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  • Help me to build up a practice routine to learn to improvise over standard tunes

    Hi,

    I'm currently reading the Bergonzi book about the pentatonics, Ricker's book on Fourths etc. to enhance to improvisational skills. I was thinking of building up a practise routine for this (learn to utilize these new methods).

    First, I choose a standard tune and then get a play-along tune to go with it. My idea is to utilize different techniques on each chorus and finally combine these to get some new ideas and approaches to standard chords changes.

    Like this:

    #1 Chorus : Play just the arpeggios of the chords to get familiar with the changes.
    #2 Chorus : Play the "appropriate" scales over the chords (for example dorian scale over m7-chords, mixolydian scale over dominant chords etc.)
    #3 Chorus : Play only pentatonic scales over the chords (Bergonzi's book has nice advices how to use different pentatonics over different chords)
    #4 Chorus : Play only triad pairs over the chord changes.
    #5 Chorus : Play only lines by fourths (Ricker's book)

    This is just a short list from the top of my head (I may have forgotten something important). But my question is that what else (methods & techniques) should I utilize and finally are you using something similar in your practice routine and is this a good idea at all?

    Thanks!
    -TH
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Help me to build up a practice routine to learn to improvise over standard tunes started by -TH View original post
    Comments 32 Comments
    1. lutemann's Avatar
      lutemann -
      I hear guys play with excellent backing tracks on gigs and it absolutely absorbs them. It can make the whole thing sound like elevator music. Simple tracks like a duo or trio allow for the player to come through. Bass and drums are enough - it acts like a cue to your imagination. For practice it would seem to me the more boring the better.
    1. JPWGibson's Avatar
      JPWGibson -
      Quote Originally Posted by SimonJazzSax View Post
      Ok. I will be glad to go into some more detail. Before hand, I would like to say sorry for semi-hi-jacking the thread for this. It does pertain to practice though so it's only a partial hi-jack.

      Alright, here we go

      First of all, Steve, I do not think that play-a-longs themselves are bad. In fact, I believe when used correctly they can be quite helpful. The fact is, I strongly believe that play-a-longs are misused in the practice room and this is what is BAD!

      The trap is simple. It's the ever growing phenomena of people practicing improvisation through the use of backing tracks only. Or at least using them to practice 75% or more of their improvisation. As an educator, I see it all the time. I encounter students, of all ages, that are diligent practicers, yet use these backing tracks everyday for most, if not all, of their improvisational practice. The fact that play-a-longs are fun, and due to smart phones/other technologies, are incredibly easy to access for little to no money play apart in this growing trend. I've been here first hand. My buddy introduced me to band in a box and I fell in LOVE! Now I can practice any tune I want and have a BAND behind me!!! I used it everyday for years.

      So why is the use of play-a-longs in everyday practice for improvisation bad? I am assuming this is the next question. Well...the answers are many and they were learned by me first hand

      I walked into a lesson with a very very good player and the first thing he says is..."let me hear you play something." I said, "cool...what do you want me to play". He said, "Cherokee". LoL..."I said uhhh ok. I know that one. How do you want me to play it." He said..."Go". Well I literally didn't know what to do. Here I am in a lesson with a player I think is amazing and he has said... PLAY!! No one is there but me and it's just silence. So I started the head, which helped me gain confidence. I made it through fairly well, which helped me have even more confidence, but then I reached the solo. Needless to say it quickly went downhill and we quickly stopped. Long story short he started asking me how I practiced and told me I was relying to much on the play-a-longs. So we started analyzing what I needed to work on and how to practice without play-a-longs.

      Here is a list of what I believe practicing with play-a-longs the wrong way does.

      - Builds a false sense of security. Makes you feel you are better than you actually are.
      - Is easy to skate over changes and not know it.
      - Easy to not keep your place through counting, but relying on your ear only.
      - Easy to not worry about phrasing as you can start and stop anywhere and there is still music going
      - Doesn't instill a strong sense of internal time. Play-a-longs never make use of polyrhythms

      So I start to not use play-a-longs in my practice. In fact, I put them down and didn't touch them again for probably 5 or 6 years. I can tell you right now, that is the best thing that ever could have happened to me.

      I believe that a player needs to be able to put a metronome on and play Stella By Starlight. Furthermore I believe you should be able to do the same thing WITHOUT the metronome. AND while playing it, you should be able to instill in the listener:

      1. Good Time and Good Rhythm
      2. an Understanding of the form and harmonic structure of the tune
      3. Dictate the harmony in your solo through use in voice leading
      4. Demonstrate musical phrasing that makes sense from a melodic standpoint whether it is symmetrical or asymmetrical

      Players that use play-a-longs as their primary improvisatory practice source 99% of the time cannot do what I listed above.

      So I say...Turn the play-a-longs on once a week or once a month and have some fun with them. When you can play a tune well unaccompanied, you will feel completely free and liberated once the play-a-long is on.

      Some may agree, some may not, but I strongly believe in this.
      Having been a pretty loyal play-along/iReal Pro user for quite some time, my initial reaction to SimonJazzSax's post was to simply write it off in robust disagreement. Luckily, however, I couldn't get a number of his ideas out of my mind for the 5 days which have passed since he posted them. And now I feel I must give credit where it is due, and voice my agreement - and thanks - to him for the post.

      Having finally practiced today without any accompanying material - practicing repertoire specifically, i.e., learning a head, the changes, and practicing blowing over them - I feel I advanced a good deal more in just one session of 2 hours, than I might have in several sessions of the play-along routine I've been using for a while now. I found it forced me to think in ways that are not necessary when utilizing accompaniment materials, for all the reasons that SimonJazzSax illustrated so well above.

      I'm not too proud to admit that I had slowly, insidiously lapsed into a practice routine which wasn't as productive as it might have been. As SimonJazzSax put it – and I now agree quite wholeheartedly with him – I had fallen into a trap! (cue the dramatic music).

      Thanks, SimonJazzSax.
    1. SimonJazzSax's Avatar
      SimonJazzSax -
      Quote Originally Posted by JPWGibson View Post
      Having been a pretty loyal play-along/iReal Pro user for quite some time, my initial reaction to SimonJazzSax's post was to simply write it off in robust disagreement. Luckily, however, I couldn't get a number of his ideas out of my mind for the 5 days which have passed since he posted them. And now I feel I must give credit where it is due, and voice my agreement - and thanks - to him for the post.

      Having finally practiced today without any accompanying material - practicing repertoire specifically, i.e., learning a head, the changes, and practicing blowing over them - I feel I advanced a good deal more in just one session of 2 hours, than I might have in several sessions of the play-along routine I've been using for a while now. I found it forced me to think in ways that are not necessary when utilizing accompaniment materials, for all the reasons that SimonJazzSax illustrated so well above.

      I'm not too proud to admit that I had slowly, insidiously lapsed into a practice routine which wasn't as productive as it might have been. As SimonJazzSax put it – and I now agree quite wholeheartedly with him – I had fallen into a trap! (cue the dramatic music).

      Thanks, SimonJazzSax.
      No problem!!! I'm so glad you tried it! Keep rolling with it and your growth will be exponential without the play-a-longs. I promise!
    1. warp x's Avatar
      warp x -
      Quote Originally Posted by SimonJazzSax View Post
      I believe that a player needs to be able to put a metronome on and play Stella By Starlight. Furthermore I believe you should be able to do the same thing WITHOUT the metronome. AND while playing it, you should be able to instill in the listener:

      1. Good Time and Good Rhythm
      2. an Understanding of the form and harmonic structure of the tune
      3. Dictate the harmony in your solo through use in voice leading
      4. Demonstrate musical phrasing that makes sense from a melodic standpoint whether it is symmetrical or asymmetrical

      Players that use play-a-longs as their primary improvisatory practice source 99% of the time cannot do what I listed above.
      +1.
      Also, many playalongs (especially IRealpro) don't sound very good and certainly don't swing. And it's no good playing with a non-swinging band. I do use IRealpro from time to time and it can be a useful tool but nothing more. Certainly not something you should use for developing time.
    1. Nefertiti's Avatar
      Nefertiti -
      Quote Originally Posted by SimonJazzSax View Post
      Ok. I will be glad to go into some more detail. Before hand, I would like to say sorry for semi-hi-jacking the thread for this. It does pertain to practice though so it's only a partial hi-jack.

      Alright, here we go

      First of all, Steve, I do not think that play-a-longs themselves are bad. In fact, I believe when used correctly they can be quite helpful. The fact is, I strongly believe that play-a-longs are misused in the practice room and this is what is BAD!

      The trap is simple. It's the ever growing phenomena of people practicing improvisation through the use of backing tracks only. Or at least using them to practice 75% or more of their improvisation. As an educator, I see it all the time. I encounter students, of all ages, that are diligent practicers, yet use these backing tracks everyday for most, if not all, of their improvisational practice. The fact that play-a-longs are fun, and due to smart phones/other technologies, are incredibly easy to access for little to no money play apart in this growing trend. I've been here first hand. My buddy introduced me to band in a box and I fell in LOVE! Now I can practice any tune I want and have a BAND behind me!!! I used it everyday for years.

      So why is the use of play-a-longs in everyday practice for improvisation bad? I am assuming this is the next question. Well...the answers are many and they were learned by me first hand

      I walked into a lesson with a very very good player and the first thing he says is..."let me hear you play something." I said, "cool...what do you want me to play". He said, "Cherokee". LoL..."I said uhhh ok. I know that one. How do you want me to play it." He said..."Go". Well I literally didn't know what to do. Here I am in a lesson with a player I think is amazing and he has said... PLAY!! No one is there but me and it's just silence. So I started the head, which helped me gain confidence. I made it through fairly well, which helped me have even more confidence, but then I reached the solo. Needless to say it quickly went downhill and we quickly stopped. Long story short he started asking me how I practiced and told me I was relying to much on the play-a-longs. So we started analyzing what I needed to work on and how to practice without play-a-longs.

      Here is a list of what I believe practicing with play-a-longs the wrong way does.

      - Builds a false sense of security. Makes you feel you are better than you actually are.
      - Is easy to skate over changes and not know it.
      - Easy to not keep your place through counting, but relying on your ear only.
      - Easy to not worry about phrasing as you can start and stop anywhere and there is still music going
      - Doesn't instill a strong sense of internal time. Play-a-longs never make use of polyrhythms

      So I start to not use play-a-longs in my practice. In fact, I put them down and didn't touch them again for probably 5 or 6 years. I can tell you right now, that is the best thing that ever could have happened to me.

      I believe that a player needs to be able to put a metronome on and play Stella By Starlight. Furthermore I believe you should be able to do the same thing WITHOUT the metronome. AND while playing it, you should be able to instill in the listener:

      1. Good Time and Good Rhythm
      2. an Understanding of the form and harmonic structure of the tune
      3. Dictate the harmony in your solo through use in voice leading
      4. Demonstrate musical phrasing that makes sense from a melodic standpoint whether it is symmetrical or asymmetrical

      Players that use play-a-longs as their primary improvisatory practice source 99% of the time cannot do what I listed above.

      So I say...Turn the play-a-longs on once a week or once a month and have some fun with them. When you can play a tune well unaccompanied, you will feel completely free and liberated once the play-a-long is on.

      Some may agree, some may not, but I strongly believe in this.
      Thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful response. I appreciate it. Steve


      Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
    1. newjazz's Avatar
      newjazz -
      Wow!........really good advice! So good I really need to re read this over and over then start doing it myself!
    1. newjazz's Avatar
      newjazz -
      So basically voice leading is the key to internalizing a tune?......when I do it it sounds very unmusical
    1. JL's Avatar
      JL -
      Quote Originally Posted by newjazz View Post
      So basically voice leading is the key to internalizing a tune?......when I do it it sounds very unmusical
      If it sounds unmusical, then you must not be doing it right, or you aren't really voice leading. Voice leading is part of what makes a line sound musical.

      Look up the definition of voice leading. Here's my definition: Voice leading results in a smooth transition from one chord to the next. On a chord instrument (piano), each chord tone ('voice') moves to the next closest chord tone. On a single-note instrument like the sax, it means to move by half step or step-wise to a chord tone in the next chord, often, but not always, using 'guide tones' from one important chord tone (3rd or 7th) to the next.
    1. Pete Thomas's Avatar
      Pete Thomas -
      Quote Originally Posted by newjazz View Post
      So basically voice leading is the key to internalizing a tune?......when I do it it sounds very unmusical
      Well, it's a key, I'm not sure it's the key.
    1. JL's Avatar
      JL -
      Quote Originally Posted by Pete Thomas View Post
      Well, it's a key, I'm not sure it's the key.
      Good point, Pete. For one thing, you have to know and 'internalize' the chords and the chord progression before you can use voice leading! And the key to internalizing a tune would be a pretty big subject, starting with listening, learning, & playing the tune over and over.

      In my last post I was speaking to the comment about voice leading being unmusical.
    1. wagtenor's Avatar
      wagtenor -
      Quote Originally Posted by JL View Post
      Good point, Pete. For one thing, you have to know and 'internalize' the chords and the chord progression before you can use voice leading! ...
      Easier said than done though. I feel like I've been stuck at this very spot for nearly a year (i.e. trying to internalize the chord tones). I'm getting better though, it just takes some of us a very long time.

      Next is to improve my tone, timing, vocabulary.... on and on... dang it truly is a journey.


      sent on the move...
    1. newjazz's Avatar
      newjazz -
      Hey thanks for the input!........no more ireal, biab for a long time!
    1. Keith Ridenhour's Avatar
      Keith Ridenhour -
      I'll chime in. I have been working on playing changes for over a year in a more dedicated fashion. So my steps are
      (no play along just met) 1. Walk bass lines until I have the changes and harmony memorized. If its not first internalized and I don't know where I am in the form I'm just guessing or leaning on my ear to bail me out. Did this for years.
      2. Improvise just using chord tones. So rather than run to a specific pattern I'll bring in rhythm and believe it or not you can kill with just chord tones if you pay attention to space in the lines and repeated logical phrases. 3. Rather than jump to scales do work with approaching all chord tones but the half step under or full step above approach. Lots of exercises here but the first one I do is just approach the 1, 3, 5, 7, 3, 5, 7, 1, 5, 7, 1, 3 etc or at first ignore the 7ths and just do the triads. Also, EVERTHING is with a Met at first. No playalongs. If you get used to hearing a chord before you play it you will never anticipate a chord? 3. Voice leading . Hold a whole or half note chord tone and when the chords change go to the closest next chord tone in the next chord. Sometimes you stay on the same note so if you are on a D on G chord and the next chord is B- you can sit on the D still. 4. Ranges of the horn. (nobody practices this) Improvise on just chord tones and force yourself to stay above the staff, in the staff or below the staff. You will come up with different ways of playing that you never have done and realize that few people use the ranges much . They live in the middle. There are many ways to go from here and you have read a bunch in the previous posts but this is aimed at MASTERY of just the chord tones and form. If you skip all this and jump right to copying solos or working scales you'll be like a guy trying to imitate a doctor ignoring all the schooling he went through to get there. Completely get the form and harmony together and then whatever you end up playing will be more melodic/logical and in my case just sound better. The side benefit in all this is that really start to hear changes much better and you will be disturbed when the bass guy misses his note on the downbeat or the piano throws in a change that you know isn't in the tune and may or maynot fit. But you'll hear that its a IV chord or a II V on the V or whatever. Your ears will develop as if you were a bass or guitar or piano and had to comp or walk changed for a long long time whether you liked it or not. K
    1. DrWill's Avatar
      DrWill -
      #1 - get Band in a Box - ignore the nay-sayers 100%
      #2 - don't try to learn every tune in every key, try to jam over one tune in one key for a month, 2 months, six months !, whatever it takes. I chose the blues in G concert, but you should choose something you can hear and like. You should practice till you don't have to think about the changes , you should 'feel' them
      #3 - one big stumbling block for beginners that is almost never mentioned is playing in phrases - not notes, not patterns, but something akin to a sentence in English, not just a collection of words. I had to consciously map out where the phrases were and make a conscious effort to play them ..maybe as a rhythm pattern first, then as notes..... . after a while it hopefully becomes automatic .... this is why teachers never think of it, it became automatic for them 20 years ago.
      #4 - record your efforts .... if you play a good phrase, take note, and write it down and practice it. Try to get good phrases for each section of the song, don't try to wing it start to finish every time, use the phrases you've developed.
      #5 - the sad truth is playing phrases, playing melodically, comes from inside you .... some of us have to work on it really hard, trying this that and your mother's apron. A 'routine' ain't gonna get it.
    1. JPWGibson's Avatar
      JPWGibson -
      Quote Originally Posted by DrWill View Post
      #1 - get Band in a Box - ignore the nay-sayers 100%
      I say ignore those who don't explain their position.
    1. Rackety Sax's Avatar
      Rackety Sax -
      [QUOTE=SimonJazzSax;2267938]...I'd first practice the arps of the chords...QUOTE]

      Is that a misspelling? If not, what is an "arp" of a chord?
    1. JPWGibson's Avatar
      JPWGibson -
      I believe "arp" refers to an arpeggio of a chord.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arpeggio
    1. Rackety Sax's Avatar
      Rackety Sax -
      Quote Originally Posted by JPWGibson View Post
      I believe "arp" refers to an arpeggio of a chord.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arpeggio
      Probably so, thanks, I never heard that abbreviation heard before.
    1. newjazz's Avatar
      newjazz -
      Quote Originally Posted by Keith Ridenhour View Post
      I'll chime in. I have been working on playing changes for over a year in a more dedicated fashion. So my steps are
      (no play along just met) 1. Walk bass lines until I have the changes and harmony memorized. If its not first internalized and I don't know where I am in the form I'm just guessing or leaning on my ear to bail me out. Did this for years.
      2. Improvise just using chord tones. So rather than run to a specific pattern I'll bring in rhythm and believe it or not you can kill with just chord tones if you pay attention to space in the lines and repeated logical phrases. 3. Rather than jump to
      scales do work with approaching all chord tones but the half step under or full step above approach. Lots of exercises here but the first one I do is just approach the 1, 3, 5, 7, 3, 5, 7, 1, 5, 7, 1, 3 etc or at first ignore the 7ths and just do the triads. Also, EVERTHING is with a Met at first. No playalongs. If you get used to hearing a chord before you play it you will never anticipate a chord? 3. Voice leading . Hold a whole or half note chord tone and when the chords change go to the closest next chord tone in the next chord. Sometimes you stay on the same note so if you are on a D on G chord and the next chord is B- you can sit on the D still. 4. Ranges of the horn. (nobody practices this) Improvise on just chord tones and force yourself to stay above the staff, in the staff or below the staff. You will come up with different ways of playing that you never have done and realize that few people use the ranges much . They live in the middle. There are many ways to go from here and you have read a bunch in the previous posts but this is aimed at MASTERY of just the chord tones and form. If you skip all this and jump right to copying solos or working scales you'll be like a guy trying to imitate a doctor ignoring all the schooling he went through to get there. Completely get the form and harmony together and then whatever you end up playing will be more melodic/logical and in my case just sound better. The side benefit in all this is that really start to hear changes much better and you will be disturbed when the bass guy misses his note on the downbeat or the piano throws in a change that you know isn't in the tune and may or maynot fit. But you'll hear that its a IV chord or a II V on the V or whatever. Your ears will develop as if you were a bass or guitar or piano and had to comp or walk changed for a long long time whether you liked it or not. K
      Thanks!..........this is reassuring stuff to hear! I will put priority to these technics. oh, one last question what would be your advice on playing tunes without many changes, like for instance "so what"? I often get lost in these kind of modal tunes!.....
    1. wagtenor's Avatar
      wagtenor -
      @simonjazzsax - Thank you.

      sent on the move...

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