1. CONCEPT ► 2. METHOD ► 3. PRACTICE ► 4. INTEGRATION + CONSOLIDATION ► 5. EXPRESSION
I often find when considering the ways in which we learn how to play jazz, that the notes we choose are not always the most important element of our playing, nor the phrasing or rhythms used. In fact upon discussing the jazz-learning-pathway with some of the great musicians who have inspired me, I’ve found that the biggest catalysts in their own musical development were often moments of ‘conceptual’ enlightenment; at a gig or clinic, during a lesson or even in a non-performing environment, where the actual notes were a very distant feature and the underlying principles of what and how and why the notes were being played, were far more important.
I believe that a concept can usually be explained and defined, put into words, and given a solid body of text that describes what it is. I also believe that this step is imperative in coming to understand the works of the great jazz artists who have come before us, in that when we transcribe and notate what they play, we should be considering more than just the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic contexts.
The ‘learn-every-Parker-head-and-every-8th-note-rhythm-study-you-can’ method is great for a developing student – in fact, I would give this to all my first and second year undergrad jazz students; but to become a true improviser who wishes to play with any degree of individuality, with your own unique style and voice (let’s face it – that’s the whole point!), it is imperative that as you develop, you do much more than just study the notes.
What I’m getting at is; there must be something behind the notes of those great soloists we’ve all transcribed; an underpinning concept or idea that has given a stand-out phrase or superb melodic line vitality, momentum and meaning. Extracting this concept in an accurate manner is a difficult task. Even when we research the artist we cannot really ‘climb inside their head’ and understand what they were thinking or what concepts they pondered to give rise to their note choices; we can only theorize and extrapolate ideas from what they played on their recordings and said in their interviews.
We often hear about how ideas have changed jazz music history; how Coltrane carried around Nicolas Slonimsky’s ‘Thesaurus of Melodic Scales and Patterns’ book and how it helped him develop the Coltrane Matrix chord cycles (i.e. Giant Steps, Countdown and 26-2). Or George Russells ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept’ which was one of the founding concepts behind tonal freedom and super-imposition and in some ways the precursor concept to ‘modern’ tonally based jazz.
It is my hope that the simple system I’ve developed here will help you come to understand how a concept, no matter how vague or abstract, should be described, methodically applied into a pathway of learning, practiced, consolidated and given a chance to manifest in your playing, in a truly unique fashion.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, I often find it also gives me an answer to one of the greatest jazz musician questions of all time – what do I practice, right now?
1. CLEARLY DEFINE THE CONCEPT
Anyone can study and practice ‘lick based’ ideas, directly transcribed lines or quotes from melodies – this is a tried and true way for players to build vocabulary, develop language and gain insight into historical perspective. But I would suggest in your next practice session, a more effective method of learning (and teaching) would derive from applying a ‘concept method’ of study. A concept in this instance is purely any generalized musical idea (it is important that you understand and, as accurately as you possibly can, define how this concept relates to and affects your approach to music).
For example – take the common instance of learning a new scale onto your instrument. Instead of just learning this scale by playing the notes from tonic to the tonic octave above and back again – ask yourself why you are learning the scale in the first place. Surely not just to play the scale up and down, every time you call a tune with that scale sound or valid chord, at all your gigs? How incomplete a practice method is this – and yet this is how many jazz students learn to play scales, and continue to practice even as advanced improvisers. I would encourage this type of practice method only in the very early stages of getting to know a scale.
The real problem is; there is no concept for practice; only notes. You have chosen a sound but have not considered the context in which it will eventually end up (i.e. an improvised fragment of harmony and rhythm, as a melodic line). Players with conceptual methodology will always outshine and out-learn players who just run notes / look for speed / don’t consider harmonic context / have no idea of how the scale notes relate tonally etc.
So, using the example above of ‘new scale practice’ (which is constantly re-emerging in my own practice regime), I would firstly define the concept, primarily considering the ‘why’ (although this can get very philosophical!) and then I often find that the ‘how’ or actual method, will follow.
‘I wish to use scales as a means to express my improvised melodic musings in as lyrical and contextually relevant manner as possible’
And that’s it – there is my concept; it embodies my ideals (playing phrases that are melodic and lyrical); it outlines that I will be using scales in an improvised manner (which alludes to the fact that to master a particular scale with the goal of improvising freely and expressively, there will probably be several hundred hours practice involved) and it reminds me that I should remain musically appropriate to whatever context I find myself in (which again hints at a massive amount of harmonic and rhythmic study).
So a clearly defined concept is our first step – it has given me an outline for what I need to work into a method for practice.
2. DEVELOP YOUR OWN METHOD
The ‘method’ part is where you take your concept and invent a set system with quantifiable elements that will help you understand it. You should order these elements in as practical a manner as possible to form a practice system that will help you improve certain aspects of your playing, improvising, interaction or other general musical skills.
Concepts must have a method for application in order that they be effective – and sometimes this is difficult to ascertain; the ‘how to’ aspect is often the hardest part.
Going back to our scale learning example, I doubt that any of the great improvisers would practice scales in such a fashion – ascending and descending from the tonic to the octave and back. They would probably have a dozen different ways in which they would work a new sound into their playing; intervallic patterns, sequences, rhythmic subdivisions, harmonic cycles etc – all of which would likely end up in a structured practice routine.
It is imperative that your defined concept can be integrated into your practice schedule in some kind of unique and useful way – this will become your method.
One example of a good method for scale practice could be the patterns method, which is almost infinite in terms of how it may be configured. In fact, it is possible, should you be creative and persistent enough, that you will find a completely unique pattern, a new organization of notes. In this way the ‘patterns method’ can be totally individualized to suit you as a player and can be a great ‘idea spinner’ for linear phrasing. There are many method books on patterns and many great jazz musicians who use common jazz patterns, arpeggio patterns, mathematical patterns, rhythmic patterns and intervallic patterns, among others.
At this point in our method creation, it is a good idea to reread our concept: ‘I wish to use scales as a means to express my improvised melodic musings in as lyrical and contextually relevant manner as possible’. Practicing scales in any manner of pattern will only ever fall short of this conceptual goal because we have not fully captured the final contextual implications. So the second part of my method building must be creating a practice-chain that takes patterns and applies them in a direct form into a harmonic and rhythmic context.
The ‘3 Step Method’ (or ‘practice-chain’*) for Scale Mastery:
I. Choose a single scale pattern. Define it in terms of start or root note, number by semitone or comparative to the major scale, how many notes the pattern has and the manner in which it repeats, direction, note names etc – every way in which it may eventually come to be useful to you in a musical setting. Go about learning it onto your instrument; guitarists may wish to play it in positions up and down the neck, or a certain amount of notes per set of strings or on one string only (could be difficult depending on the pattern type), or in certain keys or key centre cycles etc. This is the easy part.
II. Once learned onto the instrument, apply your scale pattern directly into a harmonic vehicle for improvising practice. This is where you would play it over a static harmonic moment, a single valid chord (or set of related valid chords) that accurately describes the given scale. Play and hold the chord (pianists) use a loop pedal to create a sound canvas (guitarists), or record a backing track for yourself to play along with.
III. I would then apply rhythm – choose a style or genre, a tempo and meter and play the scale pattern in basic rhythmic subdivisions (use longer values / durations at first) over this static chord accurately and with clarity.
*The reason I have used the word ‘chain’ is because if you break (or skip) one link in the chain it will not be as strong!
Your method should eventually read like a flow chart, with careful analysis, editing and development of each step. It could be 5 steps long or 100; the more detailed you are at the method design stage, the more clearly you will know how to practice and the easier it will be to develop exercises and examples.
3. DESIGN YOUR PRACTICE SCHEDULE
Before we continue our example, I would like to take a few sentences to talk about how important practice is. To me there is really only one main reason for practice when it comes to jazz –to understand something better and through this understanding, creatively control that thing in an expressive, musical way when improvising. Only through practice (and serious study and repetition) can we achieve true integration, consolidation and then ultimately, self expression of the musical concepts we wish to explore. We must have a solid method to follow and we must practice in a focused and studious manner.
Here are some general practice tips for those who are serious about playing jazz music fluently and with confidence:
-Practice at least 90 minutes a day constructively (read through the JGL BLOG on ‘Practice schedule layout’). This is an absolute minimum – it usually takes me about 40 minutes just to warm up.
-Be focused. No distractions, no mobile phone, Facebook, internet, TV. Nothing.
-Choose what you are going to practice carefully.
-Challenge yourself and work as much as you can on things you find difficult.
-Always use a metronome when practicing anything that has time, rhythm and meter.
-Keep a logbook of what you practice and of how long you practice for. This will be your guide to keep track of progress, your way of grading yourself.
-It is a good idea to divide your week into practicing a lot of different things if you wish to be a well rounded player. If more focus is required or something in particular requires special attention you may wish to use more specialized practice routines to deal with only that one subject etc.
-Take time every day or at least every week, to JAM through tunes by yourself and with a group – music should be fun too, even if you want to make it a serious career.
Discipline, routine and a carefully structured approach to practice eventually equals integration and then consolidation of musical ideas.
Now back to our example. We have chosen the concept of ‘scale mastery’ and the method of ‘pattern practice’ in 3 steps as outlined above (choose and practice scale pattern, apply to static vamp then find a relevant musical stylistic application). Now to the nuts and bolts!
-I would first use the arrowed guides above to design a practice schedule, defining an allotted time, choosing an undisturbed area to practice in, keeping a regular schedule so that I could do practice in a routine like fashion. Then, I would let this settle over the course of a week or two, seeing how realistic and achievable it is. I would log every session and re read what I had covered, making any necessary adjustments to the schedule.
Let’s say we are studying the melodic minor mode scale ‘Lydian Augmented’ using the jazz pattern 1235 onto the guitar. I would put a 30 minute warm up together purely playing the pattern transformed (i.e. on every step) through the entire scale, in one key. The next 7 sessions could be one more new key each session; or a new position etc. During these sessions I would start using static vamps (or cycles of the root Lydian Augmented chord sound), thereby implementing my second practice-chain step. After a week or so (once the scale sound and pattern shape and feel are fluent in my playing) I would try and apply it to a harmonic progression in a favourite tune, giving it a tempo, meter and style. If this works, after a short time I would try using it in a jam situation with others.
One thing is important to note here – I am being very patient; allowing myself time to come to understand this scale, the sound and the feel of the pattern, in a focused and detailed manner and respecting the fact that it will take time to get this into my playing.
At this point you could do many things – change patterns, change scales, transform the pattern to include other notes, change rhythmic interpretations etc. But now you have the methodology and practice schedule, the way in which you can invent and follow an idea through to fruition (appearing in your lines in a solo!) is now rock solid.
But the journey is not over yet – in fact it’s just begun!
4. INTEGRATION + CONSOLIDATION
The next step is crucial in becoming an improviser. My take is this: if you are playing something you’ve practiced, you’re not really improvising! So this is where you allow the practiced concept to find its own way into your playing over time, without playing it in an exact, ‘verbatim’ form.
You could develop techniques that help you stay away from playing straight ahead practiced patterns – like random movement, rhythmic displacement etc. But as these are techniques, they may yield familiar or preconceived results. Sometimes it is better to let the original idea digest while continuing to practice different permutations or configurations of patterns; if the fingers know how and where to find the sound, they will go there when your ear hears it, given the right preparation. As long as you keep the original concept in mind you will improve towards that goal of self expression.
Think of the many different ways you can apply your practiced ideas – gigs, jam sessions and one on one lesson. Discussions are also extremely important and a valid way of honing your ideas. With time and dedication your new concepts will become commonplace and you’ll move on to even greater things – everything once consolidated becomes ‘foundation’.
This type of conceptual, methodical practice will lead to a more individual voice on your instrument – listeners will hear the technique, the hours of practice and devotion you’ve applied to sculpting your sound – but more importantly they will hear your ‘voice’ as it emerges.
Final tips: Be focused in your practice, be patient with yourself in waiting for what you practice to manifest on the gig. And have fun!