Pedagogy: How Do I Get Started? by Joe Dollard
An Introduction to Jazz Improvisation/Part 1 of 4
In the last 30 years or so, I’ve had the honor of playing with some really fine musicians and almost all of them have had at least a passing interest in jazz improvisation. Some have been very interested but have never done anything to get started, while others have played a little jazz in school but then stopped when they got “serious” on their instruments. It always seemed odd to me that so many musicians are interested, but so few follow through and begin having fun playing this original American art form. The question that I’ve been asked most often in regard to jazz is “How do I get started?” Although there are more methods and materials available today than ever before, most musicians are completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the task when they start approaching jazz improvisation. They start to feel like they need to learn every tune and every pattern in every key at every tempo and be able to hear everything! While this would be awesome, it’s my belief that this is why many fine musicians just give up and never experience the freedom and joy of improvisation. In this article, I’d like to give you an overview of how I think about and approach this huge topic and hopefully simplify it and give you some tools to work with. In future articles, we can discuss each part more thoroughly, but for now, let’s just look at the big picture.
A Three-Fold Approach
While at the University of North Texas, I heard many great jazz musicians and quickly discovered that they all had different approaches to learning improvisation. There were some that played almost completely by ear, some that practiced tons of patterns and scales, some that approached it historically, lifting solos and listening constantly, and others that had learned tons of tunes and had a lot of “real world” experience. In addition, the improvisation classes gave me yet more things to work on and Rich Matteson, who taught at North Texas at the time, would show me even more. To be honest, I was completely overwhelmed. I spent a lot of time trying to practice all of it but was very discouraged because I never really felt like I was making progress. Through the years, though, I began to organize everything I was exposed to into three broad, basic categories. I now think of these like a three-legged stool. Any player that is missing one of these three main elements is like a stool with just two legs…you can use it, but it’s not a good solid base to sit on. The best jazz musicians I know have all these three things going for them. While it is true that some great players and teachers are very specialized, a balanced approach using all three of these categories seems to work the best.
1) Ear training, both playing what you can hear and hearing more to play
2) Scales and pattern practice
3) Learning tunes
In this article, I will give you an overview of these three main areas. In the next three issues, we will delve into each one deeper and talk in depth on how to approach them.
The first (and most important) broad category in learning how to improvise is ear training. Improvisation, in its most basic and pure form, is really nothing more than just hearing something good to play in your head and being able to immediately play it on your instrument. I spend about half my ear-training time working on playing things I can already hear and the other half is spent trying to hear better things to play. In the last issue of the ITEA Journal, we talked about the ability to play on your instrument what you hear in your head and I gave you many ways to approach working on this. To improvise well, we also need to work on the ability to HEAR good things to play over different chords, chord progressions, tunes, etc. This involves a lot of singing, lifting solos, and listening to and singing with a lot of great music as often as you can. While I don’t want to go into too much detail right now, you might get started by doing some singing. Go to the piano and start playing some random major triads. While most of us can easily sing the triads from the root up, many people have problems picking out the third or fifth and singing the triad from there. Try this with a friend playing the chords on piano or try using the free Online Ear-Trainer at www.iwasdoingallright.com to play random chords. Once you can do this easily with major triads, try some minor triads or dominant 7th chords. Set the trainer to use different inversions of chords and try singing from the top note you hear down the chord and back up. This is a great way to start hearing the chord tones while improvising. It might also be noted that ear training will greatly help you in ANY style of music you might want to play, not just jazz. There are many, many different things you can do to help you hear more but for now, just try singing some chord tones.
Scales and Patterns
This is how most of today’s young players are taught jazz improvisation. It’s certainly how I was taught and, while there can be much discussion about whether it is the best method, it is obvious that virtually all of the best jazz players have a command of their instrument that is firmly rooted in scales and patterns. They are the meat and potatoes of jazz. However, it is my experience that this kind of practice needs to be IN ADDITION TO ear-training and learning tunes or improvising can become a kind of intellectual exercise of “Scale X over Chord Y” instead of a melodic, creative endeavor. I like to think of scales and patterns in the same way I think of words. They don’t mean anything until you learn how to use them and put them together in different ways but it’s impossible to speak without them. Scales and patterns might not be music but you can make a lot of music out of them once they are under your fingers and in your ear. I will devote an entire article to scale and patterns in a later issue but for now, lets take a short look and get an overview of this kind of practice.
I like to break this section of my practice down between what I call “universal” practice and “chord-specific” practice. First, I practice and learn my scales in a universal fashion, and by that I mean from top to bottom on my horn. For instance, when practicing a “C” scale, you could play from “C” to “C” (what most people do) or you could practice from a predetermined, usable low note on your horn (I use a low concert “E”) to a high note (I use a high “F”). So you’re not really emphasizing any chord tones but rather just the general skill of functioning in the universal key of C. Instead of practicing C to C in thirds, try to do it over the entire range of your instrument. This way, you can play in the key in all of your range whenever you need to. I’ll give you many more examples in Part 3 of this series but you can make up plenty of exercises or patterns to keep yourself busy in the meantime. Eventually, you can do this universal practice in all major and different types of minor keys as well as symmetric scales such as a whole tone or diminished but just work on the major keys at first. The point is to get some overall comfort in playing in general keys and not worry about modes or chord tones.
“Chord-specific” practice is when I take the general skill of playing in a key and start to apply it to specific chords. For instance, I might take that same key of “C” but instead of just playing it from low to high in different ways universally, I can practice playing over a CMaj7 chord. When I do this, I’m practicing chord tones and coming up with different patterns that specifically fit that chord. Learn the chord tones all over the range of your instrument and practice starting from each one. I could also play the same parent key of “C” over a G7 chord but I would adjust to play different chord tones and patterns to fit that chord. I could also play Dmin7 as long as I used the Dorian sound. Again, my universal scale practice would get me comfortable in the general key of “C” but my chord-specific practice would get me comfortable with the specific chords that come from that key. If this sounds like a foreign language to you, I highly recommend Dan Hearle’s excellent book on jazz theory called The Jazz Language. He has a step-by-step methodical approach to clearly explaining keys, modes, chords, progressions, and scales that will greatly assist you in knowing which scales sound the best over a particular chord. For now, you can start by doing some chord-specific practice over all of your Major7th chords.
Working on your ear and practicing scales and patterns are like going to the driving range to practice golf. You can learn a lot and make massive improvements but the reason you do it is so you can get out on the course and golf! Playing tunes is like actually golfing! I used to spend hours working on scales and chord patterns but I didn’t know many tunes so I didn’t really have much fun. Learning tunes puts all the ear and scale work in context and lets you start making music. Learning tunes lets you get out of your basement and have fun playing real music with real people, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it? As a matter of fact, I think for most musicians, learning tunes should be the framework for their entire jazz practice session. Instead of working on ear training in a general way, you can work on it within a tune. I highly recommend learning tunes off of a recording instead of off a lead sheet. Find the most famous recording of a tune or the one that really strikes you and start learning it by ear. You can sing the head, sing the root movement of the chords, sing the chord tones, sing the guide tones, sing a solo, etc., and then try playing these things on your horn.
You can also work on scales and patterns by learning tunes. Instead of working on scales in all twelve major keys, you can work on those within the tune you’re learning. You can work on patterns that fit the chords in that tune or certain chord progressions within that tune. In part 4 of this series, I will go into this in much more detail but, for now, pick a tune and do some of the things I just mentioned. In addition, memorize the melody and go ahead and try improvising on it every day. It might take you a few weeks before you start playing well over your first tune but that is OK! The next one will be easier and the next one even easier. After a while, you will quickly learn tunes because they are all a lot alike. After you feel good about playing a tune, put it in a folder titled “Tunes I Know” and start working on another. Keep adding to this folder and pretty soon, you will have a lot to play next time you get a chance with a rhythm section. If someone asks you to play a song you don’t know, just say, “I’m not sure about that one but how about ____________?” and fill in the blank with one of your tunes. Then go home and learn the tune they asked for and ask to play it next week.
Some good first tunes might be:
Blues : C Jam Blues, Blue Seven, Now’s the Time, Bill’s Bounce, Freddie Freeloader, Tenor Madness
Modal : All Blues, Little Sunflower, Maiden Voyage, So What
Latin : Blue Bossa, Song For My Father
Standards : Summertime, Bye-Bye Blackbird, Perdido, Pent-Up House, Solar, A-Train, Tune Up, Work Song, What is This Thing Called Love? Autumn Leaves, Song For My Father
Most of these have some simpler chord progressions that will be easier for you to get in your ear and under your fingers. Of course, there are many simple tunes out there so pick one and get started!
By working on your ear, learning scales/patterns, and learning tunes, you will quickly progress in your efforts to improvise. If you don’t have time for all three aspects every day, pick two of them and rotate them, or just do one area every practice. It all helps! I firmly believe that most musicians can have a productive and enjoyable jazz session by practicing between 30-60 minutes a day and it’s FUN! I also believe that working on your ear and getting things under your fingers can only help you in all other aspects of your playing. In addition, nothing will teach you to play in the jazz style faster than improvising, so it is time well spent on your horn.
In the Summer 2013 ITEA Journal, I wrote about the ability to play on your instrument what you can already hear well. In the next article of this series, I will go more in-depth about ear training and examine how to start hearing more in your head. As I said, this involves a lot of singing so get those voices ready!
As always, I welcome feedback or any questions you may have about this article. Please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 703-678-9783. Have Fun!! That’s why it’s called PLAYing your instrument!
Joe Dollard began his musical adventures on the trumpet at age 12. He later earned a Jazz Studies degree from North Texas State University where he studied euphonium with Don Little and jazz improvisation with the late Rich Matteson. A founding member of the Dallas Wind Symphony, Joe served as principal euphonium and soloist with the group until 1989 when he joined the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C. He retired in 2009 as leader of the Brass Quartet and Principal Euphonium of the Concert Band. Currently, Joe is greatly enjoying his retirement with his wife, children, and euphonium.