Whether I'm teaching, or practicing, or playing, I like to look at the big picture; I want to be able to always have a system of foundational principles to refer to, in order to stay on track. Think of it as a musical Ten Commandments, or the Jazz Constitution! If we can agree on the basics, then we can always take a step back from what we are doing and ask, which of our foundational principles is this serving?
I've had students who came to me for one lesson. They may have come from out of the country, or they just couldn't afford regular lessons, etc….I've always wanted to have a way to impart as much
|"Your parents can only afford one lesson, so let's make it count!"|
I'm probably going to subconsciously, or even with full intent and acknowledgment, borrow from some of the known resources on the subject of practicing music. There have been many attempts to take away the mystery of musical self improvement. This is is probably more for me than for others, but if you like it, then by all means use it. If not, then as they say, "keep doing what you are doing!"
Lesson 1 Part 1: Learn Your Instrument
This is something that is actually very tangible. Whatever your instrument or instruments of choice are, there are countless method books and resources on how to play them properly and how to develop technique. This part has nothing to do with jazz. The masters were always aware of this. Most jazz greats did not start with jazz. They took private "classical" lessons. Clifford Brown practiced out of the Arban's book. Almost all of the great jazz pianists were accomplished classical pianists. Charlie Parker admitted in interviews his use of method books. And wherever you live, there is probably at least one person on your instrument that can show you how to play it better. So don't miss this crucial step.
The idea that "jazz players can't really play their instruments" is a load of bollocks. I'm amazed at how this myth persists. And I'm also amazed by how many young players I work with, who seem to want to play jazz, can't play all their major scales, let alone all the other scales you are supposed to know to improvise on basic chord changes! (A good friend of mine, who is running the jazz department in a major music institution, told me a story of meeting with the Dean to talk about how the jazz players in the school "couldn't play all their scales". The Dean replied, " How can YOU tell?", implying that "jazz musicians don't know anything about scales and technique!" On the flip side, my trumpet teacher at Peabody, Mr. Wayne Cameron, frequently admitted that "jazz players have to have MORE scale technique that orchestral players".
Lesson 1 Part 2: Learn The Right Notes
Again, there is no mystery here; if you are still reading "Stella By Starlight" from the Real Book, then you know exactly what you need to work on-playing "Stella By Starlight" from memory! How can you improvise convincingly if you don't really "know" the material? (Now, I will admit that some people have issues with memorizing. As I explained to one of my students who was having trouble with memorizing, "Cannabis can be detrimental to memory!" And as we get older, it gets tougher, of
|Cannabis can affect memory! But then again, so can television and beer.....|
tunes. Again, I'm fascinated by students who will blow their way through a jazz tune, and then when asked "what are the changes to this tune?" they have no idea. Getting a fakebook and memorizing chord changes is not something you need thousands of dollars worth of lessons to do. You can do that on your own.
Additionally, I am always amazed by students who will show up every week for months and years to a jam session and STILL not know the tunes that are being called. Drummer Carl Allen had a very simple idea that he would preach to Juilliard students: " Every time you are in a situation where a tune is called that you don't know, WRITE IT DOWN and LEARN IT, so that next time it gets called, you know it." Simple? Yes. Do I see anyone do that? Almost never. Again, this will cost you nothing except a pen and a little notebook. Or type it into your smart phone and text it to yourself! There's no excuses!
Lesson 1 Part 3: Develop Good "Time"
This is a very crucial aspect of jazz playing; the roots of the music are in rhythm. And yet, so much of "jazz education" deals with notes and harmony and repertoire. I know for a fact that most of the players that really get the calls to play are called because "it feels good" when they play. So at the very least, be able to play with consistent time. Playing with a metronome can help this. I used to play a lot
|Modern day Metronome: makes a great gift!|
Lesson 1 Part 4: Listen To As Much Music As You Can
I would have said listen to as much jazz as you can, but again, the masters listened to everything. I think just getting a feel for great performances is vital to becoming a great performer yourself. And the cool thing about jazz is that everything you hear can be absorbed into your own style. Transcribing solos falls under this category. You don't need to do entire solos; maybe take small phrases from your favorite soloists and learn them in all keys. But generally, the more you develop a love of listening, the more you are going to develop as a musician. Not just listening to recordings, but listening to live music, as well as listening to your bandmates while you play is important. The better you listen on the bandstand, the more relevant your playing will be, which will make people want to play with you more.
Lesson 1 Part 5: Patience
Many young players want to become Coltrane overnight; we know this is impossible. But I think this is why people are always looking for shortcuts. Indeed, in this day and age of computers, ipods, smartphones, and overnight celebrities, our society is losing our concept of patience. We want everything instantly, with no effort. Learning to play music takes time, in fact, it takes a lifetime. Students need to accept that they need to settle in for the long haul; they may not be where they want to be by the time they graduate from college. They might not be there by the time they are 30. Maybe not even by 40. I'm 41, and although I have had some great musical opportunities, I still feel like I
I didn't say anything about "developing your own sound" or "being an original" , because I think if you follow these five steps, your own sound will come naturally. Furthermore, not everyone is meant to be "the most unique groundbreaking musician in history." I do think that it's important to have the tangibles down before trying to re-invent the wheel. And obviously, there is more to it than these 5 parts. However, it's good to step back and take a look at the big picture once in a while, especially if you feel lost, or in a rut. Above all, be patient, and love the process more than the goal.