Steps To Parnassus: How To Become An Accomplished Jazz Improviser In Five Steps
Young musicians need to learn that with music, as in life, there are no shortcuts to becoming an accomplished jazz improviser. Many middle school and high school band directors, who are not often jazz improvisers but rather academics and often very amateur players themselves, too often encourage their students to learn to improvise without arming them with the necessary tools to be successful with this very difficult challenge. With about as much “advice” as showing a student a blues scale students are often expected to play solos in jazz ensembles. The result is some serious flailing with no proper context from which to begin. It’s sad, and totally unnecessary. Sure, it takes a few years to get started moving in the right direction, but I am certain that if you follow these five steps you will reach *Parnassus in a couple of years.
It may seem counterintuitive but the first step is not practicing at all, it’s LISTENING. A young player needs the background to know what jazz is, and be grounded in the music first. This only comes with listening and familiarity with this complex musical idiom. Personally I think it’s a good idea to work in chronological order if possible, start with Louis Armstrong, the big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, add in some Billie Holiday. Then move onto Charlie Parker and the bep bop revolution, work up through hard bop, modal and free jazz, and into the funk and jazz-rock genres like Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Do some research of jazz by the decades and, I’ve said this A LOT, start building a library of recordings. FORGET SPOTIFY, start collecting records or CD’s; read the liner notes, and become a student of the music. This material will be yours for a lifetime if you take good care of your collection and it will mean more to you than some digital streaming service that doesn’t pay the musicians properly for their work. Every single accomplished musician that I know personally has a large library of recordings that they have proudly built over the decades of their careers. Figure out what styles and which players speak to you. Listen hard for an hour a day or more if possible, and develop hyper focused listening with your eyes closed and ears wide open if you possibly can. The less distraction when you are listening the better.
Learn and practice Chord/Scale Theory, and learn how to do Harmonic Analysis on jazz tunes. Also learn to improvise on a blues progression and any standard 32 bar tune. Once you get this far you can start composing contrafacts and learn the basics of substitution and reharmonization. This is where a great instructor can help you the most. I believe that jazz improvisation is best learned privately, much how Lennie Tristano taught Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Ted Brown and many others like David Liebman and Phil Woods. I don’t believe you can learn the finer details of jazz improvisation in a classroom setting, although certainly you can learn counterpoint and analysis in academia. A great instructor should point out the detail in the music and encourage your efforts at improvisation, providing feedback and setting goals and standards for performance. They should let you know when you are ready to go out into the real world and start playing in public, however that usually arrives after several years of study and private jam sessions. You should have a good number of tunes ready at this stage and be prepared to deal with the stage protocols of calling tunes and setting keys and managing arrangements. Warne used to tell students to “practice your improvising every day.” This is obviously the best advice anyone could give you.
3. Sing melodies and lyrics
It’s obvious, but often overlooked, that learning to sing in tune and in time will develop your ear. This study will also sharpen all your musical senses and allow you to trust your ears. Find some tunes, pop tunes if need be, to get started. Elton John or Adele would be ideal models, simply just learn to sing along.
Hit the notes exactly as the singer does, copy their inflections and phrasing, and then move on to singing the song with a background and no model to work from. Ideally a jazz singer like Billie Holiday or Chet Baker would be best, but it’s really a matter of just getting into this work and doing it daily that pays off. Warne used to suggest students sing ballads or love songs as it was a way of getting some genuine feeling into your musicality. He considered this a vital step towards developing your jazz voice and suggested this to students towards the end of his teaching life.
4. Learn Solos By Ear
This is something that comes directly to us from Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Once you can sing along note for note with a solo, then learn it on your instrument and play it back with the recording. Slow it down if you need to using Transcribe! or something similar, and make the solo part of your musical DNA. Play it daily until you can play it perfectly three times in a row with the recording at the speed of the recording. It’s also very useful to vary the speed of any solo you learn, playing it both faster and slower than the original.
Musescore is an open source music notation software that is free. Download it and get started learning how to use it. Once you have learned a solo and can play it by ear along with the recording, write it out as best you can. Start with standard tunes and be sure to add in the chord changes so you can see the logic of the improviser. You can’t do this enough, this should be part a lifelong practice regimen. It’s fun and interesting, you should consider the written solos to be etudes that you practice on a regular basis, both with and without the music. Learning to transcribe develops your ability to discern rhythm and gives you a connection with your instrument that you won’t develop any other way. I like to use headphones to transcribe solos as it allows me to hear the instrument more clearly and blocks out any other extraneous noise that might be around, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the music.
There are no shortcuts to learning to improvise. You are essentially learning to compose in real time, and it’s a skill that requires very developed musicianship and a seriously defined musical intellect, along with a sharp ear and quick musical reflexes. You need to train yourself to think and hear on this plane, and it’s a life long pursuit with it’s own rewards. Do not be deterred by your initial attempts, as feeble as they may seem, and be patient with your progress. I’m confident that if you work at learning to improvise in the manner I’ve described over a two to three year period you will make substantial progress towards the end goal of being a competent and confident soloist with something to say to your audience. Don’t be afraid to make some mistakes and take some chances, this is often how you will stumble onto the most interesting ideas that could be developed into your own style and voice. Involving yourself with the music in this manner cannot help but make you a better musician and a more studied improviser.
*What does Gradus ad Parnassum mean? It means “Steps to Parnassus” in Latin.
Generally it means “steps toward mastery” and is used as a title for texts leading students to technical proficiency in an art.
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