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Why Your Improvisation Never Works Out the Way You Plan

You’ve been there at some point. We all have. Whether you plan something really far in advance (maybe in your younger/development stages) or on the bandstand in the heat of the moment; we’ve all been there.

So why does your improvisation never (or at least many times) work out the way you plan? Because the nature of improvisation is creation in the moment. Music is fickle. If you try to force something out it does not come out the way you wanted it. I like one of the definitions of improvisation found on Wikipedia that doesn’t get talked about much in musical circles: “adapting a device for some use other than that which it was designed for.” Think about that in a musical context. That idea you worked on in the woodshed…adapt it for something else you weren’t planning. For many musicians that is a scary thought. We like to plan and prepare because we don’t like making mistakes or the fear of failure. But, I believe some of the greatest improvisers do this. At some point they let go and adapt.

How does this look for us? Well, I suggest you still plan and prepare.

“Wait, didn’t you just say that never works?”

Yes, but in the application. That’s where it matters most. You still need to make time to plan what you need to work on (maybe you still struggle with chromatic targeting, the blues, or minor lines) and prepare by practicing what you are not good at yet. Then take those plans and be prepared to adapt them. Have command over your ideas so you can place them anywhere. Do this and you are well on the path of becoming a great improviser!

(If you need some help with those plans be sure to browse around my site or check out my books HERE)

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog/post. If you’d like to learn more; check out the online school.

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Hark the Herald

Hark the Herald

 

I’m excited to share that my new single Hark the Herald is available!

For those familiar with my work with the JKQ, this is going to be slightly different. I wanted to do something creative with other musicians I often perform with in the Denver area. Imagine your favorite Christmas carol of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and mixing it with a little of my flavor, a little Snarky Puppy, and a little gospel. I know you’re going to enjoy it!

Jason Klobnak-trumpet/flugelhorn

Jason “J-Rob” Roberson-keys/drums

Nathaniel Kearney Jr.-bass

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pacing exercises

Pacing Exercises

Pacing Exercises

It has probably happened to you once or twice unless you are just starting out on your improvisation journey. That moment on the bandstand or in rehearsal and you know that you are over playing. I think it happens to a lot of people (if not all) at some point or another. This week I am going to give a few tips and exercises that are  short, simple and you can use right away to help your pacing. I would suggest practicing these first before attempting to use on a gig unless you are positive you can do them in real time.

  1. Play your initial line and then sing back the same line in your head before proceeding to play the next. This can help balance the playing/resting ratio. You will notice that depending on the line you could be starting your next phrase in a place you are not accustomed to which can create some interesting results.
  2. Play your initial line and count down from 5. This is similar to #1 that you are creating the space, but now you have 5 beats to make your next statement. Again, this can create some interesting moments because of where it forces you to start your next phrase.
  3. Play your initial line and count down from 5, then 4, then 3 and so on. This takes exercise #2 and decreases the resting space. After you pass 1 beat between phrases you can start the process over.

Try these out this week during your practice sessions and see what they do for your pacing and phrasing. I hope this has added some value and benefit to your playing in some way!

Do you need a line to practice this on? Here are 365 different ones!

If you need some help on creating your own lines, without having to learn hundreds of scales – you can visit my full method here.

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Fun Challenges

 

For some of you this may not be an issue, but for others it is something you run into often enough to be frustrating. Have you ever taken a step back and looked at your abilities in improvisation and think, “what should I work on next?” I am not talking about the egotistical thought of I’ve made it, but rather one where you have felt you have hit the wall on progress. You know there is more to learn, more to absorb, more to hear, etc. But yet you do not want to keep working on the same things over and over.

While I do not believe this post alone is the answer; I do believe that this is something that can spark some creativity to help get you out of that rut. In 2013 the Jason Klobnak Quintet went on a short Midwest, US tour after our Mountain, Move CD Release. Those that have ever done tours of any length know that when you play the same music over and over (no matter if you feel the music is great or not) it can get stale pretty quick. One of the ways we kept our concerts fun and engaging with not only the audience, but ourselves as well was to create some simple yet fun challenges with each other. For us, one of those challenges was to find creative ways to input The Lick into our solos throughout the night. If you are not sure what The Lick is; I have a Youtube video someone made of it a while back that made the rounds on social media sites. I also made a quick graphic to show you what it looks like in the key of E minor below.

Why E minor? If you go to the Facebook page called Jam of the Week started by trumpeter Farnell Newton he has a weekly challenge where musicians from all over the world play an a capella solo to a blues/standard. One of the weeks was on the standard All the Things You Are by Jerome Kern. In the video posting I made I played The Lick over the 7th & 8th bar of the form in E minor (the chord is Cmaj7) which gives it a Lydian sound.

So what fun challenge can you create for yourself? Maybe find creative ways to play Happy Birthday or some other simple melodic fragments and work them into your improvisations. If you play in a group, see how many times you can play that melodic fragment without the other noticing. Or come join the Jam of the Week group and take part of the weekly challenges. We enjoy playing our instruments and making music. If you are losing some of that enjoyment…make it fun again!

The Lick Video

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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 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

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. If you are one of those that beginning improvisation is where you are at now, I would encourage you to go check out the category (For Beginners) to see some of the other posts in addition to 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.

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