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.
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.
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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Have 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:
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):
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):
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):
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.
The Jazz community recently lost another great musician in pianist Mulgrew Miller. I have been a fan of his playing for years-especially his time with Woody Shaw. While thinking about his playing and some of his characteristics (and there are many) I loved the way he played sequences. In honoring Mr. Miller I thought this week’s post should be on using sequences in your improvisation.
What are sequences? There are two types of sequences you will find in jazz: melodic and rhythmic.
Both types of sequences are not hard and fast rules. A melodic sequence can be exact interval repeats (digital patterns) or different notes entirely. The general outline or shape of the line is what is repeated. It can have a different rhythmic pattern or the exact rhythm pattern repeated (but with the notes changing).
We are going to look at an example and how we can sequence a pattern. Below is our basic pattern that we are going to use throughout this post.
The next example takes our pattern above and uses a sequence over the first part of a 4-bar progression. This example takes the exact pattern and modulates it to the next chord. In this example we keep the same rhythm as the original:
You do not have to keep the exact rhythm to create a sequence. The next example takes the idea from above and rhythmically anticipates the F# going to the D7:
Another way you can continue the sequence is by keeping the rhythm and shape of the original pattern, but changing the notes so they fit the next chord:
That same idea could be repeated over the entire progression, but you may want to add other elements to the idea to keep it from going stale. A few ways to do that is to compress the rhythm down or expand the rhythm out:
In the final example below we take some of the different elements of sequencing above and put them into the 4-bar progression (I-VI7-ii7-V7):
I hope this post has added value to you and your playing in some way and that you can start adding sequencing to your improvisational tools. For more information on how you can use digital patterns for sequencing, check out my book Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose. For more information on how you can rhythmically energize your improvisation check out Breaking the Monotony at my Digital Store
I have two daughters that love it when I read them books and tell stories before bed time. They especially love my improvised stories where they give me a subject or characters and tell me, “tell us a story on that, daddy!” It stretches my creativity a bit, but it is a lot of fun for them as well as myself. I have been thinking of the parallels of improvising on the bandstand in jazz with being a great storyteller.
There are a number of things we can learn from storytelling. One of the obvious parallels are that we communicate with a rhythm section and audience when we improvise (or at least we should strive to be doing that). But, I wanted to take a look at what characteristics a good storyteller has and how as improvisers we can learn from them. It is difficult to do this if you have not already learned your scales, can play your instrument with a certain level of proficiency and have an understanding of harmony, etc. I would suggest you check out some of the many other posts/tips on this site that will help that stage of your development and then come back to this.
I will admit I am not the greatest storyteller (although my daughters would argue otherwise), so I found an online source of characteristics from iLoveLiteracy.com that I thought were great. They are listed below:
While reading that list I took inventory of how I approach improvising on the bandstand and took note of things that I did similarly and those that I know I can improve. Below are a few parallels that I see with jazz improvisation:
Try this out at some point in the coming days/weeks. As an improviser are you an effective storyteller? If not, work on becoming one by practicing some of the parallels above. People remember great storytellers…
Maybe you have been there…maybe not. It is frustrating. Especially when you are in the moment and things have been going well up until that point. For whatever reason (and it could be a number of them) you have painted yourself into a corner with your improvisation. You realize the line that you are playing will not work. It could be the line wont fit the changes or it could be that you have started to wander.
At this point in time you have a critical choice to make as an improviser. There are two roads you can choose, but you have to make the decision quick because you are in the moment. Here are your options:
I am not a psychologist, but there is something about our human wiring that wants to feel justified about a line we are playing. If it is not working out, we tend to feel like we need to work it out to protect our ego. If you had a chance to hear yourself in this process it does not sound good. However, when we drop our ego and let the line go you position yourself for a greater chance of success.
I hope you have enjoyed this tip and that it has added some value and benefit to your playing in some way! The JKQ is slowly making our way to getting our album Mountain, Move completed. We could still use your help, though. Stop by our Digital Store today and make a donation, purchase a book, schedule a clinic or Skype lesson. Every dollar gets us closer to our album release!
In this week’s post I wanted to show you how you can enhance your jazz improv practice routine by using the Lick of the Day here on this site. I believe you should practice the tools necessary to be successful in improvisation on a regular basis (if not every day). One of those tools is adding vocabulary.
If you don’t have an improv practice routine I’d invite you to try this out for a few weeks. You will have a noticeable improvement in just a few weeks. On the right hand side of the homepage there is a different lick/riff/motif posted every day. The instructions below the Lick of the Day talk about the different things you can do to add that lick into your vocabulary. I know for some of you that you like to have things laid out so here is a sample practice routine you can use with the Lick of the Day:
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s tip and that it has added value and benefit to your playing in some way. As most of you know-the Jason Klobnak Quintet was in the studio on March 14-15th and we finished the tracking session for our album Mountain, Move. We still need to finish mixing/mastering and then print the album. I need your help in getting us there. Every book sale, Skype Lesson, clinic and donation get us closer. Go to our Digital Store today to help us finish Mountain, Move!
I was listening to a recording this past week of a lesson I had years ago with jazz trumpeter, Ron Miles. I’ve always admired Ron’s melodic style and how the phrasing of his lines floated over the top of the chord changes in a unique way. During my lesson I asked him about what he was doing/thinking about to accomplish this style of phrasing. He said that you can view playing changes a number of different ways. We can look at things from a micro point of view (chord change to chord change) to a very macro point of view which is what we’re going to talk about in this week’s tip.
Ron and I talked about a lot of different subjects in that lesson, but I wanted to talk about thinking in Big Phrases. To be clear, playing from chord change to chord change or playing in big phrases is not a one or the other issue. It’s important to be able to both so you can effectively express yourself in your improvisation. How can we think in big phrases? Whether you have chord changes flying by every downbeat or you have one change for every couple of bars…there is one more form of organizing those changes in a macro point of view. That is the form. Songs have form (ABA, AABA, ABC, etc) that organize different sets of chord changes to complete the harmonic skeleton of that song.
One way to think/play in big phrases is to think of each section of a form as one phrase. For instance, if the “A” section is 8 bars…those 8 bars become one phrase. That doesn’t mean you have to play one continuous line for those 8 bars, but it does get you to think beyond improvising from measure to measure.
An exercise Ron had me do during our lesson was to take a form, in this case AABA, and make each “A” section the exact same. Whatever I played on the first “A” had to be repeated on the second “A.” The “B” section was its own phrase, but the third “A” section had to be an exact replica of the first. This exercise causes you to not overplay (it’s much harder to remember 8 bars of nothing but eighth-notes), it increaes mental awareness and gets you to think about making phrases on the macro level (not chord change to chord change).
Let’s take a look at, in my opinion, one of the most recognizable AABA forms in jazz: Rhythm Changes.
We’re going to take this relatively simple “A” section phrase below and make sure it’s the same thing over each “A” section.
Below is what this exercise might look like if it were all put together into one chorus of rhythm changes:
I hope you find this exercise not only challenging, but fun and valuable to your playing. For more information on the importance of space in your improvisations and thinking on the macro level I would invite you to check out my book, Breaking the Monotony, which you can find at my Digital Store. All proceeds go towards the JKQ’s recording Mountain, Move.