In this 3 part blog series:
I’m going to share with you what is probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned about playing, practicing and learning jazz.
The big idea we’re going to cover over these next few posts is what will allow you to find your own musical voice. Your own sound.
It’s what connects you to your instrument. It allows the music to effortlessly flow through you and out of you.
And, hey. At the end of the day, it’s what makes music FUN.
Now, you know as well as I do, that learning to play jazz at a high level is a complex process. To say the least.
But the lesson that I’m going to share with you is about as close to the ‘secret to playing jazz’ as I think exists.
I didn’t invent it, come up with it or discover it for the first time. I learned it by searching. By looking for it. And by slowly putting the pieces together. For more than two decades.
But when I finally made this connection it literally turned my playing around in a matter of weeks. That was after 20+ years of getting my butt kicked by the music.
I’m willing to bet that you know exactly what I mean about getting your butt kicked by jazz. Chances are that you and I have that in common.
We’ve probably had the same obstacles, struggles – made the same fricking mistakes, even.
In fact I know it’s true. I know it from my own students. And from all the feedback, responses and questions we receive at LearnJazzFaster.com.
And I know that most of my readers – probably you too – have been playing for a while now. And struggling for a while.
- Struggling to sound good.
- Struggling to get better.
- Struggling to play fluidly and fluently.
- Struggling to even have fun with music anymore.
Look we all want to play well. Right?
We all want respect from the other cats on the scene.
We all want to be one of those cats…and kill it on the bandstand. Fly High with our music. Get in that zone. And make the people feel something. What musicians doesn’t want to experience that?
Let me ask you a question:
Have you ever seen some punk kid play his ass off – and the music just seems to effortlessly flow outta him – like he’s not even trying?
And you think to yourself “Jeez this kid can play! I’ve been playing probably 10 years longer than this cat. What the hell?! Is he just more talented than I am? Do I even have what it takes? Why does my playing still kinda suck?”
I used to see cats like that at gigs and jam sessions here in Boston and think “Man…I’m almost 30, this kid is like 20 and he’s kicking my ass. This is not fair. I work hard. I do what I’m supposed to do. I mean what the hell, man?!”
There’s a pretty simple solution to this problem. You still gotta put in some work on your instrument, of course. But There IS a better way. I’ll get to that shortly.
So, by now you might know some of my opinions on music education in general and music teachers specifically. I love SOME of my teachers. Like, studying with Hal Crook was life changing for me. So were all those master classes with Kenney Werner back in the day.
But I have found that many, many teachers actually hold their students back by perpetuating the exact problems and struggles we’re talking about today. The exact problems that we all have to face and, hopefully, get past.
You see all these methods, pattern books, exercises, drills, theory, chord scale crap.,etc, etc, etc…
That stuff obviously has it’s place and has it’s purpose.
The thing is, it doesn’t mean squat if you don’t have one key ingredient in place.
The weird part is that barely anyone ever talks about it or teaches it. Not when I was in school and in lessons anyway. In fact most teachers unknowingly push their students further and further away from playing real music.. And they help create a gaping hole in the student’s musicality.
Honestly that’s why I started LearnJazzFaster in the first place– to help fill in the gaping holes that exist in jazz and music education, and to help would be jazzers have more fun playing and ultimately achieve their most important goals with music.
You see, I’ve been playing since I was about 15. I was handed the method book, pattern book, exercise book, same-old-same-old private teacher route. For like 20 years.
My practicing was disciplined, structured, complicated and consisted of hard work for long hours. Because that’s how I thought learning music was supposed to be. Hard, physical, mechanical, repetitive work.
But, for all that hard work and suffering in the practice room I could never play music the way I wanted to. I always struggled.
And I would meet some cat who never practiced and just played along with records and he would play circles around me.
Sure, I got some physical, mechanical chops together. I got some gigs. I could play real fast sometimes. And I even got some gigs with a few of my heroes, professors and some of the local badasses here in Boston.
But my music was never connected. It was never flowing or easy. I always had to THINK on stage. I would have to think just to hang on and to keep my place in the tune. I would have to think about what to play next. It was hard work and it was nerve-racking. And more often than not I would leave a session or gig with mixed feelings at best and feeling downright crappy at worst.
I would work for hours and hours on technical things in the shed, get up on the bandstand and wonder:
- Why I couldn’t play anything…
- Why my chops would freeze up…
- Why I would sound jerky and un-flowing…
- Why I would get lost…
- Why I didn’t know what to play…
- Why I felt uncreative…
Well, at it turns out, it’s because there was MAJOR flaw in the way I understood music. Specifically, I DID NOT understand how it worked at a basic level. Especially not improvisation.
I never learned how to tap into that part of my brain & body where music actually comes from.
And I never learned how to ‘let go’ or ‘let it flow’ – because I didn’t have the musical resources in place to do it. So for me music was ‘muscled out’, or ‘thought out’ or both. Usually both.
That’s not how Miles played. That’s not how Lester Young played. That’s not how Ornette played. Or any of the great musicians for that matter.
Okay, are you ready for this big ‘secret’?
It’s super simple. The really powerful lessons always are.
Here it is:
If you can hear it…you can play it.
And conversely – if you can’t hear it, you can’t play it.
If you’re too busy thinking about where you are in the form, what scale to use on the next chord, what super hip lick you should pull out of your bag of tricks, what wacky polyrhythm you should play to impress your friends…
…Or you’re trying to figure out what to play next, what harmonic avoid tones you need to watch out for, or you’re trying to remember that Bird lick you transcribed…forget it.
You’re too late. You’re already lost.
And you will never connect with your instrument, the band, the audience or the creative spirit.
On a more earthly level, you’ll never sound like the badass cat you want to be. Or get the respect you really want.
Music is the art form of the ear. Plain and simple.
The great piano player and educator Ran Blake has a book whose title sums it up perfectly – it’s called “The Primacy of the Ear”. Get that book.
I’m fortunate enough to have known Ran for a few years now and to have played and gigged with many of his students. He used to come out to my gigs when I was playing with the band Gypsy Schaeffer. Quirky cat. But really sweet, super heavy and super deep.Knowing Ran and reading his book changed my playing.
Now, this all might sound too simple. Honestly it IS simple. And in next few pages I’m gonna share with you a method you can use to sharpen those ears, feed your musical memory, and get those creative juices flowing.
And I’ll show you how to practice in a way that gets you connected to your instrument. So the music flows.
Let’s start with a quick little story that’ll really help illustrate this approach to music and art.
The first time I ever actually came upon this idea – if you can hear it you can play it – was not in music school, not from my music teachers or from my fellow musicians. It came from a drawing class. Yup. Drawing.
About 15 years ago or so I took a drawing class at the local Cambridge Center for Continuing Education.
I always wanted to learn to draw. And I figured there must be some special techniques, exercises and methods and all that. Just like I thought about music. I showed up the first day and saw a bunch of easels set up in a circle around a table that had 5 or 6 tennis ball on it. There were no desks to sit at, but I took out my notebook and was all ready to start taking notes and writing down all these cool drawing techniques I was about to learn.
But there was no lecture and no lesson plan. No special techniques, exercises or methods.
Instead the instructor had us take out our big drawing pads, put ‘em up on an easel, take out our charcoal and just start drawing these tennis balls.
I thought to myself: “Wait a minute. I don’t even know the right way to hold the charcoal. I can’t just start drawing tennis balls!”
First, I wanted to know all the different types of strokes I could make, all the different effects to draw. I wanted to know the techniques, the theory. Surely there must technique & theory!
How was I going to make a long, laundry list of stuff to practice and stress about?
The teacher just said “If you can see it, you can draw it.” And so we practiced looking and seeing, seeing and drawing.
There were no lectures, no lessons, no assignments, no nothing. We just looked and we drew.
The teacher would make his rounds throughout the class. He’d look at our work, compare it to the model. He’d ask us questions to get us to expand our awareness…to see for ourselves where we were off or where we were on.
Then he would move on to the next student. And we would just continue to look and to draw. Look and draw.
The next week we’d come back and the model would be slightly more complicated. Another ball was added. Maybe an empty can or a small box. Again we would just draw.
No lesson, no lecture, no technique, no exercises. The process was the practice!
Looking and drawing.
I’ll tell you. Being a cat who was always on a quest to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong with music, always trying to figure out how to become the player I wanted to be, a giant light bulb lit up over my head.
I quickly made the connection: Look and draw…look and draw…process, process, process…figure it out and learn through the process.
No technique, no theory, no B.S. Just look and draw. If I could see it, I could figure out how to draw it. Through practice and process.
That translated quite nicely into: listen and play…listen and play…process, process,
process. If I could hear it, I could play it.
Now, here’s the thing.
The more you look and draw the more you sharpen your eye. The more you’ll see. And the more you practice getting what you see down on paper the more you connect what you see to your body and to the paper.
You start by seeing relationships of line and shape and then light and dark, with more and more detail and accuracy as you go. Then you start to see beauty, with emotion and elegance. Soon you’ll start to bring that out through your hand and charcoal onto the page.
Over time you also feed your imagination, your inner eye, your memory and your creativity.
Eventually you can create and draw from the picture in your mind’s eye and you can bring more and more of your own personality to the work on the page, even if you are drawing from a model.
In music, the process looks like this:
Listen and play. Hear it and play it the best you can. First by imitating and assimilating. Then emulating and finally innovating. Through this process your ears sharpen greatly. Much more significantly than if you’re reading dots on a page and working out scale math on your axe.
As you listen more deeply, you commit more and more music to your musical memory. Your aural imagination strengthens. Your ears get stronger and the connection to your instrument becomes more and more natural.
So that eventually, in more and more musical situations, you can forget about thinking, forget about the theory, the scales, the ideas – and just listen and play, connected to your body with your personality shining through. All coming from a sound, not an idea or an intellectual pattern.
You begin to tap into and trust your own musical intuition, and your own creator, your own muse.
Now, don’t mistake this for meaning that there is no place for theory, scales, technique and all that stuff.
There is. Of course.
But it should ONLY serve to deepen your aural awareness and your aural imagination. As well as your physical and spiritual connection to your instrument.
In fact you and your ears are the real instrument. Your axe – your piano, guitar, bass, sax, trumpet, drums, or whatever – that’s just a machine, a device. That’s the ‘charcoal’. It’s not the art, or the feeling or the music. The music comes from YOU. From your aural imagination, your musical memory and your nervous system.
Well, I wish I could say that after this class my music changed forever. But alas, I fell right back into my same old patterns and kept going with the technique, the theory, the mechanical & technical workouts.
But when I finally realized that it comes down to the primacy of the ear and to the process of hearing and playing – whether starting with a record, starting with my own improvisation or starting with a pattern off a page – that’s when my music changed for good. And that’s when it became fun again.
If and when you do this in your own practice room, and get your own ears primed and your aural imagination going strong you will never want to go back to the old way: thinking about what to play, instead of letting your ear guide you.
The way most students approach jazz is like a kid’s connect the dots puzzle or a color by number coloring book.
Just plug the right scale over the right chord and your playing jazz right?
Those kinds of educational approaches to learning were born in academia not at some late night jam session in New York in 1942. I assure you.
They might be helpful for some cats to get started, but in the end they amount to a crutch and a half-ass short cut.
It’s all about the ear and melody. Whether you play drums, sax, piano or guitar it
In the next post we’re gonna walk you through the actual process in a bit more detail. I’m gonna give you the actual steps that I take in the shed. There’s still a lot to learning music. And I’m gonna show you how to deal with the different pieces of the jazz puzzle and how to practice in a way that feeds that musical imagination and musical memory, and connects your ears to your body and your instrument. Stay tuned…