I had a student that was a puzzle to me. It barely seemed like he cared, was always late, and never practiced. But…when I asked him to improvise over tunes, he would tear it up! I just couldn’t understand. I hadn’t even taught him much yet he was playing like a ten year vet. So what was it? I’ll tell you. It was because he didn’t give two hoots! The exact traits I was disappointed about was
actually helping him improvise. By not caring he was able to let his passion for the music shine through and just go after it! He was aggressive. Obviously there is a time for finesse and elegance, but you’re first starting out there is one thing that will help you the most. This leads me to tip #1
#1 Let loose and make lots of “mistakes”.
If you only follow this rule I guarantee you will begin improving faster than you ever have. I previously wrote about about fear holding people back, and here it is, showing it’s ugly head again. The process of your exploration is what actually is going to help you build a relationship with the notes and sounds. If you’re not exploring, you are not growing as a jazz pianist. The best part about this is when you set out to make mistakes as you are soloing, you will feel completely relaxed and free. The mistakes that once made you clam up will now be positive thoughts. Thoughts of you getting better as a jazz pianist. Steps in a great direction!
#2 Follow the three “S” rule. Simple, Small, and Slow.
It’s sooooo easy to rush improvisation. Remember, I was once at your level. I know exactly how you feel. Eager to sound like a professional. Impatient because you’re practice for a day or two doesn’t have you sounding like Herbie or Oscar. Well trust me when I say this. If you don’t master the simple steps of improv, you will never get to that point. You must understand the building blocks in order to use them to build a castle. That’s what we all want right a castle. If we build that castle with out certain stones, what’s going to happen…that’s right…its going to come crashing down on us. Yikes!! Start small, get comfortable, then move outward and upward from there.
#3 You absolutely, positively, must listen to jazz improvisation.
I love asking my students this question. What was the most recent album you listened to? Sometimes I get students that will spit out their answer in seconds. These students are always the better improvisers. Other times they’ll say” Well, uhhh, ummm, I’m not really sure.”
Listen closely because I’m about to tell you something that will blow your mind!You can’t play what your ear can’t hear. I’ll say it again a different way. If you can’t hear it in your head, you can’t play it. You need to have heard the jazz improv language to be able to order to play it. This is true for specific notes, phrases, styles, rhythms, melodies, anything!! So the more you listen, the better chance you are giving yourself to get better at improvising.
#4 Knowing Harmony and Theory WILL only help you be a better soloist.
“Can you show me some killin licks man?” I get this all the time from students. I mean…I can, but this like giving you fish. Not literally, like the proverb. When teach you licks it’s similar to me simply giving you a fish. You eat for a day. When I teach you harmony and theory, it’s the same as me teaching you to fish. You can feed yourself FOREVER! Now who doesn’t want that. Be patient and learn the important harmony and theory concepts and you’ll be wayyy better off than you were before.
#5 Make music when you play.
“But Brenden, I’m always making music when I play.” No. You’re not. I hear so many people just ramble on their instrument. Regurgitating meaningless lines. You gotta’ dig deep in order to create beautiful music. Pull from your past experiences. Pull from your heartbreak. Pull from your sorrow. Pull from the happiest moment of your life. When you kids were born. When you fell in love for the first time. When you experienced death for the first time. This is what is going to create music when you are improvising, not thinking, oh what scale do I play here.