PJN Blog

On Practicing: When, What, How Much

No matter what you play or how well you do it, the one thing that unites all musicians is the necessity of practice. Whether you’re a four year old taking Suzuki lessons or a grizzled professional (or any kind of musician in between) you have to work to maintain and improve your musical skills.

Beyond that universal fact, everything else about practicing often seems up for grabs. Disagreements abound regarding what, when and how long you should practice. In the world of jazz, players and teachers can sometimes get into very contentious arguments for or against various aspects of study. How much time and effort should you put into purely technical exercises? Scales and arpeggios? Learning tunes? Transcribing solos (or not) and mastering the language(s) of the great musicians of previous eras? Ear training, keyboard skills, theory and harmony studies. Whew! There’s a lot of material to cover and a lot of discord among “the experts” over every bit of it.

It seems to me that jazz is ultimately about self expression. If this is true then “practicing” must mean finding ways to integrate all of the tools you need to be able to express yourself in the language of music: your physical technique, your ability to play what you hear and your innate musical instincts. Each of these areas can be divided into smaller chunks in a variety of ways, and how you do that is really up to you. The best advice I can give you is that you cultivate musical mentors in the form of teachers, band mates and the jazz masters of the past and present. But beware of those who insist that their way is the only way, because it is a demonstrable fact that this notion is false.
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Jazz Language: Using Transcriptions

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of people insisting that you can’t become a good jazz musician without following whatever methods or rules they happen to favor. As with so many other endeavors, there are many valid paths to achieve the results you desire. (At least, that’s the philosophy I favor!) That said, I think there is general agreement among most musicians that using transcriptions is an integral part of learning how to improvise. I’ll save a discussion on why this is so for another time. For now, just keep in mind Clark Terry’s famous and widely accepted jazz education dictum: Imitate, Integrate, Innovate.

What are transcriptions, anyway? They can take more than one form, but transcriptions are essentially the “records” of the performances of other musicians. There are two main components to working with transcriptions: creating them and learning to play them.

When you learn a lick, a melody, a bassline, a comping rhythm, a drum groove, or all or part of a solo, you are transcribing. You can transcribe by memorizing or by writing down the chunk of music you’re working on. Creating your own transcriptions is undoubtedly the most thorough and beneficial way to emulate the playing of the musician whose work has captured your interest. Unless you have extremely advanced ears, transcribing involves repeated, detailed listening. Spending time with a passage of music allows you to absorb all of the subtleties that go beyond the notes and rhythms. Tone, texture, dynamics and the other unnameable qualities are the aspects of the music that are only available to you by this kind of concentrated listening.

On the other hand, not everyone has the inclination or time to put into creating their own transcriptions. If you fall into this category, but want to take advantage of the benefits of studying the work of the artists you admire, there are many transcriptions done by others you can acquire and learn from the page. This, of course, assumes that you are able to read music (or TAB if that applies to your instrument). You have to be wary of mistakes or misprints in published transcriptions. Remember that there is an imperfect human doing the transcribing. The best way to use other people’s transcriptions is to do so in conjunction with the specific recording. This way you won’t have to do all of the notes and rhythm “grunt work” but you’ll still be able to hear the music in context (and check for mistakes).
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Innovate: How To Start Sounding Like You

Innovate – n. To begin or introduce something new; be creative (American Heritage Dictionary)

So we come to the third and final piece of Clark Terry’s jazz education paradigm: innovation.

Improvisation, by it’s very nature, implies innovation. If you are truly improvising, you are creating (composing) something new as you go. But, as we all know, playing jazz is not just pure improvisation. Unless you’re playing free-form music (and even so-called “free” jazz has it’s constraints), you are always limited by a variety of contexts that, by their very nature, impose boundaries on your ability to improvise. Song form, harmony and tempo are the most obvious structures that come between you and pure improvisation. Then there’s tradition – a huge context that can both help and hinder your ability to create. You’re also limited by the nature of your instrument and it’s technical demands; after all, you can only play what you can play!

It looks like we’re going to have to come up with a more nuanced understanding of innovation when it comes to playing jazz. One way to think of innovation is as less of a “what” and more of a “how”. Each improvisor comes to play with a particular chunk of knowledge and experience. If he deliberately seeks opportunities to explore new possibilities for expression in the context of performing, the chances are good that some actual improvising will occur. There’s an implicit conflict between form and freedom whenever we play jazz. It’s a delicate balance between the boundaries imposed by tradition, style, harmony, rhythm etc on the one hand, and the desire to create a unique musical statement on the other.

If we rely too heavily on what we know (all the scales, melodies, licks etc we’ve practiced) we risk becoming banal- only capable of regurgitating and repeating the same stuff over and over. If we haven’t done our homework (and therefore don’t have a jazz vocabulary to use when we improvise) we risk descending into chaos- which is a banality all it’s own. We can get stuck sounding too much like another player, especially if we’ve modeled our playing on that person’s style. Another common trap is getting limited by a certain stylistic vocabulary; just because you like bebop doesn’t mean you can’t move beyond those harmonies and melodic shapes.

What to do, then? How do we walk this line between form and freedom to create some innovative space for ourselves?

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Integrate: Putting The Pieces Together

Years ago I overheard jazz vocalist Betty Carter admonishing her young bass player to “get your three together!” as he was having some difficulty locking into the jazz waltz groove her trio was trying to get going. Having your act together or simply being “together” is one way musicians denote having attained a certain level of mastery. “Getting it together” is an apt way to put it because there are a lot of skills that need assimilating to achieve success as a jazz player. So let’s have a peek at this process.

in-te-grate: to bring together, form, coordinate, incorporate or blend into a unified, functioning whole; to unite, complete or combine.

Last time we discussed “imitation” as one way to initiate your development as a jazz musician. It may not be necessary to try to literally copy someone’s style, but many successful players start out with an inspirational role model who they seek to emulate. You might be able to start by grabbing various elements of another player’s musical identity, but what other skills do you need to “get together” in the “integration” phase of your musical education?

1) Mastering the technique of your instrument
2) Training your ears
3) Understanding jazz harmony
4) Learning the jazz repertoire and internalizing standard song forms
5) Developing a strong sense of meter, tempo and rhythmic “feel”
6) Performing with an ensemble

You will need to work on the first three skills independently.

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The Most Sincere Form of Flattery or Gunslinging Bird

We must be doing some things right here at PlayJazzNow. Lately I’ve discovered a few jazz ed websites that are, um, emulating some of the concepts and strategies we’ve been pioneering over the last few years. All in all, I guess this is a good thing – some of our innovations are becoming more widely known and it does make me feel all warm and fuzzy knowing that people think so highly of PJN that they feel the need to imitate us. For a list of some of these sites, see the end of this article.(1)

In an earlier piece on the use of transcriptions I mentioned nonagenerian Clark Terry’s(2) description of what it takes to become an accomplished jazz musician. He sums it up neatly in the phrase “imitate, integrate, innovate.” Let’s “investigate” this first of these concepts a bit more thoroughly, shall we?

A high percentage of people who succeed in music became inspired to take up music because of a particular player they heard and loved as a youngster.  There’s something indescribably alluring about the way a certain musician sounds that draws a kid (or sometimes a generation of kids) to them. Though it doesn’t have to be someone with a high profile, it often is, because those are often the musicians we’re most likely to hear.

A brief list of jazz masters who have had this kind of influence must include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Bix Beiderbecke, Buddy Rich and the most imitated musician of all time, Charlie Parker. For me, it was probably Charles Mingus, although I came to jazz fairly late in my youth and there were several musicians who exerted a powerful influence on me at that time.

Of course there are scads of musicians who started playing guitar (or keys or bass or drums) because they heard The Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Springsteen etc etc. But we’ll keep it on the jazz side of town, since that’s what we mostly do around here.
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Jazz Listening 101

Many people, musicians and civilians alike, have a tendency to get “lost” when listening to jazz. I’m talking about standard song form jazz here, not the more complicated, through-composed or “free” types of jazz. Once the melody of the song has been stated, the rest of the performance sounds like cacophony to some folks. Since improvising is the body and soul of jazz (and what most interests us players, creative beings that we are), I’d like to offer a little assistance to those who don’t understand what “all that noise” is about. And if you’re just getting started playing jazz, this advice will help you too.

Let’s take a simple song, like Pop Goes the Weasel. It’s a silly example perhaps, but I think that most of us can easily sing the melody internally, using our “inner” ear. The ability to internalize a melody like this is the key to being able to enjoy a jazz performance (if you’re a listener) or to keep your place in the form* of a tune (if you’re a player). Continue reading

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Listen, Listen, Listen

It may seem obvious, but one of the most “educational” things you can do to become a better musician is to listen to the kind of music you want to master. I’m not talking about having some music on while you do something else. The most important kind of listening you can do is to actively engage with what you’re hearing. Listen analytically. Listen creatively. Listen critically. Try to really hear the shape of the melody, the harmonic motion, the rhythmic underpinning. Whatever you are working on in your practicing is a good thing to focus on in your listening.

We are living in a great era in terms of the availability of music. No longer do you have to venture out to your local record store (are there any of those left?) or search your FM dial for a station that might play a little jazz once in awhile. Now all you have to do is go to Pandora on your computer and set up a personal “radio station” for yourself. In fact, you can set up many different stations as you like. Each will call up tracks directly related to the artist or specific genre you identify. I’ve got my “Bill Evans” station playing as I write this. I’ve already heard great sides by Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Billy Childs, Monk and, of course, Mr. Evans himself.

I also have a bebop channel, a Dave Holland channel, and one devoted to the music of Stravinsky. I’m getting to hear stuff I’ve never heard in addition to tracks I haven’t checked out in years.

There are so many ways to listen to music easily now: YouTube, Spotify, Internet radio stations via iTunes. It won’t cost you a nickel. No yakking DJs, no commercials. It’s a beautiful thing. Listen.

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