A Structured Approach to ‘Woodshedding’ Improvisation
By Jesse McBee
Most professional musicians arrive at a certain level of proficiency resultant of years of disciplined, consistant practice. We have numerous books and studies making their way around colleges, universities and conservatories and into course curriculum dealing with performance practice and human learning, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which discusses his “10,000 hour rule,” which states that one must have 10,000 hours of focused practice to become an expert at something. Regardless of one’s take on Gladwell’s oft-disputed work, there is no question that all professionals know there is only one way to achieve proficiency in the arts, and that it through repeated, intelligent practice. We’re taught this from a young age, beginning with practice logs and daily assignments in band class. In private lessons, most teachers stress consistant practice over length of practice time. Through college and into one’s professional life, we have daily routines that we establish to maintain and build upon our technique on our instruments.
It is the knowledge of the importance of routines that can make learning jazz improvisation frustrating to many, particularly those who are already accomplished performers on their instrument. I have heard countless college students and professionals state the desire to be a proficient improviser, whether for personal enjoyment or to be more martketable in diverse settings, but they often state they “don’t know what to practice.” The benefit of living in the Information Age is that we have countless practice aids and free resources at our fingertips with immeasurable amounts of information; I would counter that the downside is exactly the same. Without specific direction and goals, it is impossible to focus on building the foundations of improvisation. Couple this lack of structure with the frustration that comes when one is a professional stepping far outside of his or her comfort zone, and you have a recipe for abandonment. The solution to this issue is the development of a structured, goal-oriented daily routine geared toward developing skills needed to become an improvising musician.
Most serious music students a great deal of time learning about their favorite artists. This usually leads us to inquire as to who they have studied with. This is a fantastic process that benefits the student’s playing, historical perspective, expands the students knowledge of prominent artists, and his or her philosiphies as an educator. However, this can be misleading when dealing with jazz and commercial artists. I will speak to examples of jazz and commercial trumpet players, as that is my area of specialty, with the acknowledgment that this most certainly applies to any instrument. Clifford Brown reportedly practiced from the Arban’s method, which would explain his formidable technique, but the development of that text predates the prominence of bebop, so there is certainly nothing dealing with the application of improvisation. Randy Brecker famously studied with Bill Adam and Carmine Caruso; there are countless versions and accounts of Adam’s teachings on various websites and online forums, and there are multiple published texts dealing with Caruso’s teaching. One that has become quite popular in the last ten years is Flexus by Laurie Frink and John McNeil, both Caruso students. This book deals with angular lines, large intervals, and scales frequent used by contemporary improvisers, but doesn’t deal with application, as the purpose is to serve technique development. Many young improvisers find their way to Aebersold books and recordings, which are yet another fantastic resource. While Aebersold himself stresses the importance of listening, and provides a recommended discography in every book, many students try to learn online the chord/scale theory and the tunes in the books. This leads to students who possess some of the language, but not the correct syntax, and a very specific and limited repertoire of tunes. Even college students who take jazz improvisation and jazz theory courses often leave frustrated and overwhelmed with more knowledge than they can apply, and no long term plan for development.
Many students study some of the aforementioned texts and practice aids with the intention of becoming a more proficient improviser. As noted, however, the student is often left unsatisfied with the end result, having more knowledge of theory, but a seeming inability to apply it in a way to emulate the artists that inspired the student to pursue improvisation. This is usually the result of an imbalanced jazz practice routine, and a misconception of the role these texts are supposed to take on. The most common resource used (and misused) is the Jamey Aebersold play-along series. This series does many things quite well; it teaches chord scale relationships in an organic fashion, by utilizing existing common chord progressions. It also results in the student having familiarity with a large number of standard tunes. The downside is when the student uses this exclusively. When used as a replacement for listening and aural training (transcription), the student lacks the idiomatic language one must possess to communicate effectively.
There are also countless method books dealing solely with idiomatic language. One such example is Patterns for Improvisation by jazz saxophone legend Oliver Nelson. This is certainly an interesting and valuable resource, but when not used as intended, can inhibit progress. The most common mistake is for the student to use resources like this, and published transcriptions as a replacement for transcribing themselves. While this is a valid source for idiomatic language, and can certainly be incorporated into a daily routine, it lacks the benefits of the intensive listening and resultant aural skills obtained through transcription. This is akin to learning Spanish from an English to Spanish dictionary, and then expecting that you will converse fluently with native speakers.
It is my contention that the solution to this issue is to insist that jazz improvisation curricula focus more on providing tools for long term development, instead of solely relying on overloading the student with information in hopes that some of it is mastered and retained. This means that students need to be trained to practice jazz by utilizing a daily regimen that parallels their technique practice. Too often, jazz education falls victim to one of it’s most powerful assets, which is aural training. While aural awareness is a vital component of playing jazz at a high level with other musicians, and needs to be addressed daily, I feel many educators use language that ends up being more discouraging than helpful. Many times, students are told that they will or should “just hear it.” I believe this is presented in a well-intentioned way, attempting to redirect the student’s focus on the music as opposed to theory and technique. However, many students begin to doubt their musicianship when they are unable to immediately hear harmonic concepts and bits of jazz language, when in fact they haven’t been given the necessary assets in regards to aural training and listening to assimilate idiomatic language. It is vital to emphasize to students that learning jazz language and developing a personal style is a life-long process resultant of consistent practice, listening, and playing with others, not simply a knowledge base you can acquire from taking an academic course for one or two semesters.
In order to develop a structured jazz practice routine, we should first analyze some of the most structured aspects of our daily playing routines and commitments. For most professional musicians, the most structured and regimented aspect is technique practice, or the “daily routine.” While there are countless methods and schools of thought on developing technique on a given instrument, the general concepts and end goals often overlap. The broad categories that I felt most could agree upon were tone development, technical studies, scales and articulation, etudes and repertoire. For trumpet players, this would involve a routine consisting of flow studies, Clarke studies and lip slurs, various scales (single and multiple tonguing), then finally etudes, solo pieces and/or excerpts. While the specifics and nature of technical studies and repertoire will vary among instruments, it is likely that strong parallels can still be drawn to the sample routine presented.
This begs the question, “Can parallels be drawn to practicing jazz improvisation?” They absolutely can! We have countless practice aids, many dealing with specific concepts, comprehensive theory texts, and classic recordings no further away than our smartphones. This is precisely why, in my opinion, many students state that they “don’t know what to play,” or are overwhelmed with information. Most of these resources lack a structured plan for long term development. We need to first identify possible parallels to technical routines. I suggest the following:
Tone development = Playing root notes, in time, to chord changes.
Technique = Practice of patterns and harmonic concepts in all twelve keys.
Scales = Practice bebop scales and altered scales with varied articulations, including “jazz” articulations.
Etudes = Practice of transcriptions
Repertoire = Review previously learned tunes
Categorizing jazz practice in this way gives a framework for areas students and instructors can touch upon daily, encouraging long term growth and goals.
While there is a benefit to identifying key areas to practice daily, and many students will take this as a point of departure for putting things they are already practicing into focus, some still may benefit from even more specificity and structure. While some students may be apprehensive to this idea, as it initially seems to be the antithesis of creative improvisation, it is important to reinforce to the student the idea that this structure and discipline is what allows later artistic freedom; this is no different than in the study of and later mastering of classical repertoire. With this in mind, I have provided a sample jazz routine that I have used myself and with students:
-Learning new tunes: Play melody, play bass notes to changes, play bass line, improvise, play melody out. This should all be done in time.
-Pick three ii-V7 patterns to play through the cycle.
-Pick one key daily and play all modes, bebop, and altered scales.
-Transcribe for 20 minutes.
-Review three tunes from current repertoire committed to memory
When learning new tunes, I recommend at first attempting them by ear, and then if necessary later consulting a leadsheet to double-check one’s results (keeping in mind that many leadsheets and fakebooks are riddled with inaccuracies). When it comes to selecting patterns to practice, I enjoy extracting them from transcriptions I’ve worked on, as it allows one to dig deeper into the solo. However, there is nothing wrong with utilizing patterns extracted from published materials; the goal is simply fluency in every key. As for transcription, if twenty minutes is a daunting prospect at first, them start with smaller pieces. Perhaps the initial goal is transcribe four bars a day, then eight, and then an ‘A’ section, etc. Again, the consistancy is more important here, as speed will come as the students practices the skill set more.
This offers a structured supplement to other daily practice, address the needs of both aspiring and experienced improvisers. It also allows flexibility to fit into any balance of playing commitments; the amount of time spent on any given section is up to the student. By placing more focus on methods to long term growth as improvisers, and more sound methodology for the application of theory in jazz education, we can make the art form more accessible to all students of music. By eliminating the mystique of learning improvisation, we enhance the art by creating more informed practicioners and appreciaters.