The beauty of learning something new is it puts you back into the mindset of a student or ‘newbie’. I’ve spent the last few years learning jazz after (now) 30 years of playing so I got to see what worked and what didn’t. Many professionals and teachers are not actually good at teaching beginners (for say jazz) because they can’t remember or relate to the issues of beginners. Another problem is that teachers tend to teach the same thing that everyone else does, which may not be that effective. One of the interesting thoughts I have is that most teachers don’t actually think about how effective a particular method is. To be fair it is pretty difficult to measure in many cases, but we can use logic to figure some things out.
My passion over the past few years has been improvisation, specifically in jazz and jazz fusion. Due to the tendency for songs to have many chord and key changes, many of us have gotten stuck as to what to do. I’ve practiced a ton of things over the last few years, so I’d like to mention a few things that haven’t worked for me, why I think they haven’t, and how to tweak them to be more effective.
1. Scales, Modes and Arpeggios
Some teachers say scales are great for technique, which is true but we should dig a bit deeper. You need to be able to have the technique to play melodic content over chord changes. So since you won’t be playing scales in your solos, you won’t be automatically able to play fast lines unless you’ve practiced them beforehand (take it from me).
When I say scales and arpeggios I mean practicing them up and down as exercises rather than applying to tunes.
Solution – use 1-3 note scale fragments and arpeggios to approach a target chord tone on beats 1 and 3 (for 4/4 time). Alternatively, practice melodic phrases that contain these things.
2. Learning solos and etudes
Again, this is great for technique and the solos are actual melodic content so we’re getting much closer to our goal. But when we play a rehearsed solo we’re not really thinking of the chords
Solution – take phrases or small melodic cells (3-4 notes) and use them over different chord types (major, minor, dominant, etc). Use them in different tunes, learn them in all 12 keys. Be able to connect them.
3. Transcribing tunes
When I say transcribing tunes, I mean the act of transcribing a solo and writing it down. While that has many benefits, such as ear training, if not done methodically it will not have as beneficial effect as it could have.
Solution – transcribe a small phrase and use these such as in item 2.
Let’s say the ideal scenario is that you hear melodic ideas in your head over various tunes and are able to play them on your instrument. How does this occur? I believe it is by working out ideas that sound good to you beforehand, ie during practice and remembering those things. It doesn’t come from strictly listening to existing tunes. Most of my discussion of improvisation is around fairly challenging styles such as bebop. Some famous musicians have said that ‘improvisation is the combining of things previously practiced’. I think this comes closest to what I am trying to say.
It’s the ability to recall this information during improvisation that is most important, and must be the main emphasis of one’s practice.