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When It Makes Sense To Practice Less

 Playing jazz sure was a bumpy road for me. I remember one of my worst days in music school like it was yesterday.

It was my junior year at Berklee College of Music. After 2 years I finally got into the ensemble of my dreams with the legendary jazz musician and educator, Hal Crook.

After playing one tune with the band, Hal kicked me out.

He said I needed more experience playing jazz with musicians. He also said I should schedule and play a session with other players every single day for a year. Every Day!

Well, getting booted from Hal's group was indeed a pivotal point in my musical development. It motivated me to find a better way to learn and advance as a musician. And it taught me some key lessons: Jazz is a music you learn by DOING - WITH other jazz musicians!

It's one of the best things that ever happened to me. But the story doesn't stop there.

You see, I followed Hal's advice. I played sessions nearly every day for an entire year. Most days I played more than one.

One day I called Hal up to see if I could sit in on one of the jam sessions he organized every Wednesday. He set up a trio hit for me with himself and a bass player. It was an amazing experience and super fun.

The best part was that Hal said I was ready for his ensemble. So I joined it once again the next semester.

And I played amazing jazz solos every day and lived happily ever after;)

Okay, that's not what happened at all. Instead, I actually got my ass kicked by Hal for an entire semester. I thought it was hard getting kicked out of his ensemble! Nope, turns out being in it was even harder!

My jazz ability was challenged to the core by Hal. And he helped me realize that I still had many holes in my playing.

For instance, I discovered that I actually had really poor rhythm. I had very little rhythmic vocabulary to speak of. And I had a very hard time improvising with rhythm.

Honestly, I feel like I just kind of bullshitted the rhythm in my solos. Not really playing anything clear or interesting. I really just played the same few vague and wishy-washy ideas over and over.

This resulted in some pretty frustrating days in Hal's ensemble. There's nothing like being put on the hot seat and having your playing torn apart in front of your peers.

Well, thanks to Hal 'No Sugar Coating' Crook, this was another major turning point in my playing.

I realized that I had to do 3 things:

  1. Systematically study and master the fundamentals of jazz rhythm.
  2. Learn and assimilate new rhythmic vocabulary - on purpose and regularly.
  3. Practice applying this new vocabulary at 'the edge of my ability'. In other words in a way that was doable. But still a bit challenging.

And that's exactly what I did.

  • I studied the crap out of eighth note rhythms.
  • I learned, memorized and assimilated tons of rhythmic phrases - some I got off recordings, some came from books. But I was dead set on developing a true vocabulary.

  • And I practiced applying my vocabulary on real solos. I started by using a single 1 bar rhythm at a time. For an entire solo. Then I did a second, a third and so on. I began using 2 rhythms, 3 rhythms, and just kept moving forward.

I started as simple as I could - or rather as simple as I had to in order to make it doable. And I pushed forward at the edge of my ability and incrementally developed my rhythmic vocabulary and skill.

Until one day all this practice seemed to just 'click' and I could easily improvise using, repeating, mixing and combining these rhythms into musical statements and new rhythmic ideas.

Ever since then I've been able to fluently solo with my rhythmic vocabulary. And of course, I continue to add to and develop that vocabulary to this day.

Just to be clear, I'm not implying that I know everything there is to know about rhythm. I am merely saying that I can now communicate ideas with my vocabulary to and with other players. I can 'speak' the language. Much like I can speak English and can communicate ideas in that language. This was all the result of the step by step process I went through to get a handle on jazz rhythm.

Here are a few steps you can take to do the same thing.

  1. Find a rhythm - Ideally, learn one by ear but learning from a page is fine at first.

  2. Learn it and practice it until you can play it easily without thinking or making a mistake. Sing it, inner hear, play it, listen to it. Tap it, clap it or play it on a single pitch. Don't worry about notes or changes at this point. You're just learning a piece of rhythmic language.

  3. Apply it to a solo. Use just this rhythm to solo over a tune with any notes you choose. That, of course, assumes that you can already improvise over chord changes. If that's your case, and you struggle with rhythm like many students, this might be just what the jazz doctor ordered.

    If you're not quite fluent on the changes yet you can still use this method. In fact, using a single preset rhythm is a great way to get started with improvisation.

    Here's a little prep work for harmonic control.

  4. Choose a standard.
    Learn the roots of each chord, bar by bar.
    Practice playing through the roots until you can easily do it and hear it.
    Then practice playing through the roots using your 1 bar rhythmic phrase.
    Then repeat that exercise with the 3rds, then the 5ths. And finally the 7ths.

  5. Next, you can begin to actually improvise with combinations of the chord tones you just practiced. But, keep it very simple and limited at first. You might decide to use just the root and the 3rd.

    Again, you'd use JUST the 1 bar rhythm you learned. But now you're choosing - letting your ear guide your decision as much as possible - between the root and the 3rd of each chord. This is the beginnings of improvisation. Next, you would do other combinations of chord tones like:

    1, 3
    1, 5
    1, 7
    3, 5
    3, 7
    5, 7

    Then:
    1, 3, 5
    1, 3, 7
    1, 5, 7
    3, 5, 7
    1, 3, 5, 7

  6. Next, you could move on to what are called digital patterns:
    1, 2
    1, 2, 3
    1, 2, 3, 4, 5
    1, 2, 3, 5


From here you could move on to chord scales, approach tones and all kinds of more advanced techniques. Always moving forward at the edge of your ability.

Once you go through all of this with your first jazz rhythm, you'll do it all again with a second rhythm. And then again with a third, fourth, and so on, as you assimilate new vocabulary.

The first few times you do this on a tune it's gonna be challenging. But after you do it once or twice you'll start to develop real harmonic control. And you'll be developing your rhythmic vocabulary at the same time.

Learn a bunch of rhythms at first, maybe 10 or 20. Then begin to combine them and improvise using the same steps as above but choosing between 2 rhythms.

The idea is to limit what you practice so you can gain REAL harmonic control and REAL ability to improvise over tunes.

Once you go through this whole method over several key standards & tunes you'll have a very strong foundation in improvisation and solid harmonic control. You'll have a rhythmic vocabulary and you'll be able to improvise using it over real tunes.

The moral of the story here is 3 fold:

  • You can only learn jazz by playing jazz.
  • In order to play jazz, you need vocabulary and harmonic control.
  • You must simplify your approach so that you can find and practice at the edge of your ability.

I hope this stuff is helpful for your playing like it was for mine!

Now, if you dig this approach, your playing would certainly benefit from going through Joel Yennior's course The 5 Week Jazz Musician: Using the Real Jazz Method to develop a strong foundation in improvisation.

It incorporates this approach in a thorough and holistic way and includes must know jazz rhythms, improv examples, practice patterns, demonstrations, lead sheets, play-along tracks, and step by step lessons & lesson plans.

It's a really solid method to get your jazz improv foundation rock solid.

Go ahead and get started today for just a buck! Details here.

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