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The Big Jazz Puzzle: Part 3

Law #7: The Power of Musical Awareness

This is a biggie.

Your progress as a musician depends directly on the quality of your awareness.

But it’s about much more than just progress. Your sound, your feeling, your vibe, your connection to your true voice, your growth & development as an artist – hell, as a human being – all depend on the level of awareness you bring to your music (and to your life!)

Therefore, you must seek to consistently expand & cultivate your awareness of:

  • Your sound
  • Your execution
  • The content you play
  • Your body
  • Solo development
  • Interest and Shape
  • The other players
  • The tune
  • Your relationship to the other players
  • The room
  • The audience
  • And so on…

In every situation, you must assume that you can always deepen your awareness. (You Can)

You can always hear more, feel more, notice more.

Awareness will help you learn.
Awareness will help you mature.
Awareness will help you connect.
Awareness will help bring you into the now, into the moment. Which is where music happens, btw.

So, let’s dig into a few practical ways to develop your awareness. We’ll start with one of the most powerful methods available to you:

#1 Recording & Critiquing.

Simply put, the level of awareness you can bring to a specific practice session depends greatly on what it is you are practicing.

And one of the most powerful ways to expand your awareness is to record yourself playing and then listen back. (Here’s a solid and fairly inexpensive recorder)

You will notice glaring issues, as well as tiny details that you had no idea were there during your actual playing. You will find things you don’t like that need improvement. And you’ll find things that sound better than you thought.

As you practice recording on a regular basis you’ll begin to expand and develop your ‘macro’ view of the music. You’ll begin to see the big picture and notice things about your development, your ideas, your dynamic shape, your swing feel, your energy level, your focus, your accuracy as well as the things you tend to play on auto-pilot.

Recording yourself is a truly empowering practice technique. You can learn and expand your awareness by recording anything you’re working on.

Including:

  • Improvisations over a tune
  • Melodies
  • Chord Voicings
  • Etudes
  • Free improvisations
  • Improvisation exercises
  • Jam sessions
  • Gigs
  • Even technical work like scales or approach note exercises

Recording and listening back with open ears will teach you more than you might imagine about your playing. And it will continue to expand that macro view. Which is so important for a jazz musician to develop.

That macro view of the music will allow you to create solos that tell a story, connect with the audience, help create a cohesive set with the rest of the band. And it will help you to play by ear. The stronger your awareness gets and the more you develop your macro view the more natural it will become to let your ear be your guide and compose great music on the fly.

And recording will help you develop that awareness and macro view more than just about anything else.

There are two other tools I should mention that can help with this as well.

#2 Using a practice mirror

A mirror can obviously help you become aware of physical issues while you practice. Does your body look relaxed? Are you holding any unnecessary tension in your shoulders? How do your hands look? Is your face all scrunched up with the stock ‘expressive musician face’? Which is really just a sign of internal tension.

On top of physical awareness, playing & practicing in front of a mirror can help bring your focus to your practice especially if you're prone to space out.

It’s very common for some cats to drift into autopilot where they mindlessly run scales or exercises and stare out the window thinking about what they’ll have for dinner or a date with that cute guy/gal from work, or that new Netflix show that’s coming out tonight, etc.

It’s very difficult to space out when you’re staring at yourself in the mirror.

#3 Recording Video & Critiquing

In this case, you can actually hear the music you play, but also notice your body, level of focus, facial expressions, etc. And with smartphones, it’s so easy to do these days.

A word to the wise: The sound quality of your recording is not that important. Obviously, you want to have good sound on your recording. But you’re not making a record here. You just need to be able to clearly hear your playing so you can learn from it.

Heck, the great educator Hal Crook still uses a crappy boombox to record his sessions. He certainly has the money to buy better recording gear. No doubt he could have an engineer friend come to his studio and hook him up with a pro set-up. But he keeps it simple. Because you don’t need fancy equipment to do this. And you certainly shouldn’t let lack of pro gear stop you from recording your playing. Your iPhone or droid is more than enough to get started.


#4 Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is one of the best ways to expand your awareness. I meditate every morning for about 20 minutes. I highly recommend this practice. Simply place your attention on your breath and observe. You can also practice focusing your awareness on other parts of your body: Your back, your shoulders, your feet, your legs, your left hand, etc. Just notice and feel and observe.

This will begin to carry over to your playing after a short time. But I would consciously carry it over too. In other words, do ‘playing meditations’. This is where you simply bring the idea of mindfulness to your practice.

Play a groove or a line or just one note. And observe. Observe the sound, the feel, the energy. How does your body feel? Is there tension? While playing notice what your emotional state is like. Notice any tension in your arms, in your back, in your legs, in your mind?

#5 Focused Listening

Finally, you can always expand your awareness in the context of listening to records. As I mentioned earlier, you must schedule time to listen to music that you love. And I mean real listening sessions where you are doing nothing but listening and digging music that you connect with.

Here are a few ideas to maximize your listening sessions:

  1. Listen with a purpose. What are you listening for? How is the time feel? What is the energy level of the music? What do you notice about the dynamics? The solo shape? The interaction of the band? It can be very useful to tie your listening sessions into your practice plan as well. Are you working on your articulation? Then focus on the different player’s articulation during their solos and their comping.

  2. Listen to small pieces of music. Use software like audacity to loop small chunks of music and listen many times. This could be a four-bar phrase, one lick, the 1st A section of the head, etc. Let the details of this small selection reveal themselves to you over repeated listenings.

  3. Use mindfulness meditation in conjunction with listening. Close your eyes and put your attention on the music and passively observe all that you hear. When your attention drifts - and it will - just bring it back to the music.

Make your attention & mindfulness a priority and over time you will revolutionize your playing and possibly even your life.

Law #8: The Law of The Vital Few

In this law, we’re gonna take a look at something called the 80/20 rule – or the law of the vital few.

The law is quite simple actually. And yet truly profound, with the power to dramatically change the path of your music (or anything that you apply it to.)

This law basically states that 80 percent of effects are the result of 20% of causes.

Let me explain and give you a little backstory. In 1896 an Italian economist observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. No surprise there!

But he went on to observe this 80/20 distribution in just about every other facet of life.

For instance, he noticed that, in his garden, 80% of the peas he harvested came from just 20% of his plants.

Just to be clear, 80/20 is just meant to illustrate the disproportionate distribution in nature and the world. It could be 90/10, 60/40, etc. But it’s very rarely even.

If you look around the world you will see just how prevalent this law really is. For instance, let’s look at jazz and popular music.

Are there any time signatures that are used more than all the others? Um, 4/4 anyone.

How about keys? There is an interesting study I came across on hooktheory.com. These guys analyzed 1,300 pop tunes and discovered some interesting things.

C is by far the most commonly used key – 26% of the time. The next most common key is G used less than half as often as C at 12%. Check out their study for lots of other observations.

Take a look at jazz. I haven’t analyzed 1300 jazz standards. But a quick look through any real book will make it abundantly clear that ii-7 V7 I progressions are everywhere in jazz.

So, what’s the point of all this 80/20 stuff?

When you understand the vital few in a given situation you are empowered to focus on the things that will have the biggest impact on your advancement.

For instance, if you want to be able to play jazz, sit in at local jam sessions, play gigs, etc you must master ii-7 V7 I progressions. You must develop the vocabulary for navigating two fives in all 12 keys. Period. End stop.

Doing so will get you way more than half way there, harmonically speaking.

Another way to apply this law is with standards called at jam sessions. Of all the standard tunes that exist, you’ll find that only a tiny fraction of them are called at your local jam sessions. So if you wanted to succeed and perform well you could start with the most common 25 tunes. That would give you a good base to navigate most sessions.

I’m not saying you only want to work on the most common tunes. How many more times do we really want to here Autumn Leaves or My Romance at a dive bar jam session?

But it’s a starting point. And you could actually use this law in reverse as well. When putting together a set for your own band you could shy away from the most common tunes to find new sounds, and open new & fresh improvisational opportunities. This could also make you stand out on the local scene.

The point is that not everything in music is as important as everything else. Get clear on your ultimate goals and then choose your topics, targets, and objectives based on what’s going to have the most impact on your success.

One fantastic way to apply this rule is to evaluate your practice activities based on it.

Keep a practice log each day. Write down everything you practice, the quality of your practice and how beneficial you think each activity is to your progress. Over time this habit of journaling and reflecting will begin to reveal useful insights to you. You may find that listening, recording & critiquing and playing purposeful jam sessions are some of the most useful activities (Hint, Hint).

Or you may find that the focused, purposeful sessions with your practice group are way more beneficial then the time you spend drinking beers and playing the same 4 tunes, in the same keys, at the same tempo every Friday night with your college buddies. (Hint, Hint;-)

What are some other ways you could apply the 80/20 rule?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Forms
  • Chords
  • Other common Progressions
  • Records
  • Arrangements
  • Sessions
  • Teachers
  • Gigs
  • Networking
  • Etc

Law #9: The Great Balancing Act

Let’s wrap up this section with the 9th law of the Big Jazz Puzzle: Balance. This is a very broad concept, and it applies to all areas of your musical progress. From your practice routines to your topics, to your listening, to your sessions and especially to your actual playing.

The concept in and of itself is quite simple. Deceptively simple even. Basically, we want to strive to find a balance in all things – a Yin and Yang if you will.

But remember the 80/20 rule from the last section? The same sort of disproportionate distribution can, and often does apply. In other words, balance doesn’t mean ‘equal parts’. I’ll explain what I mean as we go.

Practice Routine:

When you’re putting together your practice routine it’s important to balance out your various topics. You’ll typically cover multiple topics/targets each day. And you’ll definitely want to consider balance when making your choices. In other words, is everything on your list technical, scale pattern oriented stuff? Then it’s not balanced. You’ll want to instead eliminate some of the technical and add in other topics to balance it out. Perhaps ear training, or listening, or improvisation.

I know I repeat myself often as far as steering you away from all the scale work. The reason is simple. I’ve coached many people on their practice habits and routines. And I’ve found that many cats get REALLY stuck in that rut of practicing nothing but scales, arpeggios, patterns, etc. And they leave out the really important stuff like listening, improvising, developing/copping vocabulary, playing sessions, etc.

Learning by doing:

We’ve already talked quite a bit about ‘learning by doing’, but it bears repeating so I’ll talk about it again. Are you spending some of your practice time ‘doing’? I.e. playing the music? With other people?

For the first few years I was in music school I made the mistake of spending all of my time in the shed and none of it playing music. My routine was all technical, independence & chops based exercises. And I rarely played with people. I wasn’t an instrumental beginner. I had plenty of chops to play sessions and develop my instincts and musicality. But instead, I made the mistake of working on chops by myself in a decidedly unmusical way. It turned out to be a big mistake.

So, the moral of the story is this: Balance your musical activities as well as your practice routines.

Listening:

That leads us nicely into listening. This is another area that gets cast off like some kind of luxury. It’s not. It’s important. And just because listening is often fun, does not mean that is not uber important to your progress.

Strive to add listening to your daily practice mix and balance your listening activities with your practicing and ‘learn by doing’ activities.

And of course, you’ll also want to balance your listening itself. Listening in a passive way is great. Put music on while you drive to work, or cook dinner or work out. But balance that out with active listening.

***Schedule listening sessions*** These can be with peers and musical buddies. Or by yourself. These are sessions dedicated solely to active mindful listening. This is where you sit down and do nothing but listen to the record aiming to increase your aural awareness and learn something new. You could have a specific focus like time-feel or tone or interaction or form or development. You could tie it into your practice topics. Or, you could be listening to music that is brand new to you. Or you could be listening to the same record every day for a month. I recommend you experiment and find an approach to listening to that is both productive for you (i.e. it helps you see progress) and is one that you can sustain as part of your daily process.

You playing:

Balance applies to your actual playing as well. In fact, balance – and the idea of polar opposites in particular – is a great way to approach improvisation topics.

For instance:

  • Loud / Soft
  • Dense / Sparse
  • Play / Rest
  • Dissonant / Consonant
  • Syncopated / Non-Syncopated
  • Step-wise / Wide Leaps
  • Short Phrases / Long Phrases

And so on.

An excellent way to practice is to choose a topic to focus on like, say, dynamics. Then work on exploring the polar opposites – extremely loud & extremely soft. You could devise simple exercises to work on this.

For instance: play through a tune and play one loud phrase followed by one soft phrase. And alternate in this fashion. Record and listen back 5X and you will become more aware and sensitive to dynamics.

Then you can work to become more subtle and use a full range of dynamics, explore different dynamic shapes and so on. And of course continue to record and critique, asking yourself how does this sound? What do I think about the use of dynamics? Does it work? Is it balanced? How could I do it better? Then record and critique again and again. Until you arrive at a balance. Not a 50/50 balance. A balance between loud and soft that works for YOUR ear and musical tastes.

Your life:

Finally, we’ll touch briefly on balance in your life. I’ve met many cats who tend to put music before everything else in their life. I made this mistake for many years and lost many relationships and opportunities because I had to go practice more. But if your life is not in balance your practice is often not as effective as it could be.

I learned this lesson the hard way. But I heard Wayne Shorter explain it brilliantly. When you think of Wayne, I bet you think of someone who is extremely dedicated to his music. You might think that he puts his art above everything else in his life.

Well, I got the chance to hear Wayne speak about 19 years ago at Berklee. He told a little story that really hit home with me. I’m completely paraphrasing from a 19-year-old memory, but here’s the gist of it.

A reporter asked Wayne ‘what’s it like living a life of music?’ Wayne replied ‘Music is not my life. My life is my life. Music is just one thing I do with my life.’

I think this is a beautiful and very healthy outlook. You can be absolutely driven, passionate and inspired by your music and still not lose sight of all the other important parts of your life. Like your health, and your friends, and your family, and your life partner, and so on.

In fact, imagine that each area of your life is a piece of a wheel. If all of those pieces are working together and in balance, you can really have a fast, smooth ride. In other words, you can continue to progress & grow as a musician and as a person. And it can happen quickly, consistently and smoothly.

Or if you’re out of balance in one or more of those areas it will slow you down and be a very bumpy ride.

Again, it’s not about equal parts. For instance, if your health is out of whack you will not be as effective as a musician. You will have a harder time getting into the zone, into ‘flow state’. But if you’re working on your music for 3-4 hours a day, that doesn’t mean you have to work out at the gym for 3-4 hours a day. A brisk 20-minute walk and 10 minutes of calisthenics might be all you need to maintain good health. And that improvement in your health will carry over to your music. And make your overall ride through life much more smooth.

Finding a balance in all areas of your music and life is a worthwhile cause. I lived for many years completely out of balance. Don’t make the same mistakes I did!

There you have it! The 9 Irrefutable Laws of Musical Success.

I urge you to start experimenting and applying these ideas in your own practice sessions and in your life. You don't need to apply them all at the same time. Take one or two that catch your attention and that make sense to you at this time. And see what happens to your music!

I hope you dug this blog series! If you dig these ideas and you'd like to take the plunge and dive in deep you can. I created an entire course where you can explore each idea more deeply so you can more easily put them into practice in your life and music.

You can dive right into all 9 laws in The Big Jazz Puzzle today.  PLUS, when you get started today, you'll also receive a 2nd jazz training program totally free. Go here for all the deets and to find out about the free course!

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