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5 Steps To Develop Your Own Jazz Vocabulary


Why is vocabulary so important to a jazz musician?

Without a solid vocabulary, you become what I call a chord scale noodler. (Assuming you learned a few chord scales. Otherwise, you’re just a ‘noodler’;)

Sure, chord scales are über important.

They're like musical DNA. They can help you understand what you hear on the records. And they can help you build new vocabulary and navigate the chord changes.

But knowing the 'alphabet' and a few 'spelling rules' does not make you fluent, articulate, or poetic with the language.

‘Owning’ enough vocabulary can.

Let me explain:

Your vocabulary is comprised of the phrases and lines and ideas that truly belong to you.

You may have taken a Miles Davis lick off a record but you made it into your own. And now you have some vocabulary to work with.

As the great Hal Galper says, you learn jazz by doing it. You learn the process by 'doing the process'.

That's why jam sessions are so damn important.

The problem is, you can't 'do the process’ - i.e. play jazz - if you don't have any vocabulary to do it with.

Does that make sense? Cool.

Building your own jazz vocabulary is not an optional activity. It's a necessary part of the jazz puzzle.

So, where do you get that vocabulary?

From the tradition of course:

  1. First of all, you go to the records and you learn from the masters.
  2. You pull lines, phrases, licks, and ideas you of those records.
  3. Then you make them your own.

Don’t worry if that sounds a little daunting.

Like everything else, it's just a process. A learnable process.

It begins by choosing some vocabulary.

And it ends when that vocabulary has become an organic part of your music.

The key point here: You get vocabulary from the tradition. Especially at first. And the farther and deeper you go into the tradition, the farther and deeper you can go with your own sound.

Now, I mentioned that you gotta OWN your vocabulary. What does that mean?

Owning vocabulary is not the same as 'kinda knowing' a lick. A lick is something you can play in one way, in one key, in one context.

True personal jazz vocabulary is musical material that you have 'put through the wringer' to quote Hal Galper again. You can play it a dozen different ways, in all 12 keys. You can plug it in all over a tune. And you can use it to make music with, to communicate with, to create with.

Now, as you assimilate more and more vocabulary, and as you practice using it by ‘doing the process’, an amazing thing happens ‘under the hood', in your brain.

As you’re learning, your brain is busy creating new connections and neural pathways. As you add more and more vocabulary these connections grow more and more complex and interconnected.

Your stored vocabulary begins blending together and cross-pollinating, creating more vocabulary than what you started with.

As a result, you start to hear many more musical possibilities. Your playing becomes fluent and fluid. You begin to express more complex, yet subtle, and sophisticated ideas. You begin to uncover YOUR own sound, YOUR thing. 

At this point, you're speaking the language. You’re telling musical stories. You’re connecting with your bandmates and with the audience. You’re killing it on the bandstand.

That's the goal: to speak the language. To express yourself using that language. To communicate and connect with other people. And to be a complete and total badass;-)

Okay, enough high-level jibber jabber. It's time for the actual process.

There's a great website run by two cats named Forest and Eric. It's called Jazz Advice, I'm sure you're already a fan. (If you haven't checked it out yet, you definitely should.)

Now, in one of their articles, they outline 5 different phases of learning vocabulary. They did such an awesome job I'm gonna borrow their some of their terminologies and elaborate with my own take.

Here are the 5 phases:

Phase 1: Discovery
Phase 2: Mindful Repetition
Phase 3: Elaboration
Phase 4: Application
Phase 5: Exploration

When you understand how to do this process you gain control of your progress.

Now, if you haven't already, you will soon notice that we are utterly obsessed with learning processes.

You see, I'm always interested in the process of learning, of practicing, of advancing.

We learn on the bandstand.
We learn at jam sessions.
We learn from the records.
And we learn in the practice room.

When we learn, we grow, and we get better as musicians. As we get better as musicians we sound better. But we also have more fun doing it, have more opportunities to play it, and have better all around musical experiences.

So if learning makes me sound better and with that comes cool opportunities and more fun...

Boom...I want to get better at learning!

And the best part:

When you get better at learning (i.e. better at getting better) you unleash what you might call a 'force multiplier'.

In other words by being better at learning you multiply your efforts in the practice room.

What might take you 1 hour to learn with excellent practices skills and learning strategies, could take a cat with poor practice skills 4 hours to learn.

So you literally can Learn Jazz Faster. There's no shortcuts or secrets. There's the hard way and the smart way.

Make sense?

And that's really what this blog is about.

Helping YOU to become a better learner so you can become a better player.

Okay. Off my soapbox and back to vocabulary.

I've got a little action step for ya. You should complete this step before reading the rest of the post:

I want you to choose a line, lick, or musical phrase from one of your favorite records that you'd love to learn, assimilate, and turn into your own. Just a bar or two is fine.

Couple things:

  1. Make sure it's challenging but DOABLE. Yes, it should push you out of your comfort zone. But it also must be within the realm of possibility given your current skills and experience.

  2. Make sure you totally dig it.

  3. Once you have your line picked out just start listening to it. Many times. Let it soak in and just start to let your ear dig into the details.

    No analyzing or transcribing yet. Just listen and absorb the sound.

Do that before moving on. Then you'll be ready to 'put it through the wringer' and turn it into vocabulary...

Now that you have a lick picked out and you're familiar with it it's time for us to dive into the five phases of learning vocabulary.

(Again, this is heavily inspired by the cats over at Definitely check them out if you haven't already. This is my take and application of a process they explained masterfully.)

Phase 1: Discovery

The first step is to choose the music you want to learn. It should be music you enjoy as well as material you'd like to assimilate into your own musical vocabulary. It should also be doable. In other words, you should be able to figure it out and learn it on your instrument.

Of course, you find this material by listening to records. During your listening sessions make a note every time you hear something that you're really drawn to - anything that makes you think "damn, I have to learn that!" Once you've found a few things, choose one that makes sense given your current skill level and goals. For this example, let's say you choose a Dexter Gordon line over a two-five progression in Bb.

Next, you listen, absorb, and soak it in. Become familiar with the shape, the use of dynamics, the articulation, the feel, and so on. You listen to hear more and more detail.

I personally find that singing helps quite a bit with this process. As you get more familiar with the phrase, begin to sing along with the recording attempting to capture as much of the detail and feeling of the phrase as you can. Then shut the recording off and sing it from memory, by ear. Feel free to go back and forth between singing with and without the recording.

Once you're quite familiar with the sound of the phrase it's time to work it out on your instrument and play through it a few times. Do this note by note if need be. If you chose music that is appropriate for your level - i.e. 'doable' - you'll get it down with a little work. If it's proving to be impossible, you simply chose music you're not quite ready for. Choose something more approachable to your ear and go through the above process until you can play it on your instrument.

This is typically where most cats stop (If they actually even go this far).

But at this phase, we're just getting started...

Phase 2: Mindful Repetition.

Now that you know the phrase it's time to practice it.

You can use what I call the power practice paradigm to really nail the sucker.

Here's what the paradigm looks like:

Step 1: Define the practice target.
"Play the lick easily from memory, up to tempo with appropriate sound, articulation, and feel."

Step 2: Simplify the target down to a 'very next step'.
That could mean playing just 2 notes. It could mean slowing it down, etc. Basically, do whatever you have to make it easy to play.

Step 3: Practice to mastery.
Mindfully repeat it over and over while absorbing more and more detail. Practice it until your body and ear just 'get it' and the notes start to play themselves. You'll know it when it happens - it'll be easy and you won't have to think about it.

Step 4: Push the envelope.
Push your way forward towards the final desired result - step by step. Play the next few notes or take the tempo up a click or two.

Then you practice THAT to until your mind, body, and ear just 'gets it' and you can play it without thinking or trying.

When you hit your target - Play the lick easily from memory, up to tempo, with appropriate sound, articulation and feel - you're done with phase 2.

Phase 3: Elaboration.

In phase 3, it's time to take your lick through all 12 keys.

Just take it one key at a time, use the practice paradigm, and work through all the kinks.

Now, I know that sounds daunting. And the first time it'll probably really kick your arse a bit.

That's totally normal. It's supposed to!

But the next line you take through all 12 keys will be easier. And the next one even easier. And so on. And you'll be very glad you did this work when it finally 'clicks' for you and you have that kind of control over the music. This ability will help you immeasurably when it comes to playing over jazz tunes.

Phase 4: Application.

By now you've shedded the bejesus out of your line. You've got it down cold in all 12 keys.

Next, you'll practice applying it in the context of jazz. It's time to take your two-five lick and practice plugging it in on a tune. (This is where a play-a-long track comes in handy. Or even better yet, a practice partner)

At first, you can do this methodically. For instance, maybe you're working on a tune that has a ii V I progression in Bb in bars 1 & 2 of the A sections. Blow over the tune and every time that ii V in Bb comes around you play your lick. Then perhaps you'll do it on a different ii V in the same tune or perhaps you'll take it through a few different tunes. After you've methodically practiced this you can try being a little more loose with it. Play your lick occasionally when it makes sense to your ear instead of every single time the progression comes around.

Practice applying the lick in the context of jazz, over real tunes until it's easy for you. Then you're ready for the next step.

Phase 5: Exploration.

Now it's time to make it your own.

In this phase, you'll alter it, edit it, chop it up. You might extend it, shorten it, turn it upside down. You'll improvise on it. You'll improvise with it. You might write a solo based on it. You'll put it 'through the wringer' as Hal Galper says.

And when you are thoroughly and completely tired of working with the lick? You put it away and get a new one.

Meanwhile, your brain will keep working behind the scenes. Building interconnected neural highways.

Then when the line is ready, when it's done incubating it'll just be part of you and it'll start showing up in your solos and it'll sound like YOUR lick because you made it YOURS.

And it'll happen organically because you did the preparation.

Nobody just gets great ideas from the ether. It's not talent or luck or magic or even the muse. It's the preparation.

It might seem as if a cat, like Sonny Rollins, has great music simply flowing out through him, as if straight from the creator.

Maybe so.

But Sonny sure as hell did the preparation. In fact, he STILL prepares, i.e. practices and grows and pushes forward. At age 87!)

That's the jazz way. The process is the thing is the process is the thing is the process is the thing...

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