preparing for performance
The following ideas are included to help beginning players prepare themselves for performance in the American improvisational formats. Explore through the ideas and experiment with the concepts, use what works for you, if ya find a good idea, maybe pass it along to a friend and encourage them to pass it along.
Play 12 bar Blues. Consider developing the ability to play accurately consecutive choruses of 12 bar blues unaccompanied. This form and color is truly at the root of our American music and developing this ability will help in many performance situations. Its a real challenge to do this and fun too once the form is locked onto your internal hardrive.
Begin a written list of tunes you know and of ones you want to learn. Segment your list by musical styles, to help balance out your repertoire. In playing through melodies, we can oftentimes get all our musical vitamins in one serving. Not only do we gain new melodic twists and turns, interval combinations and rhythmic patterns, we improve our sense of form and balance. In each tune we read through, 10 times out of 10 there is something new to be examined and digested, that is if I'm open to finding it. We can add this new bit of magic to our palette and eventually find other places to insert these ideas to enhance our artistic statement.
If you come up with a cool idea in C major, filter it through each of the other 11 major tonal centers or whichever keys you know. Try creating a version of the line in C minor and running this new idea through the other 11 minor tonal centers. Try using the cycle of fifths as an organizational template to run your idea through the 12 keys. Expand this melodic cycling format to include other cycles such as; the cycle of fourths, chromatic, wholetone or diminished intervalic motion. Or, run it through the new modal color, make-your-own-ian.
If a particular lick is a problem, slow it down. Once learned gradually work it up to tempo. If that lick is still a problem, play it 100 times, then through the 12 keys.
Work with a metronome. With swing, jazz and blues concepts, work to develop the ability to hear the clicks as the 2nd and 4th beat of a musical measure. This important concept is simply achieved by counting one and three before the "clicks." Thus, one, click ( 2 ), three, click ( 4 ) etc. In Latin styling, try making the clicks one and three. Start slowly to warm up each day. Jamming with just a click track, as provided by a metronome or whatever is available, takes patience to master but is essential for the career musician and potentially creates a tremendous inner joy when mastered. By putting your musical ideas within the "physical time" provided by a timekeeper creates a gravitational musical environment that sharpens and strengthens your musical prowess.
Learn about the piano. The piano was recreated from the theory and principles of the equal tempered system as it was first evolving. If a piano is available for you to enjoy, consider becoming familiar enough with how it works to include it as a resource for learning. For example for the emerging improvising artist, using the piano's sustain pedal, develop the ability to "strike" the chord you're working on, using the sustain time to run your scale choice, permutations or arpeggio over that particular sonority. Backing your melodic ideas with even simple harmonic choices, even just the roots of the chords, strengthens ones ability to hear the quality of each scale degree against it's fundamental, thus to better understand the tonal gravity of each pitch. Compositionally, the piano can be an invaluable tool for the creative artist as from end to end the keyboard can represent the pitch range of a full orchestra.
When working / improvising over a new set of chord changes, play just the roots of the chords. This gives a startling clear picture of the where and how of a particular harmonic progression. Interesting how hearing just the bass line can begin to tell us the "story" of the piece, helping to define its emotional environment. This suggestion comes to you via me firsthand from jazz legend Clark Terry.
When working on soloing over changes, try creating melodic lines with just quarter note rhythmic values. This may be helpful for beginning learners to lock in certain aspects of the harmony, such as the proper diatonic Third and Seventh degrees, which determine chord quality. Perhaps arpeggiating each new harmony encountered in the piece up through the seventh degree. Once comfortable making the changes, move onto eighth notes etc. This suggestion comes from jazz guitar legend John Stowell.
When musically venturing outside while shedding, move from a consonant group, to a dissonant group, back to the consonant group then resolve if applicable. For example, substituting Ab melodic minor over G7b9, create a melodic idea from the pitches of G Mixolydian, then an idea from Ab melodic minor, then back to G Mixolydian before resolving your musical tension. This helps in developing your ear strength that allows the player to take it out, but just as important, to move smoothly back inside and resolve in a confident and musical manner.
If available, tape yourself as you practice. Listening back to ourselves can be very illuminating and tremendously beneficial to the emerging artist.
Divide your available practice time into segments, devoting each to a specific task, i.e., scales, arpeggios, technique, learning new tunes etc. Keep a written record of what you're doing and write down ideas to explore as you generate them.
Develop a "performance perspective" or mindset that helps you focus and concentrate on the tasks at hand. As you gain more performance experience, try to look for similarities when performances went well. Recreate this "perspective" as best you can when getting ready to perform. Also look at the not so good performances and try to figure out what went goofy, remember these as well and try not to repeat the scenario.
Strive to match musical and emotional intensities with other players in your group. This provides for a beginning, solid balance of sound from whatever the combination of players is in the group, the sound of which can then evolve wherever. This matching of levels also keeps everyone involved and interested, sharing ideas for the benefit of the group.
When soloing, try to develop the musical idea you just played as opposed to presenting a new idea. In conversation, we hopefully develop one thought into the next. It's the same with improvising musical ideas. Creating longer lines that are organically connected to one another is a sure sign of maturing artistically.
Warm up slowly, for as with any physical endeavor, starting slowly helps to avoid tensing up and avoid long-term physical problems.
"Practice makes permanent", what we shed when preparing to perform becomes what we play during our performances.
What to practice? Well there is a lot of material for sure. Scales, chords, arpeggios, licks, intervals are just a few. My teaching concept is to simply play songs, and when areas of performance difficulty open up while reading through a song, simply examine the problem and shed whatever it is. Pick songs of different styles, create a list of one's that you know and one's that you want to learn. Always try to read some when practicing, then, challenge yourself to play the song from memory, thinking perhaps that a long term goal is to memorize your whole list of songs. Jazz legend Bill Watrous mentioned to try and learn three songs per week, melody, chords and the words. The words? yep, you'll be amazed at how well they help shape and impassion our interpretation of the melody and the themes and variations we create in our improvised phrases.
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Other artistic concepts? How about artistic techniques?
"There is no room for drugs in precision jazz."