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The Big Jazz Puzzle: Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of our 3 part blog series: The Big Jazz Puzzle. In part 2 we'll be covering the next 3 laws. Let's just dive right in, shall we?

Law #4: It All Comes From The Tradition

We now know from law #2 that you need vocabulary to play jazz and to ‘learn by doing’. So where do you get this vocabulary? Well, some of it you’ll work out. As you practice playing, exploring and improvising you’ll discover & develop ideas you like. You can work with those ideas to develop flexibility with them, combine them with other ideas to create new ideas and practice using and applying them in all keys and various musical settings.

But, you must also look to the great tradition of jazz to draw your inspiration from and to find many more new ideas. There’s an old saying. I have no idea who said it. But it goes like this:

Good players borrow. Great players steal.

Good players will swipe a lick from say, Wes Montgomery. They’ll learn it in whatever key Wes played it. Then whenever that particular chord progression, in that key comes up they’ll play it if it happens to come to mind. That’s the equivalent of learning one simple phrase in a foreign language: What is your name? My name is Chris.

That’s the only way I know it and I can only use it that way in that context. That’s borrowing the phrase.

Stealing it is a totally different ball game. And let me be clear. We’re not trying to take someone Else’s creation, use it on the bandstand and take credit for it.

We’re trying to take some vocabulary that really speaks to us and make it into our own. We’re gonna put it through the wringer – digest it, process it and assimilate it into our own piece of jazz vocabulary.

Borrowing – playing it verbatim – is more of a ripoff.

Here are the basic steps

  • Choose a piece of vocabulary to cop. Ideally, it’s something you need for a specific harmonic context like two-fives. And it absolutely should be music that you love and make into your own.
  • Learn and master the vocabulary as is, with as much detail as you can possibly absorb and recreate. Practice it until it is impossible for you to play it wrong. Until it plays itself. Until it is as easy as brushing your teeth or using a fork to eat your dinner.
  • Take the line, lick, phrase, etc through all twelve keys. Master it in all twelve keys. Is this a lot of work? Hell yeah. A lot. But do it. Even if it takes you 3 months to do one lick in all 12 keys. Because once you do it a few times it will get easier and easier and easier. And that kind of musical control will set you apart from the mediocre majority.
  • Take it through the wringer. Begin to slice, dice, chop, augment, diminish, flip, flop, spin, fragment, stretch, squish and otherwise alter the vocabulary in any way you can come up with. Change 1 note. Change several notes. Change different notes, different combinations of notes, etc.
  • Augment the rhythms. Change some of the note values, leave other alone. Then change different ones.
  • Experiment with the articulation, the tempo, the time signature.
    Make it fit into different harmonic contexts. Play it backwards. Invert the intervals.
  • Add notes to the front of the lick. Add notes to the end. Play fragments of the line. Add notes to the front of the fragment. To the end. Rearrange the fragments.
    Combine it with other vocabulary, other fragments, other variations.
    Etc. Etc. Etc.

This is a process of experimentation. What can you come up with? Now, a lot of what you find may sound terrible at first! That’s just fine. Because some of what you find will sound fantastic. When you discover a musical gem, master it and make it yours. Practice it until it becomes natural and easy to play.

You will get better and better at this process the more you do it. It will happen more quickly for you and more naturally for you. But, I’d be willing to bet that it will be very hard and uncomfortable for you at first. That’s Normal!

Do this regularly: Cop awesome vocabulary that you really love. And also vocabulary that you need for a specific chord progression or tune. Then, put it through the wringer and make it your own. At first, you may spend a week exploring one idea. Maybe even more. Over time you may find that you can put a phrase through the wringer in a day or two.

But do this process and you will become an incredibly creative player with a bottomless wellspring of creative ideas.

Is this hard work? Absolutely. It is. But once you do it a couple times, you’ll see that it’s incredibly rewarding. And it will become fun for you. And the whole point of this ‘dial it in’ series is to help you practice smarter, not just practice more.

There’s such an emphasis on practicing as much as possible in the music world. Logging hours…

Instead of just ‘practicing more’ I want you to practice ‘better’. I want you to practice smarter and more effectively. So you get results from your practice and so you get better and better each day.

Law #5: Deliberate Practice

Much has been written about the concept of Deliberate Practice  over the last few years. I encourage you to check out Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else . Thay book, by Geoff Colvin, digs deep into the topic.

But here’s my take on it. Deliberate practice means purposeful practice. Put another way, it means improving a specific element or aspect or music ON PURPOSE.

Let me explain. Typically, you see two main types of practicer. Let’s give them names to help explain it.

First, we have Marvin. Marvin goes to his music lesson on Thursday afternoon. His teacher assigns a new standard for him to work on. Marvin’s teacher wants him to be able to play the melody of the new tune from memory.

Marvin takes his assignment home and is ready to start learning the tune. He goes into his room, picks up his instrument, puts the lead sheet on the music stand and gets to work.

He proceeds to hack his way through the entire melody from beginning to end, butchering a section here, annihilating a phrase there, dropping a few beats hear, flubbing his way through the bridge and ultimately gets to the end. Whelp, he’s put in his time for today. Until tomorrow…

Then tomorrow comes. And it’s time for Marvin to hit the shed again. So he goes into his practice room, picks up his axe and takes another stab at the melody. Again, he plays it from start to finish making dozens of mistakes and poorly executing the melody in at least 37 different ways. He reasons that practice makes perfect. If he just keeps putting in the time everyday eventually he’ll get it.

Today, Marvin has a little more time to practice. So he plays through the entire tune a few more times before he calls it a day. He ‘practices’ it in this fashion every day until finally, it’s time for his next lesson. He shows up and hacks his way through the tune showing some, albeit minimal, improvement on the piece since last week. His teacher says “Nice job, Marvin, that was pretty good. Now work on this tune for next week…”. Thus perpetuating this cycle of mediocrity.

Enter Fran. Fran takes a very different approach to learning the tune. She read a blog post (on naturally;-) where she discovered the practice concept of ‘divide and conquer’. And she uses what I call the power practice paradigm.

Here are the steps:

  1. Determine your desired result (What’s your target? What’s your goal?
  2. Find the Very Next Step.
  3. Practice until you own it.
  4. Push the envelope

Using this basic paradigm, Fran approaches the tune in a very different way than Marvin.

Step one: She begins by getting clear about her desired result. By next Thursday when she has her next lesson she wants to be able to:

Play the standard effortlessly from memory emulating the style of Miles Davis from a recording she has of him playing the standard. She wants to be able to nail the notes, the rhythms, the phrasing, the articulation and the tempo. And play along with Miles as accurately as possible.

Fran knows that working on the entire tune at the same time is a recipe for failure. She knows that she must divide the goal into tiny steps that she can absorb and nail one at a time. She begins by thinking through her practice plan for the next 7 days. “An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of progress.”

After a few minutes of mulling it over, she comes up with the following basic plan.

Day 1: Listen to the entire melody 5X to let the overall shape and sound soak into ear a little bit.
Then break the tune up into bite-size pieces – phrases or even sub-phrases – and listen to each phrase one at a time until each phrase is familiar.
Day 2: Practice singing along with each phrase one at a time. then practice singing each phrase one at a time without the recording.
Day 3: Find the notes of the melody on her instrument, one phrase at a time. Use the lead sheet or a transcription help if really gets stuck.
Day 4: Practice the notes and rhythms, one phrase at a time until they are easy.
Practice connecting the phrases – 2 at a time, 3 at a time, etc – until she can easily perform the entire melody on her instrument.
Day 5: Record herself playing the melody. Listen back to the recording 5X and answer the following questions: is she accurately hitting the notes? Is she accurately executing the rhythms? Fix any issues one phrase at a time.
Day 6 -7: Continue to record & critique and compare her recordings to the Miles version. Methodically dig deeper into the details like dynamics, articulation, rhythmic duration, etc. Again focus in on these details one at a time and phrase by phrase.

Now, that’s a lot to work on in one week. It really depends on your level and current ability. Your plan might take a month. Or it might take 2 days. It depends on you. But the principles are the same.

She zooms in on a musical detail and purposefully works on it.

Now, when she goes to her lesson a week from now, she’s gonna have a very different performance than old Mediocre Marvin, isn’t she?

She very deliberately worked on her ability to play that standard, one piece at a time. At the end of the week, she will have improved her ears, learned from the tradition, increased her musical awareness. And she’ll be exponentially better at phrasing melodies. Those benefits will of course carry over to the next tune she works on. And the next. She’ll continue to learn jazz faster as she continues to get better at ‘her process’.

Law #6: The Edge of Your Ability

Have you ever had the privilege of watching a really good player practice? They sound good, right? Even though they’re practicing. There’s a reason for that and it’s not necessarily what you think.

Here’s the deal. When you practice, you want to experience success nearly 100% of the time. Meaning you want to be able to execute what you’re working on nearly 100% of the time. Whether it’s scales, melodies, improv concepts, reading, etc. In this way, you’ll reap the maximum benefit from your practice sessions.

And to experience success nearly 100% of the time you must be practicing at the edge of your ability. You practice targets can’t be too hard. And they can’t be too easy. There’s a sweet spot that is slightly past your current level of ability. So that it stretches you and causes you to improve. But you can actually play it. It’s challenging but doable to quote my mentor Hal Crook. That’s where you want to exist in the practice room.

If you're butchering your practice you're working on stuff that is too hard. This is what Marvin was doing in the previous example. He was trying to take on the whole tune at the same time, but he didn’t have the ability to do that. So he butchered it. Again and again.

And here’s the big problem with that approach. You are a creature of habit. We all are. Just about everything you do in life is affected by your habits in some way. Everything you play on your instrument is a habit. Dave Liebman explains that the point of practice is to turn the unfamiliar into a habit.

Here’s another quote from an article Liebman wrote:

"The goal of any practicing is to instill new or changed behavior via repetition towards habitualizing the activity until it becomes instinctive and can be accomplished without conscious thought."

With every repetition, you make during your practice sessions (and your life!) you are creating and/or strengthening neural pathways & networks in your brain. This is how habit is formed and intensified.

Marvin was repeating musical mistakes and melody hack-jobs over and over and over. He was repeating failure over and over and over. So what do think he was programming into his brain? Mistakes, failure, and hack-jobs!

This is why it’s so important to practice at the edge of your ability. So that excellent execution of the musical material becomes habitual and effortless. And so that success becomes habitual. Marvin is doing the opposite of that in the practice room.

Fran was right there at the edge of her ability. She broke everything down into easy steps that her brain could absorb like a sponge. She learned the tune at a high level, fast. And she also continued to build and strengthen her excellent musical habits in the process.

So no matter what you’re working on in the shed, search for the edge. Find it and push forward on that edge every day with your playing. And as you do your progress with music will accelerate. There is no doubt about it…

In part 3 we'll review the final 3 irrefutable laws of The Big Jazz Puzzle.

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