. Instead of the “more mentality,” you’ll actually improve for once by setting one goal and mastering it.

Let me explain…

Pick one thing to work on

Now this doesn’t mean that you can pick any one thing or can set any one goal and you’ll see immediate improvement. There are a few important factors to keep in mind.

  • Pick something that you’re interested in and musically excited about: Learning shouldn’t feel like a chore and the material that you choose to work on shouldn’t feel like a school project that someone else is forcing down your throat. Find a goal that you can’t wait to get started on and a subject matter that means something to you
  • Set a goal that can be achieved in a relatively short amount of time: The longer a project takes and the bigger it is, the more likely you are to abandon it. Pick something that can be done in a few days or a week. Setting out to learn a list of 100 tunes or trying transcribe 20 of your favorite solos looks good on paper, but when you try to do it, it’s a different story. Pick one small goal at a time and complete it.
  • Make this one goal the focus of your practice routine: Incorporate all of the important elements of practice through the lens of this one goal – technique, sound, ear training, time, articulation, etc. Use this one tune or solo to practice all of your musical exercises.

3 Achievable goal ideas

When you work on a small goal, you’re not just working on one isolated exercise. This goal can encompass all of your musical exercises. It’s your one-way ticket to improvement – don’t stop until you finish it!

Here are a three simple, but challenging goal ideas to set for yourself in the practice room:

I. Transcribe one solo

This could be your first solo ever. It could be the first one that you actually complete all the way through. Or it could even be your tenth transcribed solo, but the first one that you finally ingrain and translate into your playing.

The tricky part about picking a solo to transcribe is that there are just too many good ones out there. Once you finally pick a solo you like, you hear another that might be better, or another that’s an essential solo that you need to know.

Truth is, you can’t learn every solo out there, so how about starting with just one?

It’s best to pick your own solos to transcribe, but if you’re completely stuck, this is not a bad place to start:

And here are 10 Brilliant Jazz Solos if you’re looking for more ideas!

II. Learn one ballad

A weak spot for many players are ballads. Not only knowing ballads, but knowing the art of interpreting the melody and crafting a solo in this style.

Here’s the catch: memorizing the melody and chord progressions to more ballads is not going to teach you to play a ballad. What you are going to get is another melody and another set of chord changes that you have trouble playing over.

Instead of an endless cycle of memorizing more melodies and chord progressions, pick one ballad and learn how to play every aspect of it. Melody, phrasing, chord progressions, style, and so on. By approaching tunes in this way you will see a drastic difference in your playing.

The first step is listening to great musicians playing ballads. Check out Clifford Brown with Strings, find Roy Hargrove interpreting any ballad, or simply listen to Coltrane:

III. Take one piece of language through all 12 keys

The true “power” of one comes in your focus. Instead of focusing on multiple lines at once, barely scratching the surface, here we’re going to do the opposite. Focus on one piece of information until you master it.

We never get through our ambitious lists or benefit from the numerous transcriptions we complete because we don’t take the time to actually ingrain them and master them. It’s just more information that goes into our short-term memory and is gone a few days later.

To improve, you must master small pieces of information like one line, one tune, or one technique. I mean really master them, to the point that you’ll never forget them. This is one of the keys to improvising well!

Simply take one line that you’ve transcribed and take it through every keys. It could be a ii-V line, a complex double time line, or even a short idea over a Major 7 chord. Once you have the original line memorized, slowly take it through each key, mastering each along the way.

This simple exercise, if done consistently, will improve your playing more than you can imagine.

For more, check out this lesson on Learning Jazz in All Keys.

What’s your goal

These are just a few ideas to get you started. I’m suggesting that you pick one goal, but that one goal is entirely up to you…

What do you want to achieve musically? What areas of your playing are giving you trouble? What players would you love to sound like?

These are the questions that you need to ask yourself when you make your goals. Your mission is to push yourself forward and to aim high, but as we’ve stated, setting unrealistic goals will actually set you back.

Pick one achievable goal that you’ll definitely complete and in no time, you’ll surpass those old resolutions that you set faithfully year after year.