Sunday, September 26, 2010

Being Successful with the Traditional Approach to Jazz Improvisation

Now for the truth of the matter.  How do you become successful using the traditional approach?  You hear it all the time transcribe, copy, and play with the records.  Learn the jazz language by ear.  Imitate, emulate and innovate.  These are common things told to young improvisers, yet they never address some of the greatest challenges that young improvisers face as they strive to learn jazz improvisation through the traditional approach.  It is my hope to give some suggestions that will help an enthusiastic player overcome some of the common hurdles a players faces as they strive to learn jazz improvisation the traditional way.

The first challenge that many would be improvisers face is that of skill level. Lets be honest most beginning improvisers don't have the chops nor the ears to transcribe the greats.  So what does the player do?  It's simple they develop the necessary skills so they can transcribe the greats.

This involves a few things, first is developing the ear through practice of simple melodies and tunes such as twinkle, twinkle little star, or happy birthday. Something your are already familiar with.  The main thing being figuring it out by ear. A lot of players are embarrassed to do this.  They think it is childish, but this can greatly help develop your ear and allows you to start making the connection between the mind and the fingers.  Also these songs are usually already a part of you.  You know the melody by heart because as a little kid you sang them all the time.  This is really important.  To learn something by ear you must first internalize it.  If you can't hear it in your head when your not listening to the recording then it becomes extremely difficult to transcribe it.

Once you have simple melodies down and you can play them with any starting note then you can move on to learning heads to jazz standards by ear.  Yes, the above statement means that you need to learn the simple melodies in multiple keys. With the standards make sure that you choose tunes that are at you level.  Start simple then get to the more challenging stuff.  The great thing about the standards are you will start learning the phrasing and articulation that an improviser uses, but at a much slower tempo then their solos.

After you have gotten a few tunes under your belt your ear should be ready to start on actual solos.  Like before start with something you can accomplish.  Miles Davis's "So What" solo on his Kind of Blue record is a good example.  It is simple yet inspirational at the same time.  In no time you will be able to transcribe your favorite players.

As for getting the needed chops that comes with practice of scales, patterns, and working through technical studies.  You can also use the technical approach of jazz improvisation as a foundation builder.  it will give you the needed technique so that when your ear is ready to transcribe someone like John Coltrane  your fingers will be ready too.

I would like to say more, but this post is getting long so I will save my other suggestions till next time.  Until then.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jazz Improvisation: The Traditional Approach

It's another day and we're ready to play, or so they say.  Ok, so what is this all about.  Today I'm going to introduce you to the traditional approach of learning to improvise jazz, and the traditional approach of jazz improvisation is all about playing and listening.  So lets get started.

We have all been there.  We find ourselves asking how can we really learn to improvise.  You have questions and you want answers.  So what do you do you search the web.  You read books.  You might even get the guts to ask the best improviser in your area how they do their stuff.  In the end you find that there seems to be many ways to learn to improvise, but if you look closely you will realize that they all have one thing in common.  Listen to as much jazz as possible.  Those who follow the traditional approach of jazz improvisation take this to heart.  In fact the traditional approach to jazz improvisation is solely based on listening.  Other approaches might focus on theory, scales, or developing technique, but with the traditional approach the answer is found in the music.

What do I mean.  The traditional approach to jazz improvisation is all about learning music aurally, meaning learning to improvise by ear.  They do this by listening to recordings of the great improvisers and transcribing them.  As part of the process a traditionalist doesn't just try to get the notes, but they also try to match the sound, articulation, and phrasing.  Over time a traditional improviser gets to the point where they can play almost anything they hear instantly.  This becomes a great benefit for them, because it allows them to play the ideas that go through their head fairly effortlessly.  There is also the other benefit that they are learning to speak the jazz language the way it is supposed to be spoken. 

One thing to keep in mind with the traditional approach is that it requires a lot of playing and listening.  Not only do traditionalists play with the recordings of the jazz greats they also take every opportunity presented to them to play, and they do it all by ear.  They learn tunes by ear.  They learn chord changes by ear, and they learn how to groove and swing by ear.  The traditional approach is very much a non scholarly more intuitive approach to jazz improvisation.  It becomes more about the sound, color, and feeling you can create.  Then the actual theory involved.  For a traditional improviser the winning formula is listen to jazz as much as possible.  Copy the greats, and then to experiment and play when ever you get a chance.

Well that about sums it up.  The traditional approach is all about the ear.  How well can you hear, and how well can you express yourself through the medium of music.  Until next time.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Technical Approach: Pitfalls to Avoid

So last time I introduced you to the Technical Approach of Jazz Improvisation.  Today I want to warn you of some pitfalls that you will want to avoid.

The first thing to avoid is the idea that if you can play fast and complicated this makes you a good player.  This is something many novice improvisers fall into.  They think that because they are cooking they are the next John Coltrane or something.  I saw this on YouTube once.  The title said something like " Better that Coltrane."  It was just a kid trying to play fast and impressively, but instead of impressing me I just wanted to laugh.  The kid couldn't keep time, his articulation was all over the place and there was nothing musical about it.  It was just a blab of notes that weren't going anywhere.  It was nothing compared to John Coltrane.  The moral of the story being that playing fast isn't enough.  You also have to know how to play musically in time with clean clear phrases.

The second thing that technical players fall into is sounding too cold and mechanical.  If you don't make an effort while your practicing to make the technical things your working on sound smooth and natural you will hear this criticism a lot.  No one wants to listen to someone that sounds like a robot.  They want to get an emotional reaction from it.  They want to feel something.  As a musician you should be striving to express yourself and striving to move the audience in some way.  This means that for technical players they have to spend time figuring out how to make their lines and licks sound more authentic and alive.

Something that can help a technical player sound less cold and mechanical is to aurally hear the licks they are working on and see what inflections the masters use.  See how they execute a lick.  Try to understand how the player brings the music to life. Actually, this process is something that is important for all improvisers no matter the approach they take.  To learn jazz you have to listen to it.  I said it before, but to become a magnificent musician you need to listen to tons of music.

The last pitfall that comes to mind is the golden solo idea.  What I mean by this is some players especially those seeped in the technical approach of jazz improvisation start thinking that if they put this lick with that lick and then connect the next phrase with this pattern followed by a simple melody derived form this or that scale they will have a perfect solo.  To make a good improvised solo you can't just string lick after lick together with some scales and patterns thrown in between.  If you do this musically it just doesn't work.  Well most of the time it doesn't work.  Some players can make it work, but  more often then not it doesn't.

The technical approach to jazz improvisation gives you the tools and skills you need to be a good improviser, but it is up to you to use your own creativity to make a good solo.  Don't sound like someone else, and don't just regurgitate licks.  Make your own thing.  Truly express yourself and great things will happen.

Enough with the negative.  You now know the pitfalls to avoid.  So what can learning the technical approach of jazz improvisation do for you?  Its simple first and for most it gives you great technique.  This is beneficial because as you develop and improve you will find that the ideas that you think about will start to flow naturally.  Players that don't have a strong technical base sometimes struggle. They may have a great idea that occurs in their head, but they can't execute it do to a lack of technique.  Having phenomenal technique frees you.  Its simple by spending time on technical matters you create a link between your fingers and your brain so when you think something it is more likely to happen.  Well that's all for now.  The best of luck practicing


Friday, September 10, 2010

Jazz Improvisation: The Technical Approach What is it?

The technical approach of jazz improvisation is something we are all familiar with.  You've see the guy.  He steps up to the band stand and just starts blazing away.  His technique is phenomenal.  He is all over his horn and can't seem to do wrong.  Lick after lick you come to realize this guy has really spent time shedding.  He's got monster chops.  Wow, how did he get so good?  Being in aw you decide to ask him afterwords.  What does he tell you?  Practice your scales, learn lots of licks and get some patterns under your fingers.  Basically he tells you to master your horn through technical means.We have all had this experience at least once in our musical career.  Usually while we are young.  Of course by now you probably have come to realize it nearly isn't as simple has he makes it seem.

The technical approach of learning jazz improvisation is one filled with lots of work, practice and tons of shedding, yet in the end it is worth it.  You come out a better player and technique to be marveled at.  So what is the technical approach to jazz improvisation.  It is an approach of jazz improvisation where a player values technical ability over everything else.  Scales, licks, patterns, and lots of notieness are the love of a technical player.

To become a technical player you have to master your horn.  It is plain and simple the masters had complete control of their instruments.  If you want to be like them you have to have the same kind of control.  The first step to learning jazz improvisation through the technical approach is mastering all your scales.  This mean throughout the full range of your instrument and in all keys and not just in major and minor.  Jazz is complicated and filled with a variety of sounds and musical colors.  The greats didn't just use major and minor scales and chords they also had diminished, whole tone, and augmented.  This means that you need to learn all these varieties.  You have to master your major and minor scales along with there different modes such as dorian, mixalydian, lydian and so forth.  To top it off you then have to master the augmented scales the whole tone scales and diminished scales.  Once you have this you are just getting started.  Scales up and down in a solo can get boring really fast so you have to mix it up.  One of the ways that the great jazzers made their phrases and melodies more interesting was through sequenced patterns.  For technical players this is a big part of their practice. In the technical approach to jazz improvisation a player extends their scales usefulness by learning sequenced patterns.  For those who don't know, patterns are simple melodic ideas that a player repeatedly plays up or done like a scale.  Patterns are typically played in a diatonic or chromatic manner.  Now, if you think that scales and patterns are all you need to learn your wrong.  Even if you have all your scales done and some patterns under your fingers it doesn't mean your going to sound jazzy.  You still have to learn the jazz language.  Players do this by learning the licks of their favorite players.  Scales and patterns are like the alphabet.  Where licks are words. You combine both to make sentences.

So in summary the formula for learning jazz improvisation through the technical approach is master your scales, learn patterns, and get jazz licks from the greats.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Diffrent Methods of Jazz Improvisation: Intro

Something that has been on my mind a lot lately are the various ways that one can learn jazz improvisation.  If you look online for any amount of time you find a vast majority of resources, all claiming to teach you how to be a great jazz improviser.  Yet the question of "What is the best way to learn to improvise?," still sits in the back of your mind.  Everyone wants to know the secret and become an amazing improviser overnight, but fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, this is not the case. I say fortunately because if it were easy to become a great jazz improviser then the solos we love really wouldn't be as meaningful.  Jazz wouldn't move us as much, but fortunately for us it takes hard work, dedication and some creativity to become a great jazz improviser.  So why do I tell you this?  I do it to let you know that there is no easy way to become great, so stop looking for that magic pill.  I will say this though, there are methods out there that will make you an accomplished jazz improviser with some time and effort.   What I would like to do is introduce you to some of these methods so that you can decide which one will fit you the best.  There are four main categories that I'm going to discuss in my next few posts about different methods to learn jazz improvisation.  They are the following: The Technical Approach, The Traditional Approach, The Theoretical Approach, and the Etude Based Approach.  All of these methods of learning to improvise jazz are viable, but each has its strengths and weakness.  What you will want to do after reading about each approach is decide which one fits your goals, desires, and personality and use that method as your main means to learning jazz improvisation.  When you do this with plenty of dedication you will start seeing the results you desire in learning to improvise jazz.  That's all for today, but I can't wait till next time.Until then


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Saxophone Tip #2: Listen to tons of music.

Listen, Listen, Listen, how many times have you heard this?  A lot?  I know I have.  If you want to reach your highest potential musically you need to listen to tons of music.  As much as people want to believe it, music just can't be taught from a book or in a vacuum.  Music is a hearing art meaning you need to learn to hear to master music.  It doesn't matter if your a jazz saxophonist, a classical saxophonist, or something else altogether you need to listen to music daily.  Don't get me wrong books are important and can be helpful, but to sound authentic and real you need to listen to lots and lots of music.

Think of it this way.  How did you learn to speak?  You listened to a model usually your parents.  Keyword there being listened.  You didn't learn your native language from a book.  Music is the same way, it is a language.  The best way to learn a language is by hearing it.  Think of music like a foreign language.  If you want to learn to speak the language you have to hear it. If you just learn the language form a book and never hear anyone speak it you might understand the grammar and structure, but you won't have the proper inflections, articulations and so forth.

I know I'm making a big deal about listening to music, and I know it seems obvious that a musician should take time to listen to lots of music, but guess what, a lot of musicians just don't do it enough especially beginners.  With that being said I guess I should tell you about some of the benefits of listening to tons of music.

For beginners listening to great musicians is key because it gives them a model of how to sound good.  As a saxophonist you should listen to other saxophonist.  What this will do is teach you what kind of sound you should strive for.  It will teach you different ways to approach playing the saxophone, how to phrase and accent musical passages, and it will give you an idea of what you will need to learn if you want to be a successful saxophonist.

For the intermediate to advanced saxophonist listening to tons of music helps you in different ways from that of a beginner.  It can give you ideas that you can later implement into your playing.  You can start to recognize how music theory relates to real music, and you can better understand the different nuances available to you as a musician.  At this point if your an intermediate or advanced player you should feel fairly comfortable on your saxophone,  because of this your focus should lend more and more to stylistic things instead of technique.  This is especially true if you have decided to focus on a specific genre.  As your listening to music really focus on the little things that the performer does that makes the music come to life.  Then try and implement those sorts of things into your playing.  This is especially important in learning to improvise jazz or any other style of music that has improvisation such as rock and roll.  Two people can play the same exact thing, but one person will sound great and the other sounds bad.  Why, the one pays attention to detail and accents and executes the lick in a manner that is stylistically correct were the other just plays the notes but is missing the inflections, articulations and accents needed to sound authentic.  You see this sort of thing all the time when a beginning jazz student tries to play a tune out of a fake book.  They play the tune, but it doesn't sound like jazz.  You just have to remember music is more than notes.  Listening to tons of music is the only way to learn about the nuances that really bring it to life.

So as a refresher listen to tons of music.  This will give you a model of how to  play, it will fill you up with ideas, and it will teach you how to bring the music you play to life.  Until next time.