Do you ever get lost on your solos? Is improvising over form (over a tune) hard for you?
Well, you’re definitely not the only one. Lots and lots of cats claim this as one of their biggest sources of frustration. And there’s nothing more gut-wrenching and panic inducing then being ‘lost at sea’ on the bandstand in front of an audience and your musical peers.
Here’s the thing. Nothing in jazz is really difficult or hard. Including playing soloing over tunes. It’s just unfamiliar. In other words if you are struggling with form it’s not because form is hard. It’s because you haven’t thoroughly internalized the tune and made it ‘familiar’.
The goal of all practice is to turn that which is unfamiliar, into habit – something your ear and autonomic nervous ‘just do’ on their own without your ‘thinking mind’ getting in the way and mucking it all up. It’s the same with playing over tunes.
Below you’ll find 12 ways to attack a tune so you never get lost on form again. Yes, it will take a little work. But after you thoroughly internalize a couple of tunes it will get easier for you. And playing on form will become habitual. Such is the learning curve…
Learn Tunes From The Records
Sure, ye ole Real Book is a helpful tool. But nothing beats learning a tune off the record because you get the tune and the form in your ear from the start. This way you’re not as likely to get caught in that whole ‘thinking music’ trap where you’re mentally trying to keep track of where you are, what chord you’re on and what you should play. Ideally you’ll learn the whole tune from a great recording including melody, chords, form and even some language (i.e. licks, lines and phrases you dig).
Now if learning a tune straight off the record, by ear, sounds daunting and maybe even impossible try something easier. In other words don’t start by trying to learn some really hard Mingus or Wayne Shorter tune by ear. Start with some early Louis Armstrong. Or even blues or early 3 chord rock & roll tunes. And then work your way up to more modern and complex tunes over time.
Analyze & Understand
Whether you learn a tune from a record or from a lead sheet you must understand how the form works before you can practice it.
Take some time and analyze the form. How many different sections are there? How long is each section? Are there repeated sections? Are there any tricky sections? Does the feel change? The key? The vibe? Is it AABA, AABC, ABAC, etc. Once you understand how the form works you are ready for the next step.
Practice Form With The Records
Now that you understand how the form works the next step is to practice keeping your place in the form along with records.
I recommend counting out loud and verbally and physically marking the major segments of the form. For example, while listening along to the recording say outloud:
“Top 2 3 4 | 2 2 3 4 | 3 2 3 4 | 4 2 3 4 | 5 2 3 4 | 6 2 3 4 | 7 2 3 4 | 8 2 3 4 |”
“Bridge 2 3 4 | 2 2 3 4 | 3 2 3 4 | 4 2 3 4 | 5 2 3 4 | 6 2 3 4 | 7 2 3 4 | 8 2 3 4 |”
And to mark the form physically you simply clap your hands at each major section. So clap on beat one of the top as you say the word “Top” out loud. And clap on beat one of the 2nd A, The Bridge, The Last A while verbally marking those sections as well.
Practice this until you always ‘just know’ where you are, until it’s ingrained in your brain. Then do it again with another tune…And another…and another…
Master the Melody
Now it’s time to nail the melody to the wall. There’s an old adage in jazz and it’s sage advice to be sure: ‘Let The Melody Be Your Guide’. Of course in order to do that you must completely internalize it.
Here’s a little checklist to do that.
- Find a good recording.
- Listen to get a feel for the whole melody.
- Listen to the first phrase of the melody many times. Depending on the tune that might mean the first few bars. Listen enough to let it sink in.
- Once it’s feeling quite familiar begin to practice singing it along with the recording. Do that until you can easily sing along without thinking.
- Hear it back in your aural imagination. Play the recording of the phrase and listen attentively. Then turn off the recording and practicing hearing the phrase back in your mind’s ear.
- Then practice singing the phrase without the recording. At this point you could even record yourself singing it to see if you’re hitting all the notes and rhythms. Note: We’re not trying to sound like Frank Sinatra here. This is for practice sake. If you’re not a singer, don’t worry about sounding ‘well’. That’s not the point.
- Once you can sing it and internally hear it, it’s time to find it on your instrument, note by note if you have to at first.
- Once you have it, practice it until it ‘plays itself’. In other words, until you can easily play it without thinking, struggling or making mistakes. Again, recording yourself and listening back to check in on your work is an extremely effective practice.
- Then work your way through the tune and repeat this process with each of the other phrases until you’ve gotten through the entire tune.
- Then go back through and repeat 3-8 with the larger sections – 4 bar phrases, 8 bar phrases, and then eventually the whole melody.
Work on the melody until you know it cold…until you can play it and sing it without hesitation and with ease. Until it becomes ‘habit’. When you know the melody at that level – where you can easily play it and sing without thinking – getting lost on the tune is gonna be much more unlikely.
Improvise On The Melody
Before improvising on the chord changes of the tune, try improvising around the melody. Play the melody over and over, improvising more freely each time, but keeping the melody in your ear as you play.
You should ideally be able to “hear” and return to the melody at any point during your improvisation. So stay close to the melody at first only changing a note or two here and there. Then gradually begin to embellish more and stray further from the melody – as your ear let’s you. Be patient. As the melody becomes more and more internalized you will naturally become more free with it. And more ideas will present themselves to you. But patience is key here.
Work on the Roots
Next we want to really dig into the roots of the chords. Practice playing the roots of each chord in rhythm, with and without accompaniment until you can do so without thinking.
Also, it’s an excellent idea to practice singing through the roots. This could be challenging for you at first. But it’s well worth the effort.
Once you feel comfortable playing and singing the roots you can begin to improvise on them with simple rhythms. In other words solo over the tune but use only the roots over each chord. Do this with accompaniment (a practice partner or play along track).
Then The Other Chord Tones
Once you feel comfortable playing & singing & improvising with the roots you move on to the other chord tones. So, you might start with the thirds, then the 5ths, then the 7ths
Play, sing, memorize and improvise with each chord tone individually. Going through this process will give you tremendous harmonic control and will do wonders for your hearing. Not to mention your ability to play over form and not get lost!
Now, that might sound quite difficult and it might sound like a ton of work. You’re not wrong to think that! It is!
But once you go through that process a few times it will get easier and easier. And you’re ears, harmonic control and ability to play over tunes & form will improve exponentially.
Practice With Static Rhythms
Next you can start to improvise over the tune using chord tones, chord scales, your own melodic vocabulary, etc. But limit the rhythm so you don’t have to think about that.
What you want to do is create or find a simple 1-measure rhythm, and play this rhythm over the entire form of the tune, changing the notes to fit each new chord change. This will help simplify your improvisation and give you a better feel for the harmonic rhythm of the chord progression.
Plus, as a bonus, it’s a great way to assimilate rhythmic vocabulary. While you’re limiting your rhythm so you can focus on the changes, at the same time you’re also learning and practicing rhythmic language by working with one rhythm at a time. As you repeat the same rhythm many times that rhythm will become totally habitualized and familiar. Repeat this process with another rhythm, then another, and so on. Pretty soon you’ve quite a strong rhythmic vocabulary to work with.
Work On The Building Blocks of Form
This is an abstract way of practicing just form. For this exercise you’ll literally practice getting use to feeling each basic ‘building block’ of form – 1 Measure, 2 Measures, 4 Measures, 8 Measure, etc).
Using a metronome, practice improvising for a single measure (four beats), and then stop. You can improvise freely (no specific harmony), or over one particular chord or scale.
Do this again until you have a strong feel for what it “feels” like to play for just one measure. Repeat the exercise with 2-measure, 4-measure, and 8-measure phrases.
I used to work on this kind of stuff with my practice buddy Andy Voelker. We would also work on 16 measure phrases, 32 measure phrases and even work on standard forms like AABA or ABAC. We wouldn’t worry about tunes or chords, just the abstract form. This is a really interesting way to add some structure to ‘free’ playing too.
Pacing – The Play / Rest Method
Solo over the form of the tune using “Play/Rest” exercises: ex. Play for 2-measures, then Rest for 2-measures. Do this for several choruses, and then reverse the pattern to Rest for 2-measures, Play for 2-measures.
Also experiment with different odd measure groupings (Play for 1-measure, Rest for 2-measures, etc.) until you feel confident starting and stopping your phrases anywhere in your solo. The possibilities are endless here. Practice different play/rest combinations using 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc measures of play and rest.
This will help you learn to hear where you are and keep your place even when you’re not playing. It will also make you more sensitive and aware of using space in your solo. So it’s kind of a double whammy…
Learn By Doing
You’ve no doubt heard me rant about this by now. But, jazz is a music you learn by doing. You have to get out there and play it in order to learn how to play it better. So, while all of these exercises are great, once you’ve gone through them a bit, get out and play a session. This way you can learn in the moment what’s working, what’s not and what you need to revisit in the shed.
Besides, it’s one thing to play in the very safe and controlled environment of your practice room, especially practicing with a play along track that never makes mistakes. It’s another thing altogether to improvise over form in the chaos of a jam session or gig. And the only way to get truly god at thriving on the bandstand is to get experience doing it.
Record & Critique
And of course my other favorite topic to rant about: Recording! Nothing will increase your awareness and make you a better listener like recording and critiquing. Record yourself doing some/all of these exercises. Then record yourself playing over the tune with a play along. Finally record yourself playing at a session or gig. Then listen back and learn. Listen multiple times. You’ll find out if you’re playing the tune and form accurately. You’ll find out if/where you’re getting off. You’ll get valuable insight into what you need to do more of in the shed to keep getting better.
There you have it. 12 ways to practice tunes so you never get lost again. If you actually take the time and go through this process it will change the way you play. It will make you much more confident playing over form and much stronger of a player.
And it won’t take as long as you think. Do this on a few tunes and it will begin to get easier and easier for you.
P.S. Obviously, as a jazz musicians, there’s NOTHING more important than your ears.
If you’d like a deep dive into playing by ear and ear training in general I’d recommend you check out Joel Yennior’s ‘Jazz Ear Training Workshop’.
Check it out at the link below.
Hear What You Play, Play What You Hear.