An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

November 14, 2009 Jazz Improvisation 6 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2009

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2009. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016

NOVEMBER 14, 2009

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #15, Cherokee

Eleven months ago, I posted the first recording of me improvising over Cherokee (iwasdoingallright - audio clip). Since that time, I've continued to practice Cherokee once or twice a week, just to keep it in my ears and under my fingers. Regardless of how much I practice, though, it's still a very challenging tune for me at this tempo. I always feel like a runaway train speeding downhill when I attempt these Cherokee solos. It only takes a few tiny pebbles, or in this case a few bad notes, and I jump off the track. This year, at least, it was much harder for me to pick which audio clip to put online since I had about 5 choruses that were probably good enough. That's not to say this clip is actually good (for instance, I don't like the first 8 bars); it's just the most good enough...

By the way, this is my first recording with my new GR 65M mouthpiece. Can you hear any difference? It's probably hard to tell one way or another since the mix between trumpet and backing track varies so much with each of my clips.

AUGUST 18, 2009

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #34, Just Friends

When I decided to record "Just Friends" tonight, I thought this would by my second recording with this track. As it turns out, it's actually my third (Here's the first -on flugelhorn- iwasdoingallright - audio clip and here's the second iwasdoingallright - audio clip). My second recording might sound better to most of you, but I prefer this new clip. Unlike the second clip and most of my other recordings, this one was pretty much effortless. No nerves, no tension, no chop problems. Now that's a refreshing change of pace!

It's hard to believe this is only my third recording this year. I guess I could count the bassline clips, but still... I need to get back in the habit of recording myself more often.

MARCH 21, 2009

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #11, Watermelon Man - Take 1

Like most of my jazz improvisation recording sessions, I improvised over a few choruses of this track and selected what I thought was my best chorus to share on this site. I liked this recording well enough, but after listening to it a couple of times I felt inspired to try some new ideas. So, about 15 minutes after the above clip was recorded, I picked up my horn and recorded the following:

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #11, Watermelon Man - Take 2

The "Take 2" clip actually features two choruses of improvisation, since I couldn't decide which was better. As I think you'll agree, there's more energy in the "Take 2" choruses, both in rhythm and phrasing. This is a direct reaction to my playing in "Take 1" which I thought could have used a little more "oomph"...

You might prefer "Take 1" over "Take 2". Regardless, I think this is a good example of how listening to jazz, even to recordings of our own playing, can help spark new ideas and directions that we can use in future solos.

July 6, 2009 Jazz Improvisation 8 Comments

Bass lines with Mace Hibbard

mace hibbardA couple of months ago, I took a lesson with jazz saxophonist and educator, Mace Hibbard. Knowing that I wanted to experience the same type of lesson that he'd give to his students at Georgia State University, Mace Hibbard began the lesson by asking me to play a bass line on my trumpet. We settled on a concert Bb blues for the chord progression and set a metronome to sound on beats 2 and 4. It would have been nice if I actually had some experience playing bass lines, but I figured I could fake my way through this by outlining the chords and hoping for the best. That's when I panicked. Who am I kidding, I can't fake my way through this!

Before I continue, here's some background info on Mace Hibbard. In addition to being one of the best saxophonists in Atlanta, Mace Hibbard is one of my favorite musicians to hang out with and a really good sport. And by good sport, I don't mean that he's good at sports. Because I've heard that he isn't. Rather, he's a good sport by taking my jokes and mildly-abusive sarcasm in stride (see, I just zinged him about sports!). Mace Hibbard is also one of my wife's favorite Atlanta jazz musicians, which might worry me if Mace wasn't happily married and socially inept (got him again!). Perhaps now you can see why when Mace asked me to play a bass line, it kind of felt like he was exacting his revenge for all of the fun I've had at his expense.

Back to the lesson... My nerves got the best of me and when I lifted my trumpet to play, my mind instantly went blank. Frankly, I think my brain checked out so I couldn't blame it for what was about to happen. After stumbling through two pathetic measures, Mace told me to stop playing. I needed to start from the beginning and take this one step at a time...


The lesson continued with Mace asking me to play quarter notes over jazz blues changes, playing just the root notes. Learning the sound of the root notes in the context of the overall progression will provide a foundation for each of the following exercises. You might consider it a starting point for learning any new chord progression.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Play root notes for each chord.

There are a variety of jazz blues progressions, but here's the one we used:

I7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 | IV7 | IV7 | I7 | VI7 | II-7 | V7 | I7 | V7

Here's the progression in the key of C, which is the trumpet's key for the audio clips.

C7 | F7 | C7 | C7 | F7 | F7 | C7 | A7 | D-7 | G7 | C7 | G7

You'll hear this progression in each of the audio clips that follow. It's also worth noting that the audio clips were recorded recently. While I was able to play some of the easier exercises (Step 1) during my lesson, Steps 3 and 4 are the result of practicing these bass line exercises several minutes each day for a few weeks. I mention this so you'll understand that this isn't something you're likely to master in a single day. Like anything worth learning, it takes practice.


After a few botched attempts at the quarter note root exercise, I finally managed to play it well enough to move on to outlining chords. We started by adding the 3rd of each chord and then the 7th. In the clip below, you'll hear me outline the full chord as I play the root at the start of each chord change, followed by the 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Of these additional notes, the 3rd and 7th are the most important since they define whether the chord is major, minor, dominant, etc.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Outline the changes.

Outlining the chords like this is especially valuable for us one-note-at-a-time instrumentalists. Since we can't play chords on our instruments, this is an ideal way for us to hear the sound of each chord change so we can internalize and learn what the entire progression sounds like. The key here is that we're learning the sound of each chord and not simply learning the written chord symbols. If you learn the symbols without learning the sound, then your solos will never truly blend in musically with the changes.


Once we can outline all the chords, we can move onto something that actually sounds like a bass line. At this stage we'll add a few swing rhythms and some connecting notes outside of the root, 3rd, 5th, 7th. Even though this is a bass line exercise, I'd suggest that you needn't worry too much about actually sounding like a bass player. Instead, focus on establishing a jazz feel as you smoothly move from one chord to another. This will help you to hear the common and leading tones in each chord and it will prime you for the next exercise... playing solos!

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Here's my rough take on a bass line.


Having reached the point where we can confidently play bass lines, we're now ready for jazz improvisation. Thanks to the previous exercises you should have internalized the chord changes to the point where you can hear them in your head while you play a solo. You can play inside or outside the changes and you'll always know where you are within the chord progressions. You can also play elements of the bass line exercise in your solos to help trigger new ideas.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Here's the solo. Not great, but a huge improvement over my lesson.

Even though I'm no longer playing the bass line in this clip, you can (hopefully) still hear the chord progression in my solo. Thanks to the bass line exercises, the changes have become a part of the music.

I encourage you to add these bass line exercises to your practice routine, especially when learning new tunes. I'd also suggest that you try to sing these exercises in addition to playing them on your instrument. Singing will really ensure that you've internalized the sounds. And don't forget to use a metronome since these are all played without accompaniment. Who knows, with enough practice, someday you might sound as good as the saxophonist in this video:

Thanks, Mace!

December 12, 2008 Jazz Improvisation 6 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2008

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2008. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016

DECEMBER 15, 2008

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #15, Cherokee

As I'm sure most of you know, "Cherokee" is one of the more demanding standards and it's become sort of a rite of passage amongst jazz musicians. I've tried to play "Cherokee" a few times over the years, but I always break down during the bridge (don't we all?). I never really focused on the tune until a month or so ago, after chatting with Atlanta jazz trumpeter, Joe Gransden. We were talking about the video I shot where he and Sam Skelton are playing "Cherokee". I told Joe how intimidating it is for me to hear him play Cherokee so well and he told me that he practices the tune every day. Often he'll play nothing but Cherokee for an entire hour! I found it comforting to learn that even a great player like Joe has to work hard for a tune like "Cherokee". I was also inspired to see how good I could get if I practice "Cherokee" every day. So, for the past month I've tried to practice Cherokee every day for at least five or ten minutes. I'd put in more time in if I had it.

Above, you'll hear my first recording of the tune. There are some definite problems, like the clam during the bridge and the hurried/uneven tempo near the end, but it's a major improvement from where I was a month ago. I encourage you to pick a tune and work on it for a month. I think you'll be happy with the results.

SEPTEMBER 28, 2008

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #25, Have You Met Miss Jones

You may recall that I recently switched to using a Mac as my primary computer. Even though I could still use my old PC to record with, I really want to have a Mac solution that sounds as good (or as bad, depending upon what you think of my other recordings). For this attempt, I used GarageBand to do the recording. Unfortunately, the levels came out awfully low, especially after I exported to mp3. I ended up amplifying the mp3 in Audacity, but that resulted in a lot of clipping on the trumpet track. I also tried adding some reverb to my sound in GarageBand, thanks to a suggestion from a reader named Raphael. Whatever reverb I added is just about impossible to hear in the final clip, though, perhaps due to the Audacity amplification. The next time I record my playing, I'll probably try using Audacity to do the whole thing. In any case, I've got quite a bit of tinkering in my future.

JUNE 23, 2008

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #25, My Foolish Heart

Unless I overlooked a recording, it's been about four years since the last time I posted a ballad recording (iwasdoingallright - audio clip "My Funny Valentine" from 2004). Hoping to meet my unofficial ballad quota of one every four years, I gave "My Foolish Heart" a try tonight. This was my first time improvising over the tune. I don't think it sounds too bad, especially considering the fact that I didn't look at the changes. And for the sake of consistency, I even threw in one of my trademark cracked notes near the end!

APRIL 19, 2008

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #116, Trane's Ride

I recently purchased the "Miles Of Modes" Aebersold recording. As you might guess from the title, it has a lot of modal exercises and tunes. It also has a pretty energetic rhythm section, at least on some of the tracks. This clip features one of my favorite tracks from the play-a-long, "Trane's Ride" (written by Jamey Aebersold). If you've listed to several of my recordings, you know cracked/missed notes are par for the course. Heck, my recordings would probably be unrecognizable without them! Well, let's just say this recording doesn't disappoint. Near the end of the recording are two notes in a row which I totally miss. They're just tiny squeaks of air...

MARCH 9, 2008

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #104, Drone in E

As I often do when recording, tonight I set my Aebersold tracks to shuffle and tried playing with whatever was randomly selected. I was really in the mood to play something fast and hard-hitting, so when this track from the Kenny Werner - Free Play play-a-long began, I was tempted to hit the "next" button. I decided to give it a try, however, when I saw the title of the track, "Drone in E". Since that's the key of F# on the trumpet, I figured this would be a good chance to challenge myself to play in one of my less familiar keys. This is my first time playing with this Aebersold track, and it's the first time I've shared a clip quite like this, but I thought it came out good enough to share. Just pretend I actually hit those two notes at the end :-)

FEBRUARY 16, 2008

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Clip #1 - Aebersold #56 - "I Mean You" by Thelonious Monk.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Clip #2 - Aebersold #56 - "I Mean You" by Thelonious Monk.

I first recorded with this "I Mean You" play-a-long track back in 2004 (iwasdoingallright - audio clip). I've improvised with the track a few times over the years but I hadn't had the inclination to make any new recordings until last weekend. Above you'll find a clip from last weekend (Clip #2) as well as a clip from this weekend (Clip #1). As you'll hear, Clip #1 is similar in style to most of my other jazz recordings while Clip #2 is a little more adventurous (at least in parts).

When practicing jazz improvisation, I try to approach my solos with a variety of styles. I'll play a few choruses in a straight-ahead hard/bop style, then I might try something really sparse, or maybe I'll play in an angular or avant-garde style. These varied approaches aren't always successful, but they do help open new avenues of creativity that I might otherwise miss by playing everything the same way all the time. Variety... it really is the spice of life!

November 5, 2007 Jazz Improvisation 5 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2007

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2007. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016

NOVEMBER 6, 2007

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #108 - "Isotope" by Joe Henderson

So, what do you think of the cool record groove effect that I added to this track? It really gives a nice vintage quality to the recording, don't you think? Ok, ok, I know it sounds terrible... I wish it was something I had control over, but recently my computer has been adding those popping sounds everytime I try to record. I thought I fixed it last week, but obviously it's still really bad. I hesitated putting this clip online at all, but I figure it's better than nothing.

JULY 7, 2007

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #34 - "Just Friends" by John Klenner

This is my second recording of "Just Friends." My first attempt was in 2004 (iwasdoingallright - audio clip here is the 2004 clip). As you'll hear in the new recording, my solo has a similar lead in and rhythmic pattern as my 2004 recording. I guess I've listened to my original recording a few too many times...

I think this new recording is a good indicator of the progress I've made over the years. My range is definitely stronger in this new clip as is my ability to play by ear. Thanks to ear training, I'm now better able to hear my way around the chord changes and I'm hitting more of the interesting notes. If perhaps I didn't mess up that ascending run near the end, it might have been one of my best solos yet.

MAY 18, 2007

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #34 - "My Secret Love" by Mitchell Parish & Bobby Sherwood

Tonight was my first time playing along to this Aebersold track. As is often the case with the audio clips I share, this was one of my last recording attempts for the night and my chops were really tired. You can hear the fatigue in the thinness of the higher notes. While those high notes sound pretty weak, I'm at least glad to have hit them at all.

As far as the solo goes, the tempo was a bit fast for me, especially since I was totally unfamiliar with the tune. But, I think I managed to keep up and play an ok jazz trumpet solo.

MAY 3, 2007

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Clip #1 - Aebersold #25 - "A Foggy Day" by George Gershwin

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Clip #2 - Aebersold #25 - "A Foggy Day" by George Gershwin

Above you'll find two clips of me soloing on "A Foggy Day." Each clip illustrates a different approach to the tune. The first clip has a quite a lot of notes (too many, if you ask me) which fill most of the space. The second clip, however, begins with short phrases with some space in between them. It then builds as it moves into quarter notes and finally it ends with a simple eighth-note riff. While it's not the best solo I've ever played, I do think the second clip illustrates a decent approach to playing up-tempo tunes when you're fingers aren't ready/willing/able to play a bunch of eighth notes. A few notes with some rhythmic interest can go a long way...

MARCH 30, 2007

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #33 - "Footprints" by Wayne Shorter

Here's my first recording of 2007. It's a short one, but I figure it's better than nothing.

This is my second posted recording of Footprints. The first clip appears in my Learning to Improvise - Motifs article. The first recording is mostly for demonstration purposes, so it's pretty easy for me to say I prefer this newer clip.

December 28, 2006 Jazz Improvisation 9 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2006

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2006. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016

DECEMBER 28, 2006

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #40 - "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise" by Hammerstein & Romberg

This is my final recording of 2006. As you can hear, my range is pretty good throughout. In fact, it didn't take much effort at all to play the A's above the staff. And better yet, I also played 3 or 4 solid C's above the staff during this same recording session --if you've been following along, you know that's quite an accomplishment for me. Unfortunately, those C's were followed by lackluster solos, so I'm saving my C debut for 2007.

OCTOBER 24, 2006

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - C# Dominant 7th... accompanied by my ear trainer!

If you've tried my latest ear trainer, you probably know that I added a rhythm section feature. Currently, the rhythm section feature supports Major7th, Minor7th, Dominant7th, Blues, and Rhythm Changes progressions in any key. It also lets you isolate each part of the rhythm section so you can play with as little or as much accompaniment as you like.

Lately, I've been using the rhythm section feature to work on my less familiar keys, like C# which I'm playing in this clip (C#7 is the trumpet key, it's actually B7 in concert key). When improvising over these less familiar keys, I like to isolate just the bass and hi-hat because it improves my ability to hear what I'm playing.

If you haven't played around with my new ear trainer yet, I encourage you to give it a try!

SEPTEMBER 19, 2006

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #34, "Green Dolphin Street" by Kaper & Washington

This is my second time recording "Green Dolphin Street". The first time I recorded it was just over a year ago. You can listen to that older recording by visiting the 2005 recordings page or by clicking right here: iwasdoingallright - audio clip

I prefer last year's recording due to the simple-song stuff that I threw in. That and the descending run near the end sound more creative to me. But... I must admit that I do prefer how much stronger my upper-range is in this new clip. As I neared the second half of my solo, I felt totally confident that I'd hit those high(er) notes. And, for me, that's really saying something! Of course, it's a relatively new phenomenon so I'm not going to celebrate yet...

UPDATE 9/20/2006 - It's a day later and I just gave my new "Green Dolphin Street" clip another listen. I noticed that I cropped it so close to the beginning of my solo that it's hard to get the feel of things the first time you hear it. Frankly, I was suprised by how bad it sounded the first time through. I listened to it a couple more times and each time it sounded better. Still not great, but definitely less lousy! Unfortunately, I didn't save the original un-cropped track so I can't do anything about it now aside from make excuses ;-)

JULY 23, 2006

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #33, "Speak No Evil" by Wayne Shorter

We're over half-way through the year and this is only my third recording?! I'm really falling behind...

The more I listen to this clip, the less I like it. There are a couple of times where I'm going for an idea and it just doesn't come out right. Those mistakes produce unwanted notes and throw off my rhythm, weakening the overall sound of my solo. But, that's part of the growth process. You need to try things that are outside of your comfort zone. Pushing yourself to play something you've never played before, regardless of the outcome, helps you become a better player. Of course, it would be nice if you don't have to share those goofs with the world.

On the bright side, my upper register is fairly solid in this clip. By upper-register, I'm of course talking about notes just barely above the staff ;-)

MARCH 17, 2006

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #75, "Fifth House" by John Coltrane

This is my new favorite play-a-long track. True to the original Coltrane recording, the A sections start out with a vamp/pedal that provides quite a bit of freedom. You can play the changes, or you can play whatever sounds good to your ears. Then, the bridge swings on through before we get back to the A section groove. About half-way through, the entire tune is played with a swing feel and the pedal is replaced by the actual changes. It all adds up to a play-a-long track with enough energy and variety to remain interesting over several sessions.

This clip has my first instance of triple tonguing in a jazz recording. It's at the 25 second mark (I start on an A in the staff and go up through C E G). I played that run a few times today and got it a lot cleaner prior to this clip. Actually, now that I listen to it, you can barely tell there's any tonguing so I probably shouldn't even mention it. Oh well... better luck next time, I guess.

FEBRUARY 11, 2006

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #12, "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" by Duke Ellington

This was my first time improvising to this track. Since I had never played this tune before, and since I didn't have the changes in front of me, I spent the first few choruses figuring things out. During the first chorus, I didn't play at all. Instead, I just listened so I could learn the form and major points of change (if any). During the next chorus or two, I used vocal improvisation to further strengthen my familiarity with the tune. I didn't pick up my horn until I felt reasonably confident in my ability to sing a decent solo. This recording captures the 2nd or 3rd chorus of my trumpet solo.

When learning new tunes, I HIGHLY recommend singing before playing. If you can't sing a decent solo, how do you expect to play one on a tricky instrument?

Update 2/13/06: Whoops, I just realized that I did in fact play this tune before. In fact, I even made a (bad) recording of it last year. Yikes, how quickly the mind goes... Anyway, sing first, play later is still a good idea ;-)

June 6, 2006 Jazz Improvisation 32 Comments

Learning to improvise - introduction



During my first two years of college, I was a jazz studies major. Since I transferred schools after my first year, I got to experience (at least part of) the jazz curriculums of two different universities. In each school I did well in my music classes, however I wasn't dramatically improving as a jazz musician. Sure, I knew more information about jazz, especially jazz theory, but that knowledge wasn't translating itself into my playing. I wasn't alone, either. As the months passed, many struggling players (including me) would eventually drop out or change majors, each believing they'd never be good enough to play jazz professionally. Some of us even gave up playing jazz altogether, as I did for seven years.

When I finally started to play the trumpet again (summer of 2002), I was eager to find a new approach to learning jazz improvisation that would take me farther than my previous jazz education. I wanted results! During my search, I read several new books and visited dozens of jazz web sites and forums. For the most part, everything I read followed the same old approach that I was all too familiar with: start with a description of swing rhythms and accents, then briefly cover topics like transcribing, learning patterns, playing melodically, and finally move on to several chapters of complex and long-winded jazz theory lessons. No matter what I read, at least 50% of the discussion was about jazz theory.

At the same time I was reading about jazz improvisation, I started reading jazz biographies and interviews with legendary jazz musicians. Among other things, I learned that several top jazz musicians didn't know how to read music, and many more knew far less theory than was contained in the average jazz improvisation book. This really surprised me. After all, jazz education's heavy emphasis on theory would suggest that jazz theory is must-have information, as if you couldn't possibly be good without complete mastery. But that just isn't the case.

As I continued to read and learn about great jazz musicians, I found that there is a skill common to all of them. Oddly, it's a skill that is rarely discussed in mainstream jazz education. That skill is the ability to play by ear. All great jazz musicians can play accurately and effortless by ear. And actually, it's this skill that first and foremost guides them in deciding what to play.

If the ability to play by ear is shared by all great jazz musicians, why do very few jazz method books and classrooms ever mention it? And, if knowledge of jazz theory isn't essential, then why do ALL jazz books and classrooms spend so much time talking about it? (for possible answers, read my jazz theory article). These questions are even more perplexing when I think about the fact that NONE of the struggling players I've known can play well (or at all) by ear, yet most have had a decent grasp of theory. We didn't need to learn more theory, we needed to learn to play by ear!

Convinced that jazz education missed the mark on the importance of playing by ear, I started thinking about the other key issues plaguing struggling players and how those issues could be overcome. Once I felt I had some worthwhile suggestions, I started writing, and that's how my Learning to Improvise series was born. Since my Learning To Improvise guide is geared toward beginners and otherwise struggling players, it's pretty light on details. My goal is simply to present a foundation from which developing players can grow. There's a lot more out there that you can and should learn about jazz improvisation.

The topics I'll cover include:

Topics like transcription are already mainstays of jazz education, so I'm not exactly breaking new ground with this series. But, I do think I'm presenting each topic in a somewhat original fashion that's easy to understand. As you read, keep in mind that all of this stuff requires practice and patience. You won't improve simply by reading alone (I wish it was that easy!). In fact, many of these topics can take several years of practice to master. That's fine. Keep at it. The rewards are well worth the effort.


If you've listened to any of my audio clips, you know I'm not a great player. Occasionally I play a halfway decent solo, but most of the time I sound mediocre at best. With that said, you might be wondering why I think I have anything worthwhile to share about learning jazz. And certainly, how can I claim to have better advice than so many educators and professional musicians?

In general, I don't think great players can relate to the specific issues that impair those of us who are struggling. Playing by ear is a good example of this disconnect. I think it's rarely mentioned in jazz education because great players assume everyone can play by ear, or they simply don't understand how impossibly difficult it is to improvise without that ability. Consequently, instead of emphasizing ear training, they might suggest that we learn chord substitutions or some other form of advanced theory, because that's what helped them get to the next level. But, how can advanced theory really help someone who can't even play something like "Happy Birthday" by ear? After all, if you can't play something that easy by ear, you'll have a heck of a time trying to improvise a musical jazz solo.

And that's where I come in. I may not know as much about jazz and jazz improvisation as the average jazz educator, but I'm extremely familiar with the challenges facing struggling jazz musicians. I know what it's like to start a solo and have no idea what I'm going to play. I know what it's like to play one bad note after another when I lose my place in the changes. I know what it's like to play the same licks over and over again because I can't play the ideas in my head. I know what it's like to be terrified to play a solo, and I know what it's like to feel embarrassed when I play poorly. I know all of this because I am a struggling player myself. I've lived through the issues (some of which I continue to face) and I believe the lessons I've learned along the way can help others in their own musical journeys.

If by any chance I'm wrong in my assumption that I can help, well, at least the lessons were free!

July 25, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 7 Comments

Learning to improvise - jazz theory



As I mentioned in the introduction to this "Learning to Improvise" series, jazz theory is typically the most heavily emphasized part of any jazz education method. In your average jazz improvisation book, for instance, you might find a couple of chapters on rhythm, phrasing, or other topics, but you'll ALWAYS find several chapters devoted to jazz theory. Similarly, classrooms typically spend more time on jazz theory than on any other aspect of jazz improvisation.

Because jazz theory is the primary focus of mainstream jazz education, most students end up believing it's the most important skill to master. Consequently, they'll spend the bulk of their time studying, memorizing, and practicing theory-related material. It's great that they're studying jazz theory, however such a narrow focus can lead students (and educators) to forget about other topics like rhythm, phrasing, and ear training. Ironically, it's these overlooked topics that will likely have the greatest impact on your playing. For instance, without solid rhythm and phrasing, nothing you play will sound good, regardless of how theoretically "correct" it might be.

With all of the emphasis placed on jazz theory, you'd think it's a must-have skill where total mastery is needed to succeed as a jazz improviser. But, this just isn't true. There are several legendary players who never learned how to read music (examples: Erroll Garner, Wes Montgomery), and there are several who were pro-level players before they learned how to read music (example: Dave Brubeck), and many others who knew little or no theory (example: Percy Heath), and even more who knew less theory than the average jazz studies major. If these great players didn't rely upon theory, then how did they know what to play? They used their ears! And that leads us to a true must-have skill: the ability to play by ear. Without the ability to play by ear, you'll never be able to accurately play the ideas in your head and you'll never be able to fully express yourself on your instrument.

If theory ISN'T essential, but being able to play by ear IS essential (see my ear training guide for more info), then why do so many jazz educators and aspiring musicians devote most of their time to theory? And more importantly, why isn't the ability to play by ear emphasized as a must-have skill for jazz musicians. Well, I've got a "theory" about this.


Most people fixate on theory because it's relatively straightforward to learn and teach. This stems from its similarity to the subject of mathematics. Like math, theory forces us to learn a bunch of rules and formulas. The notation even looks mathematical, with its use of numbers, roman numerals, various symbols, and plus and minus signs. So, on this level, it's familiar territory and somewhat palatable to those of us who did well in math class. You read it, memorize it, and move on to the next chapter.

I'm not saying jazz theory is easy to master. I'm just saying that for most people, it's easier and faster to learn than ear training skills. In a few months you could learn everything you need to know about theory (at least the basics), yet it might take several years/decades to similarly develop your ears.

Adding to its unpopularity is the fact that ear training is unpredictable. While you'll certainly improve with practice, that rate of progress will differ greatly from one person to the next. You'll have good days and bad days. And, you'll probably experience a lot of frustration along the way. Hey, that sounds a lot like playing the trumpet!

And this brings us to the second part of my theory:


Most people neglect ear training because it's such a gradual and often frustrating process to develop these skills. I think there's also a belief that you're simply born with great ears and if you aren't, there's nothing you can do about it. This is nonsense. Through ear training, you can definitely strengthen your ears and your ability to play by ear. You may not reach a level where you can play everything perfectly and effortlessly by ear, but you can at least reach a level where you can play some of your ideas by ear. Trust me, some is a lot better than none.

The two parts of my theory combine to explain the dominant state of jazz education today: Educators and students focus the bulk of their time and energy on jazz theory, not because it's absolutely essential to jazz improvisation, but rather because it's easier to teach and learn than other must-have skills like the ability to play by ear.

Right about now, you either agree with me or you think I've got it wrong. If you're in the latter category, you might even think I've come to these conclusions because I was too lazy to learn jazz theory myself. Or maybe you think I wasn't good at it, so now I just want to bad-mouth it.


When I entered college, I had no ear training skills and very little knowledge of music theory. My lack of ear training skills coupled with the fact that I don't naturally have a good ear led me to severely struggle in my freshman ear training classes. On the other hand, I did extremely well in my music theory classes (classical theory) during that same year. To me, theory was just memorization and math -- two things that have always come easily to me.

During my sophomore year of college I had to take my first jazz theory class. This class had a reputation for being very challenging and most of the jazz students dreaded its arrival. I breezed right through it. Once again, just memorization and math. I was so good in that class, that after I dropped out of music school (I transferred to the business school) the teacher used to bring up my name from time to time to pressure the students into learning the material. He said stuff like: "If Rick, the insurance salesman, knows all of this stuff you guys better know it too. You wouldn't want to be upstaged by an insurance salesman at a jam session would you?" I'm paraphrasing based upon what another student told me, but you get the idea. And no, I couldn't tell you why he thought I was going to become an insurance salesman. If I were choosing my imaginary job, I'd choose something a little more exciting, like professional arm wrestler!

As you can see, I was very good at theory and I did manage to learn and retain quite a bit. But, while I continued to build upon my knowledge of theory, that knowledge wasn't really helping me to become a better jazz musician. Rather, I was simply using theory to minimize the potential of playing a "wrong" note. Meandering through my solos, I'd randomly choose one "good" note after another. I couldn't play the ideas in my head, and I didn't even know exactly what my solo would sound like until I played it. I wasn't even close to being a true musician.

Of course, I now know that the problem wasn't theory. The problem was my inability to play by ear. The bigger problem that plagued me, and which continues to plague many aspiring musicians, is the fact that few people are really drilling this message home -- the message of ear training. You absolutely MUST be able to play by ear if you want to be a good jazz improviser. If you can't play well by ear, you'll have to rely upon a bunch of pre-learned licks and you'll never truly be able to play the ideas in your head. It might sound like jazz, but it isn't true to the improvisational spirit of jazz music.


If you're serious about learning jazz improvisation, then I strongly suggest that you learn at least some jazz theory. In the case of jazz improvisation, theory primarily serves to explain which notes sound good over which chords. Without this knowledge, you'd have to figure everything out by ear, and your skills/talents would have to be good enough to do that in real-time. My ears aren't that good, and even with constant ear training I probably won't ever reach the level of those legendary players who could play everything entirely by ear. So, for people like myself, theory bridges the gap between what we can and cannot hear. Rather than wonder which chords are being played, we can look at a chart and have everything spelled out for us.

There are several other benefits to knowing jazz theory, including:


When writing tunes, you can use theory to combine chord progressions and harmonies in sequences that you know sound good together. Likewise, you can use your knowledge of theory to reharmonize existing progressions into new and/or more harmonically interesting progressions.


If you have to play unfamiliar tunes in front of an audience or for a recording session, you'll definitely want as much information ahead of time as you can get. Being able to read chord changes will take a lot of the burden off of your ears (and nerves).


That's right, theory can help you with your ear training studies! Rather than rely totally on your ears, theory can help you find those next notes. For instance, if you identify a perfect 4th (1st 2 notes of "Here Comes the Bride") and you know the starting note is an F, then you can use theory to determine that the next note is a Bb. Ideally, you want to be able to do all of this with your ears, but as mentioned earlier, theory can bridge the gap between what you can and cannot hear.


Playing scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions will help train your ear to identify the sound of jazz melodies and harmonies.


The old phrase "knowledge is power" comes to mind. The more you know about something, the easier it is to understand and use. While this is true with jazz, it's important to remember that jazz is an artform. All the knowledge in the world will not make you an artist. It's how you apply that knowledge that counts!


Advanced theory concepts such as chord substitutions and alterations can help players unlock new sounds and directions in their playing. For some people, these ideas are easier to come by when visualized and/or thought of from a mathematical/structured approach.

Of course, all of the above can be accomplished solely by ear, but to do this you'd need exceptional aural skills. Believe me, you'd know if you're one of those people. If you make mistakes playing by ear, or if you accidentally play "wrong" notes, then you aren't one of them... sorry!


Most jazz musicians know at least some jazz theory. The following list is a decent starting point for your jazz theory studies:


All keys: Major, Dominant Seventh, Dorian Minor, Blues. As you advance, learn Diminished (H/W and W/H) and Whole Tone scales

Develop enough fluency so you can start on any note and play through to that note (and beyond) for any key and quality. Also, be able to play scales in a variety of intervals (skipping 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc). The goal is to develop enough dexterity so you can play well over any key at fast tempos. You'll probably never actually play a whole scale from top to bottom in a solo, but you will likely find many instances where you play 3-5 note portions of scales or interval skipping scales as you join one idea to the next.

ARPEGGIOS (1, 3, 5, 7)

All keys: Major, Dominant, Dorian Minor, Half Diminished, Diminished

As you listen to and transcribe solos, you'll likely notice that most players incorporate arpeggios in their solos. Arpeggios outline chords, grounding your solo to the changes. As with the scale exercises, practice playing arpeggios in a variety of sequences (7-5-3-1, 1-5-3-7, 7-3-5-1, etc).


Now that you know the scales and arpeggios, you can learn which ones to play as you encounter various chord changes, and you can practice playing over common jazz chord progressions. This is where people generally get hung up in theory. It's also the reason whey there are dozens of books on jazz theory that go on for hundreds of pages. No need to get carried away at first (or ever!). You can read the vast majority of charts simply by being able to play over the following chord types: Maj7, Min7, Dom7, Half-Diminished


It's really up to you how far you want to go with theory. Whatever you do decide to focus on, be sure you spend AT LEAST as much time working on ear training skills as you do working on theory. And be sure you aren't moving too quickly from one skill to another. For instance, it would be silly to start learning chord substitutions if you still haven't learned the blues.


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