Emilio Solla, a jazz pianist from Argentina who currently resides in Brooklyn, was in Atlanta recently for a concert with the Emory University Big Band. While in town, Emilio joined Gary Motley, Emory's director of jazz studies, to host a jazz improvisation master class at Emory University.
I've attended a dozen or so master classes during the past few years, and while I've enjoyed all of them, most aren't especially educational. The guest artists typically answer audience questions, and they might make a few suggestions to the students about their playing (assuming the students play something), but there typically isn't a lot of actual teaching in these "classes."
On one level, I don't really care if there's any educational merit to master classes. The opportunity to hear master musicians play jazz in an intimate setting is enough of a draw for me. Throw in some interesting stories the golden years of jazz (e.g. Benny Golson's master class) and I'm thrilled just to be there. Obviously, though, the students at these master classes can really benefit from the educational aspect. Ideally, they'd come away from a master class with a new exercise, a new method of playing, or a new approach to music that propels them to a higher level in their own playing.
From an educational standpoint, I'd have to say that Emilio Solla's master class was one of the best master classes I've attended thus far. It was not only rich in content, but he really gave the students a workout that forced them to confront their own limitations. Here are some of the key points from Emlio Solla's master class:
THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL FOR JAZZ IMPROVISATION
Early on, Emilio Solla asked the students to tell him the single most important skill they need in order to improvise. The students responded with predictable answers like "know your scales" and "learn the chord progressions." But none of these responses were what Emilio was looking for. In fairness to the students, this is a tricky question with a variety of answers. In fact, I was at a master class no too long ago where the guest artist asked a similar question and "know your scales" was the "correct" response.
When the students failed to provide Emilio's intended answer, Emilio told them that the most important skill for jazz improvisation is the ability to hear. Specifically, you need to be able to hear and identify what those around you are playing (if you're improvising with a group), and you need to be able to hear what you're going to play before you play it. In other words, you need strong aural skills. While the importance of strong aural skills is regularly discussed on this website, this was the first master class that I've attended where the message was really driven home. Ideally, every master class would have a discussion about ear training.
HEAR FIRST, THEN PLAY
Emilio Solla continued his discussion about the importance of aural skills by saying you need to hear first, then play. In other words, anything that you play should first be heard in your head so you know what it will sound like before you play it. Emilio went on to describe how most educational programs produce students who have this order reversed. They play first and then they hear. When I was a music student in college, I was one of these students myself. I was just rambling through pre-learned licks and so-called "safe" notes. I didn't even know what those notes would sound like until they came out of my horn. To truly make music, however, I needed to be able to hear the ideas in my head and I needed the ability to play those ideas by ear on my instrument. Again, strong aural skills are the key.
SINGING CHORD CHANGES
After the discussion about hearing, Emilio Solla put the students through their paces by having them sing through the chord changes to "What Is This Thing Called Love," a tune which the students had already been working on. They began by singing the root note to each chord change. It was pretty obvious that the students hadn't tried this before because they had a hard time moving from one pitch to another. As if singing the roots wasn't hard enough on the students, Emilio next asked them take turns singing the chord tones (1,3,5,7) for each chord.
Singing through the chords like this has (at least) two important benefits. First, it's great ear training practice. By training yourself to hear and sing the sounds of each interval and chord, you're internalizing the pitches and the sounds of jazz. This familiarity will improve your ability to hear and play the ideas in your head. Incidentally, my ear training tool has a "Sing: No Play" mode which allows you to sight sing all of the exercises.
The second important benefit of singing through chord changes is the familiarity you'll develop with a tune. When learning a new tune, Emilio Solla always starts by singing through each of the chord changes. Next he sings the melody. By the time he's finished, he has a much deeper connection with the tune than if he simply sat down and read through the changes. This deeper connection may very well be the difference between playing a boring solo and creating spectacular music.
After the students sang through the chord changes, Emlio Solla asked them to play solos using just the chord tones (1,3,5,7). Note limiting exercises like this can be very liberating and challenging at the same time. The liberating part comes from the fact that you don't have to worry about selecting from all 12 notes. With only 4 notes to choose from (over each chord change) you can focus more on making music and less about note choice. This can be rather challenging for some people, though, especially if you normally play a lot of pre-learned licks and patterns in your solos. You'll actually have to come up with some new ideas for once!
RESIST THE URGE TO SHOW OFF
Throughout the master class, Emilio Solla stressed the importance of creating music in our solos. He's very critical of players who show up to gigs with an arsenal of pre-learned licks and patterns. While these players might sound impressive to some, they're rarely saying anything worthwhile in their solos. To caution us from becoming one of these jazz robots, Emilio made the interesting suggestion of using restraint over our "easy" chords. For example, if you're really strong in the key of C Major and you see that chord change coming up, don't view it as an opportunity to show off. Most likely, that showoff portion of your solo won't fit in with the rest of your solo and you'll end up with an incoherent mess. Instead, make sure that whatever you play augments the rest of your solo, elevating the overall musicality. And remember, sometimes the best thing to play is nothing at all.
At the end of the master class, Emilio Solla and Atlanta jazz pianist, Gary Motley, treated us to a wonderful mini-concert. Here's a video clip of them performing "Stella By Starlight." Enjoy!