Transform Your Jazz

This is the third of a 3-part blog series on beginning improvisation.  Click here to read part 1 (beginning improvisors) and part 2 (how to jazz).


I spend most of my professional life performing and teaching drums, but I play piano and sing for fun and as a way to communicate with non-drummers. I learn songs and improvise in a different way on the drum set than I would on piano or with my voice. As a beginning musician, I played classical piano through junior high before entrenching myself as a percussionist (and really, a drum set specialist).  I transferred to a great high school music program in 10th grade and was fortunate to surrounded by other students who LOVED jazz, funk, and classic/progressive rock.  Students got together before school, during lunch, and after school to listen to music and jam so I was constantly inundated with the sounds of Charlie Parker, James Brown, and Genesis as well as original tunes that my peers would write (who can forget the classic funk opus, “Octopus Repellant,” written by my friend Mike Frederick, age 16) My ears were a bit behind the rest of the crew when it came to learning songs and improvising so I had some major roadblocks preparing for my first jazz gig. The gig was playing vibraphone in a 14-piece band for a banquet for the local semi-pro hockey team, of course. I could read the melodies to the blues, rhythm changes, and modal tunes that we were preparing but I had no way to approach taking a solo over chord changes on the lead sheets.  I sweated practicing the scales and arpeggios that books said would work on these chords, but everything moved by too fast in real-time and I didn’t sound AT ALL like my more seasoned friends.  Fortunately, the acoustic vibraphone was practically inaudible in the context of 13 other high school musicians in a concrete conference room where we performed, so I was spared the agony of hearing myself. I’ll tell you, though, I played those scales as fast as I could without stopping--high five to 15-year-old me! After that, I didn’t play another improvised solo on a non-dum instrument for almost 15 years.  I appreciated when others improvised and dove into becoming a professional drum set performer and teacher.

    An important reason that the other musicians could play these jazz songs in a natural and convincing way was because they’d already spent years learning songs off the radio, teaching each other tunes by ear, and copying solos together--something I’d missed out on while focusing exclusively on drums. After getting my masters degree in jazz drum set performance in 2009, I wanted to fill in the gaps in my experience as a melodic improviser by learning songs and improvising by ear the way my friends had when we were teenagers, and I also wanted to develop a system to teach these skills to others. Performing jazz on the drums with high-level musicians is great, but I knew there were students like me (and 15-year-old me) who could use help connecting the dots after beginning their journey as an improviser.  I sought out teachers and players who shared these same goals, and the IfCM tested what we learned with our students in workshops, camps, and private lessons over the last 5 years.  The Institute for Creative Music was formed in 2011 with a large part of our mission to demystify jazz and improvisation and make it approachable for as many different students and teachers as we could. The course that we launch this week, Creative Jazz Fundamentals, gives me a lot of hope about the future of how to learn and teach jazz.  We can all learn “mystical” and “impossible” jazz songs, style, and improvisation in a way that is fun, flexible, and empowering. This course consists of the  material I’d give my 15-year-old self (and 30-year-old self) to learn to understand and play jazz, and I think you’ll find it to be transformative for you and your students.  Please join Chris Ziemba, Nick Finzer, and I as we all learn how to jazz.

Chris Teal, Institute for Creative Music Co-Director and Teaching Artist

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. Try the first module of this 6-module course now for free by clicking here.  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.