This is the second of a 3-part blog series on beginning improvisation. Click here to read part 1.
How to Jazz
If you’ve researched playing jazz as a beginner it’s likely that you have encountered a variety of written material, YouTube videos, or jazz improvisation classes that take one of the following approaches to teaching:
Read this melody over the form of this 32-bar song. Don’t forget to play the correct accidentals as they are printed on the page! It will be jazz.
Memorize the accents and slurs in the notation to give it a sense of jazz style. Play with a “swing feel.” Drummers, piano/guitar players, bassists, keep time over the form and interact with the soloist.
Soloists: read these scales. Any time you see this chord symbol you can play this scale and it will be jazz.
Soloists: memorize these written patterns in all 12-keys. This will also be jazz.
Ok, ok, I’m being a little snarky, but I’m willing to believe that a lot of us have experienced trying to learn or teach jazz like this. I'm willing to bet that far fewer of us felt genuinely successful learning or teaching in these and only these ways, though. Many jazz players who talk about how they learned to improvise don't spend a lot of time gushing about their favorite method book--they talk about their favorite artists and recordings, the music that inspired them. When we talk about ourselves or our students having a knack for improvising early on, what are we really talking about?
Here’s a question that I think will lead us in the right direction: When you first learned your native spoken language (English, Spanish, Farsi, Klingon…) did you learn it by reading? Likely, you went through this process:
You babbled: “Goo-goo, ga-ga!”
You imitated as you developed some control of your body: “Ma-ma, da-da, piz-za!”
You started to understand and make use of proper context: “Me food! Me now food!”
You started to understand and use proper syntax: “I want pizza. I have three hamsters.”
You responded in contextual conversation: “Yes, I would like pizza for dinner. Would you mind getting me some vegetarian pizza for my three hamsters?”
You learned how to use written language to symbolize spoken language. “P is for pizza. You draw a “P” by making a line down, going back to the top, and drawing around to the middle. This is what the word “Pizza” looks like.”
At this point in your language development you are beginning to read and write material that you already know from hearing it over and over. Back to music: Music must be experienced aurally before the visual can make sense. Notation symbolizes the aural experience. Reading music can help us better understand it, but it works best when we're looking at something we already grasp with our our ears. Theory (“you can play the G mixolydian scale over a G7”) helps you understand notation and music in your head if you already know what it sounds like, and that intellectual understanding can be reinforced by making the sound yourself vocally and on your instrument. For the first half of the 20th century, much of jazz was learned and taught by ear exclusively. A great sequence for learning music in general (and jazz in particular) is: sound before sight before theory.
How can we learn jazz as beginners? Learn songs, style, and improvisation by ear first. Stay tuned next week for a follow-up blog on how I transformed my ability to learn jazz (and you can too by shifting your attention from looking at chord changes to really learning to hear them. )
Chris Teal, Institute for Creative Music Co-Director and Teaching Artist
Coming soon from the IfCM:
Try the first module of this 6-module course now for free by clicking here. The full 6-module course launches 12/26/16 and covers a variety of repertoire, style, and improvisational techniques through 1- and 2-chord songs, blues, ii-Vs, and modal material. We make this material approachable by providing aural examples and explanations every step of the way, allowing students to get the material in their ears and out of their horns.