Harmonic Targeting

My previous blog posts about targeting concepts (aiming at a goal note with purpose) have dealt with the various ways we can get to the targeted note. We’ve also discussed what makes a good target. But, in today’s post I wanted to touch on something that I think might help a number of players and that is the concept of harmonic targeting.

The idea is similar in that we’re aiming at a goal note with purpose, but it is more about a specific goal note that makes the difference in harmonic targeting. In the harmonic progression, we want to find the note (or notes) that shifts or alters the harmonic landscape of the progression into a different key area (whether that’s a temporary modulation or an actual key change).

Let’s take a look at some examples:

One of the earliest concepts of harmonic targeting I learned as a young student was making sure I was hitting the major third of the chord change in the 8th bar of a blues

.

There was a definite departure from the Bb key area by having the B natural stick out at you. So it became a goal to make sure that every time that 8th bar came around that I aimed for that B. What do you play to get to that B? Check out other posts on my blog for tips or get my book, Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose

What can you harmonically target? The answer is just about anything that highlights that you’ve departed from the key area you were just in. That can happen quickly or just occasionally. It’s up to you, but I like making sure that the drastic changes are caught. Let’s look at another example in the B section of There Will Never Be Another You

This progression (like hundreds of others) have a couple harmonic targeting spots that you could aim for. The Db7(#11) could be a highlight for instance. However, the F7 is what sticks out like a sore thumb. That A-natural lasts for 2 measures making it an excellent choice for a targeted note. As an added note, I like making that F7 into an F7(#11) for added color. 

I hope you find this tip useful for yourself or your student’s playing in some way. It’s a simple concept, but one that helps you play through harmonic progressions with more confidence.

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Not Your Ordinary Drones

jazz drones

Not Your Ordinary Drones

I want to talk about drones, but not your ordinary ones. Other sites and musicians have talked about the benefits of warming up with drones, exploring shapes and intervals. All of this is great and something I personally use now and then too. If you haven’t explored this area before I would suggest you at least try it. It’s an amazing way to open up your ears and explore music’s various layers.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m still not sure what you mean by drones. Aren’t those the remote control things you fly around to annoy your neighbors?” Well, yes. But, not this topic. Here’s a great YouTube example of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen talking about how she uses a drone:

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“A musical drone is a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece.” – Wikipedia

Instead of rehashing what others have already talked about, I want explore some other ways we can use a drone through the lens of targeting. Targeting is aiming at a goal (note) with purpose. It’s one of the central points of how I improvise and teach improvisation. While it’s great to explore a scale, intervals, or free-improvisation with a fixed pitch (drone)-I have found that beginners and intermediate musicians often have a hard time hearing the note they are aiming for.

What to Use

There are a number of great tools that create a drone. Ingrid Jensen mentioned her device in the video above. You can use just about anything that will create a sustained pitch. I have used a piano with the sustain pedal, computer software (garageband, Logic Pro, etc), YouTube (which has a WIDE range of options that you could spend hours searching), or one of my favorites: iReal Pro

Beginners and intermediate improvisors have to be intentional with what they practice. It’s too easy to get distracted and let your imagination go on a tangent. That’s ok when it’s time to explore and foster creativity. But, students need to hear where their line is going. What does it sound like when you are targeting the 3rd of major chord? How does that sound different when you’re targeting the 3rd of dominant chord? What about minor? If a student can learn to hear what targeting sounds like it opens up the creative mind to be able to explore it in real-time. This is why I like using iReal Pro because you get to choose not only the harmonic situation (major, minor, diminished, etc), but you get to do it while keeping time and locking in with a rhythm section that won’t slow down or speed up.

Here’s how I use iReal Pro as a drone:

  • create a new song using the blank template
  • pick a chord type that you need to work on (major 7th, dominant, minor 9th, etc)
  • type that chord in the first measure and set up whatever repeat function you desire
  • set the repeats 30x
  • pick a tempo and feel (swing, bossa, etc)
  • work on first targeting the root in as many ways as you can imagine with various tools with GOOD rhythm (for more info on those tools you can check out Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose).
  • Once you’ve felt like you’ve fully explored the root move on to the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and other extensions (9th, 11th, 13th)
  • Now move on to the same chord type, but in a different key.
  • Apply what you just did to a song or harmonic progression you’re working on

All of the above is good practice for any musician. It will get you to focus on the sound of targeting so you can hear where you’re going. This will also give a student plenty of practice!

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Improv for Beginners part 3

 

I hope this series on Improv for Beginners has been helpful to you and your students. The 3 parts in this series is obviously not the only steps necessary in introducing and teaching improvisation to a beginner. There are a number of good sources and educators that specialize in beginners. If you or your students would like additional lessons and/or coaching, please feel free to contact me. I am also available to do clinics and masterclasses from Middle School-College/University level.

The 3rd part of Improv for Beginners is where I would introduce some basic theory and guide tones (as well as the different tools you can use to target those guide tones). In the three elements of music (Rhythm, Melody and Harmony) this would be the last piece I would introduce to students. It is my belief that a beginner should start on Rhythm and Melody before talking about Harmony. One of the very first tips ever made on this site (almost 3 years ago) was on this very topic. While some of it was copied over to save time, there are a few visual updates to this one to help with beginners.

If you’ve ever heard someone improvise and it sounds like they’re wandering….guess what? They probably are. One of the reasons improvisers wander is because they’re not aiming at specific targets. What are good targets, you ask? Guide Tones, of course! But, before you can talk about guide tones you need to explain to beginners what a chord is and how they are made. Below are two graphics I use from my book Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose.

The above picture represents a key scale (in this case C) moving up from the root note. Each scale step is assigned a number representing a scale degree. Don’t worry about the F# as the #11th scale degree with beginners for now. That comes up later in theory, but it is important for them to see the scale degrees and noting that the root, 3rd and 5th (which are the foundations of a chord) do not get re-numbered. Which brings us to the second graphic of separating the root, 3rd, 5th (and 7th) scale degrees to make the chord. These notes tell you the quality (major, minor, diminished, augmented, etc) of the chord.

This post is not an entire theory on harmony so if you need help with talking about the different chord types there are plenty of great materials and websites that go into that subject.

You may be wondering from what I initially wrote about guide tones and what they are… traditionally speaking, a guide tone is either the 3rd or the 7th of the chord of the moment. However, if you’ve ever listened to great improvisers…they never limit themselves to just the 3rd or the 7th (but they’re a GREAT place to target if you’re starting out). They often expand their guide tones or targets out to other chord tones or upper structures (i.e. root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, etc).

Take a song you are working on and figure out all of the 3rd and 7ths (guide tones or targets) for each chord. When you are practicing your improvisation with that song, target or aim with purpose for those guide tones. Just targeting the 3rd and the 7th is not going to make you an instant improvising sensation. But, they will help keep you on track of your improvisation and limit your wandering. One way to think about this is like planning a road trip on a map. You’re leaving point A (the beginning of your improvisation) and need to get to point Z (then end of your improvisation). You need destination points along the way to gas up or to eat. Those destination points are targets on your map. Those targets in your improvisation are your guide tones!

For more information on what tools you can use to get to your targets, check out Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose.

These three subject areas (and the order I mentioned them) are a great way to start a beginner out on their improvisation journey. If you or your students need additional help, please feel free to contact me and check out my books. I hope these have added value and benefit to you and your students!

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog/post. As a thank you I wanted to give you a FREE MP3 from the JKQ. Simply click the button below and fill out the short form and you’ll have it in just a few short moments!

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Improv for Beginners part 2

 

Welcome to part 2 of starting beginner’s on their improvisation journey. Last week we started off with what I believe is a great foundation to getting a beginner going. There are a number of different opinions, theories and options. However, this is how I like to introduce those just starting. I have seen it work and believe it builds a strong foundation for their playing. I would encourage you go back to PART 1 and read through that if you are just joining us.

The next step is introducing MELODY. Where do we get melodies from? First, we get them from the music we play. What songs are the students learning? If they are really young students are they learning those early nursery rhyme type songs? All of these are melodies. Reading music is important, but have the students learn to play the melody without looking at the music. Internalize it. Once we learn the melody we can use it later. The melody can be embellished with a variety of tools, but they mean nothing without the foundation of the melody. As an exercise, have a student take Happy Birthday and improvise on it. If they have been working on rhythm and listening, you would be surprised at what they can probably already create with it.

Still not sure if you think it is a good exercise? Check out this video made by Wynton Marsalis in France a few years back:

Where else can we get melodies from? One of the scale types used in virtually every culture is the pentatonic scale. There is something melodic about that particular scale that has been creating melodies around the world for generations. If a student still needs to work on their major scales they need to be learning those in addition to the major pentatonic scale (minor scales are important too, but get the major one’s down first). While I do not believe running up and down scales themselves is how you should learn to improvise, they are important to know because they give us a color palette to choose from when improvising and the pentatonic scale is a melodic gold mine.

Combining the two elements of the melody of the song the student is learning with the pentatonic scale in the home key is a great place to get them thinking creatively. The pentatonic scale in the home key can be used to target key notes (landing areas) in the melody. For more information about how you or your student can use a pentatonic scale to creatively target notes you can check out my book Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose. 

Remember these are just beginning students. Give them achievable goals to start with before adding more complex ideas. I find a higher success rate with beginners that are given a few details to work with and then adding more pieces when ready rather than dumping everything at once. In my teaching studio, rhythm (time, feel, etc) and listening are the foundation. Melody is the next layer. Check back next week for the next layer 🙂

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog/post. As a thank you I wanted to give you a FREE MP3 from the JKQ. Simply click the button below and fill out the short form and you’ll have it in just a few short moments!

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Improv for Beginners

 

A lot of the tips that get posted on this site vary from intermediate to advanced concepts found in improvisation. While there are a few focused on beginners, I thought it would be good to post a few more to help those that are just starting out. On the right-hand side of this site there is a pull-down menu that list categories of topics. If you are one of those that beginning improvisation is where you are at now I would encourage you to go check out that category (For Beginners) to see some of the other posts in addition of the one below.

One of the big concerns I have heard from beginning improv students (and teachers of those students) is where do I begin? There is so much information out there it can be hard to find a good starting point. Do we start with scales? Theory? Transcribing? Let me give you my suggestion for where a beginner should start:

  1. Rhythm/Time
  2. Listening

Everything else you can work on, in my opinion, supplements those first two items. Here’s why: To have the proper sound, feel and phrasing you must have good rhythm/time. To have good rhythm/time you have to understand what is considered good by listening. #2 is something everyone should be doing already. Listen to your favorite players (old and new) and get their sound, phrasing, rhythm/time, articulation, use of space and ideas in your ear. Close your eyes and picture yourself there with them. How much should you listen? A lot. As a beginner what you listen to can help shape who you are as a musician and WILL eventually come out. Who you become as a musician is a combination of all the influences you have stored in your head.

#1 is something that can develop over time by listening AND playing rhythmic exercises. The exercise below is one that I like to use with beginners. This is also mentioned in my book Breaking the Monotony. Unless the beginner already has a pretty good sense of rhythm/time, they need to be exposed to good Jazz rhythms. This exercise takes a rhythmic example that the student plays while using any combination of the three notes listed.

Rhythm to be used:

Note choices:

Example of what this would look like over a simple Bb blues:

You can get into the theory later, but I find it is best when talking about notes to limit a beginner to 3 or 4 to start. Let them find out the different variations of what you can do with those notes on their own. Eventually they will become bored with those and will naturally want to expand their palette (although I have heard plenty of Jazz Giants do more with 3 or 4 notes then some do with all 12).

In my opinion, this is the best way to start beginners. This gets them started playing something and using their ears and rhythm to come up with ideas. As I mentioned at the top of this post, be sure to check out some of the other posts in the For Beginners category. In addition to those posts are my books you can find in my Digital Store as well as the Skype lessons/coaching I offer for all levels of players.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog/post. As a thank you I wanted to give you a FREE MP3 from the JKQ. Simply click the button below and fill out the short form and you’ll have it in just a few short moments!

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Say That Again

STAHave you ever had a line in your improvisation that came up in the moment that you liked so much that you wanted to Say That Again? But, the progression keeps moving so you had to transpose the line. For some improvisers this scenario can be nerve-racking because you might only know that line in one or two keys. In today’s post I want to share an exercise I use regularly (and one that you should never stop doing) to help not only with ear training, but with confidence in playing in all keys. This exercise in the academic world has a number of different terms associated with it: sequencing, transposing, modulating, etc. However, when I work with younger students I like to not only teach the academic musical terms, but call them something they might find humorous so they remember it. In this case, I like to call this exercise: Say That Again!

It is simple. When you are practicing find a motif, riff or lick (perhaps the Lick of the Day here on this site) that you like. For this example we will use the lick below:

STAmotif

After playing the lick (motif, riff, etc) a few times as written…stop looking at it. Memorize it and play it without reading the notes. Once you have the lick down you are going to Say That Again, but by playing it a half-step up or down (see below):

STA.5down STA.5up

You can continue that pattern all the way up (or down) the chromatic scale. Not only have you played the lick in all keys, but you now can play the lick in half-step motions which can be used for taking a line outside. Another very popular way of doing this exercise is by going up in fourths which is often called playing around the cycle of fourths (see below):

STAup4

Practicing your lick this way gets you to start thinking about moving around one of the most common root progression movements (ex. iim7 – V7- Imaj7 all have root movements of a fourth). The next couple of examples move the lick around major 2nds (up or down the whole-tone scale) and minor 3rds (up or down the Diminished 7th chord):

Major 2nds

STAupM2

STAdownWT

Minor 3rds

STAupm3

STAupDIM

I hope this week’s tip has added some value or benefit to you or your student’s playing in some way. For a challenge this week take one of the licks from the Lick of Day found here on this site and take it through the Say It Again exercise. Over time you will be able to navigate your favorite lines through different harmonic progressions with ease!

Finally, be sure to pick up your copy of Mountain, Move today. Part of the proceeds of each album sale (physical or digital) help the Pearl Alliance and their fight against human trafficking. You can get one at our Digital Store along with both of my books: Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose and Breaking the Monotony.

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Practice Your Weaknesses

I had a student recently ask me, “Now that I am on summer break, what should I practice to get better for next school year?” To answer that we should look at what practicing is and what it should not be. By definition, practicing is performing an activity or exercise/skill repeatedly/regularly in order to improve or to maintain one’s proficiency. That means we need to be working on a skill set regularly to improve that skill. Practicing should not be aimless. It should have a purpose and goal. That goal is to improve.

You have to look at your goals and figure out what needs maintenance and what needs to improve. I would suggest you practice your weaknesses. In terms of jazz improvisation-what are your weaknesses? Do you need to improve your ear training? If so, work on it. Do you need to improv your facility in the key of B? If so, work on it.

You have to take an honest assessment of what you need to improve in your playing. You become a more complete player when you consistently work on the parts of your playing that are not as strong as others. Write those goals down and put a realistic time limit on when you want to achieve them. Be competitive with yourself and you will find that you can rise to the occasion.

I hope for those of you that have a summer break/holiday that you take this time to practice your weaknesses and continually grow as a musician!

Thank you for checking out my blog! If you’d like to join my mailing list I would love to send you a FREE MP3 from my band. Simply click on the image below and in a few short steps I’ll send it over!

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Fun with Arpeggios part 1

For some instruments, arpeggios are very easy to execute because you can keep the same finger pattern or hand position and move it up and/or down the instrument. As a trumpet player, they can be a little more difficult to perform. I have loved playing the major 7th arpeggio in my improvisations because of the half step motion between the major 7th and the root. And, like many arpeggios, it can be played over more than just one harmonic context.

Since we have a number of people who visit this site from all over the world as well as different ability levels-we are going to take a quick look at what an arpeggio is and then start executing some basic arpeggiated ideas.

An arpeggio is a musical device where notes in a chord are played in a sequence. Below is a Cmaj7 chord and then a Cmaj7 arpeggio in quarter notes:

I like descending arpeggios. I like their sound more so than ascending (not that I do not like ascending or do not use them). In part 1 we are going to look at a simple descending arpeggio pattern. The first below takes the root of the chord and arpeggiates down.

For my ears, I love the half-step movement between the root and the major 7th. However, it still has an arpeggio type sound to it when it starts on the root. So, let’s take the same arpeggio and start on the 3rd:

Maybe it is just me, but this sounds more like a line that I can use in an improvisation. If you like this sound, try playing through it in all keys and getting the sound in your ears and the technique under your fingers. I have listed the example above in all keys below:

In the next couple of parts we will look at some other arpeggios as well as how we can apply them to our improvisations. However, before we do that, you should probably start playing through your arpeggios this week!

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