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Major Musical Challenge #1: “Can’t Make The Changes”

Over the next few posts, I want to dig into 3 of the biggest challenges that students wrestle with.

I hear stuff like this all the time from students and subscribers:

“I just can’t make the changes. They go by way too fast. Yeah, I know my scales, but I don’t really know what exactly to do with them. And it just doesn’t sound like real jazz to me.”

This is a frustrating and super common challenge that looks something like this:

The changes go by too fast. Way too fast to possibly play them.

You try to concentrate hard and play the right notes and scales but it feels impossible. By the time you find the right notes to play on that Bb7 chord, it’s long gone and your solo quickly spins out of control.

If you do manage to hang on for dear life you’re so limited in what you can play it just sounds like you’re noodling on some scales or playing the same 1 or 2 licks you have memorized.

In fact, what you hear in your head and what you hear coming out of your instrument are totally different. And what comes out of your instrument just doesn’t sound like jazz to your ears. This is crazy frustrating and overwhelming. And quite frankly it’s demoralizing.

Why can’t you just let go and let all that good music that’s inside you flow out? When will jazz ‘click’ for you?

The first step, of course, is to figure out the underlying cause(s) of this situation.

If you struggle with this challenge too, chances are it’s because you simply don’t have the harmonic control necessary to play jazz. I’ll explain what that means in just a second. But this is likely why making the changes can feel like you’re playing a video game set on the super hard, expert level. There’s too much going on and it’s all happening way too fast.

So, how do you get past this challenge?

Heed the advice of Louis Armstrong: “Learn your fundaments.”

I realize this is not necessarily groundbreaking news but stay with me. Many a master has uttered similar words.

The great guitarist Mick Goodrick said something similar. To paraphrase: “The better I get as a musician the more I work on the basics”

And great horn players like Trane and Eric Dolphy were known for working on long tones on a single note for weeks at a time.

I can say the same about my own music. As I’ve advanced over the years, I’ve definitely gone back to the basics in my own practice.

Now the danger here is misunderstanding what ‘basic or fundamental’ means.

Some cats think they’re practicing the fundamentals by running scales ad nauseam.

Up and down, up and down. All the while staring out the window or thinking about what they’re gonna have for dinner.

Or worse, running scales while watching T.V. Frankly that’s total b.s. approach and a recipe for disengaged, disconnected, robotic playing.

That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about mastering specific fundamental skills and the application of those skills in a REAL musical setting.

And in the case of making chord changes, we’re talking about the specific harmonic control necessary for playing over changes.

A jazz musician needs to have the inner workings of the chords totally internalized. They need to be able to play, sing, and hear every little detail of the chords. All the chord tones, the tensions, guide tones. They need to be able to hear, sing and play those notes without hesitation. By letting the ear guide the music.

And you get that kind of control by zooming in like a kind of ‘jazz microscope’ and mastering one detail at a time.

*For instance, you might work on playing, singing and hearing the roots of a standard you’re working on.

You might practice just the roots for a week or more. As long as it takes to master that. ‘Master’ meaning that your body – in the broad sense including ears, nervous system, hands, brain, etc – just knows the roots of each chord without thinking, without hesitation, without mistakes...

...To the level of ability, you have using a fork or pouring a cup of coffee. You don’t have to think about it. You can just do it. That’s the kind of control you want with these little details.

So you take your time and internalize this one detail, the root movement of a single tune.

And then you move on to the next detail. And then the next.

Some cats think that players like Sonny Rollins, as an example, just ‘let go’ and let the music pour out through him. As if Sonny is just an empty vessel and music is like a gift coming through him from the universe.

Now, the thing is, I believe that this is all true. Sonny is acting as an empty vessel and he does just let the music come through him. As if from God.

But the part that’s missing from this story is the preparation and the practice.

Sonny is nearly 90 years old and he still practices every day!

His ears, his body, his mind, and his nervous system all know the music cold.

Sonny mastered the fundamentals many years ago. And this is what allows him to let go and let the music flow through him. But he would never in a million years be able to do that if not for mastery of the specific skills needed to improvise over tunes.

It’s that control and that mastery that makes it possible to let go, get into the zone and let the magic happen during your solos.

So, don’t just run scales or patterns, and exercises for the sake of scales, patterns, and exercises. You must first figure out what specific skills are missing from your musical skill set. And focus on those. Zoom in on the specific detail and internalize it. 

The good news is that while it certainly takes a bit of practice, mastering the kind of harmonic control you need to improvise over changes is finite. All you have to do is take it one step at a time and in a few weeks or months, you’ve got the control to REALLY improvise over changes. Once you’ve got that foundation in place and then you’re in a position to take it as far as you wish!

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