If you ask just about any highly skilled jazz musician what you need to practice for optimum improvement, you’ll typically get advice that concurs with other highly skilled jazz musicians.
The reason is simple.
Some things work better than others in leading you toward developing the skills and conception you need. (And some things don’t really work at all!)
Practicing (and studying) arpeggios, scales, intervals, voice leading, approach notes, rhythm, form, meter…these are some of most basic materials of music, whether improvised or not.
Then there’s your ear. Learning to recognize (and being able to sing!) intervals, chords and scales in their various inversions, altered harmonic extensions and substitutions, is fundamental to your ever-evolving skills.
And it is doubtful that you’ll ever find an accomplished jazz artist that won’t strongly recommend transcribing the solos of other great artists.
There is so much to be gained by transcribing: a clearer and more detailed conception of the “language” of the music, a deeper understanding of jazz harmony, not to mention a wonderfully effective way to functionally improve your ears!
Lots of highly skilled jazz musicians that I know seem to always be in the middle of some kind of transcription project. (In fact for some, it is at the core of their entire practice/study regimen.)
Yet, I encounter too few accomplished artists/teachers of improvisation that recommend another very helpful thing you should be doing regularly, practically from day one of your study through the rest of your musical life: Composing etudes.
Though related, composition and improvisation are not the same thing. But when you improvise you most certainly are utilizing particular compositional principles in order to express your musical impulses in a cogent manner.
Elements of form, meter, harmony (including voice leading, tension/resolution, substitution, etc.) and rhythm all come into play.
I’ve been composing jazz etudes since nearly the very beginning of my study of jazz and other kinds of improvised music. This discipline has helped me beyond measure.
In fact, when I first started to study improvising over sandard song forms, I would regulary compose a solo over the harmonic form of whatever tune I was studying, which not only helped me to learn, but also encouraged me to develop and trust my artistic sensibilities.
And some of the great teachers of improvisation, such as Lennie Tristano and Joe Henderson prescribed this practice to their students.
There are three main reasons why it is helpful to compose jazz etudes:
1. Curiosity and investigation-This could be as simple as an intellectual inquiry into harmonic relationships (e.g., being curious about how augmented scales function as upper partial harmony over dominant chords); or it could be something you discovered by “accident” that really excited your ears, and then piqued your intellectual/musical curiosity.
2. Clarification-Composing etudes enables you to turn abstract musical materials or concepts into cogent, musically satisfying, intentionally created and expressed melodic ideas. It’s a chance to really use your ears, imagination and aesthetic values to create something that sounds precisely the way you’d like it to sound.
3. Utilization-Ultimately, you get to put whatever concept you’re working on squarely into your “wheelhouse”, so you’re most inclined to have it available to your muse when you are actually improvising.
By spending time conceptualizing, exploring and then constructing a musical composition that both pleases you aesthetically and supports the specific concept you’re aiming to develop, you are further developing your own distinctive improvisational voice.
I compose etudes of various kinds, some over specific bar forms (or song forms) and others only a few bars long that explore a specific harmonic, melodic or rhythmic concept that interests me. (In fact, the etude e-books I make available for purchase are simply documentation of a particular practice goal that has been methodically organized and expressed in written form.)
So if you’re not already working regularly on composing etudes, I strongly suggest you do. Here are some suggestions, or guidelines that might help:
- Ignite your curiosity-Be actively curious about things you hear. It might be a particular solo you heard, or even a single melodic line in that solo. It could also be as simple as a standard song you’ve heard that you love, and that you’d like to go deeply into. Or it might be some specific skill or concept that inspires you, like polyrhythm, tritone substitution, or triad pairs. Use your intellectual curiosity as well: “What would it sound like if…?”
- Aim for one thing-Every etude (whether classical or jazz) is, in essence, some form of a musical composition based upon one specific pedagogic goal. Embrace that direct simplicity, and avoid trying to juggle too many pedagogic balls at the same time.
- Define the scope of your concept-Once you know what you’re interested in studying, distill and clarify the concept. Give it some clear borders so that you can keep it all within your reach. You want to be challenged, not overwhelmed. Some examples might be, “I’d like to delve deeply into Body and Soul“; or “I’d like to be able to feel and play a 3/4 pulse against the 4/4 form of Giant Steps.“
- Play with the concept-Spend a few days with your instrument playing a few easy improvisation games with whatever the concept is. Get some of the basic ideas into your ears and under your fingers.
- Sing, sing, sing!-Before you even write down one note, practice singing some improvised iterations of your concept, whether, tonal or harmonic. Again, plant the seeds in your ears.
- Write it down-Compose it using your instrument, your ears and your muse. Make it yours. Craft it carefully so that it represents exactly what you want. It goes without saying that means making it musical and artistically meaningful (especially to you!)
- Reflect and reassess-Play, study, sing and memorize your work. Give it time! And your work need not be written in stone. It’s okay to make changes along the way (in fact, that’s a very good thing!) Like any good composition, keep working at it until you’re satisfied. (Don’t be afraid to stay with it until you’re satisfied; trust your muse.)
The more you make composing etudes a regular part of your practice, the better you get at it. And the better you get at it, the more precise your skills and expression as an improviser become. Your true voice emerges.
Sonny Rollings said that his aim as an improviser is to access his “subconscious” as he creates spontaneously. Think of composing etudes as a form of written, intentional meditation that helps you to become more familiar with the nature of your marvelously creative and unique subconscious. Discover and enjoy!