A musician starting out today should get a great teacher & learn all there is to know about the instrument.
Buddy Rich

This quote is certainly true, to play music means you have to master an instrument.

Well, what does this mean exactly? Do you need more chops for Jazz than you need for other types of Music? It's hard to measure chops, so I cannot state a certein level. But you need to practice your instrument in some way or another, and there is much to say about practicing.

long, winding road

Deliberate Practice

If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.
Coleman Hawkins

I'm a strong believer in deliberate practice, which means you have to think about, plan and evaluate your practice sessions. Practice will get a separate blog post, just a view bullet points here:

  • embrace failures, you learn from them.
  • playing, or singing, relaxed moves you forward. Watch your breath!

Let's see how you can get started.

Pick One Jazz Standard

To state the obvious, you have to play something, but what? Play what you like - seriously! Think about the songs you love to hear, choose one and start to listen. Always start learning a song without an instrument in your hand. Make a playlist of different versions, if you picked a common Jazz standard, there should be plenty of interpretations around. Frank Sinatra (mostly sings the melody straight forward), Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis. See what you like and what you don't like.

Listen, A Lot

Just get that song into your ear - for example hum, sing or whistle the melody. Singing is easier when you have the lyrics available. And even if you chose an instrumental song, the chance that some singer wrote some lyrics is quite high. There are lyrics for the song Mercy Mercy Mercy, sung by The Buckinghams, which were very helpful for me to learn that tune by singing it.

After some time, choose your favourite version of the song. Change from Passive Repetition to Active Internalisation. Analyse that one song as deep as you can with the knowledge you have at hand. Write down things you like or don't like. Study the form of the piece and it's arrangement, which instrument plays when and what. Is there anything special about the rhythm etc. Write down what comes to mind, try to understand it in your own language.

Play The Melody

After you have the melody in your ear, try to play it on your instrument. You can use a chart, if you have to, but Jazz is played in the moment and not from the paper. Improvisation is by definition the opposite of reading Music. Do it the other way, if you know how to write Music: write down the melody you found. Compare it to the "real" melody later.

Pick A Solo

Which part of the song do you like the best? Start to transcribe that part, it does not need to be the same instrument you play. Until I have written my view on transcribing on this blog, here is a good starting point. You do not have to write down your findings, although I recommend to do so. Depending on the solo it might be necessary to slow down the tempo to hear every phrase in detail, I use Transcribe!. Start with an interesting phrase. And play only that one phrase, even that tiny bit will be hard at first. In the words of Damian Erskine: "To really learn samething you have to struggle with the concept." But you can make that struggle as easy as you can by picking really small pieces and slowing them down as far as necessary. This process will become easier, just repeat phrase after phrase. Every solo has an end.

Get Down On The Theory

You didn't need to have any other writings than your own, until now. At some point you have to make the connection between your playing and the song itself, specifically the chord progression, which you can find in its lead sheet. If you don't know enough theory and you only see some meaningless letters and notes, plan to learn more at some not too distant point. You don't need much theory, basically it's "just" comparing the notes you just played to the notes the other (ac)comp(an)ing players just played at the same time, which are the chord tones of the chords from the lead sheet, for the most part (comping players can also do some crazy stuff, sometimes).

Do Some Finetuning

If you think your first transcribed solo sounds exactly like the original, you are either extremely talented and lucky or you need to listen harder. Try to record yourself and listen back, listen hard enough and you will find some spots that can use a little improvement. Figure out what the original player does differently, it might be the phrasing, the rhythm, note duration etc. Try to find the fine nuances, that made you like that part in the first place, and try to incorporate those nuances into your playing. This is one fun part for me - to be able to shape my playing into a direction I like. Don't get me wrong, this is hard work! Hard but also fun. Being your own honest critic is one of the most valuable skills as a musician in general.


You just played Jazz :-) Jazz, and Music in general, is a language, and you just spoke the first words. Think ybout it, how did we all learn to talk? We imitated our parents! And akin to that you start out by imitating the masters. And later someone gave us dictionaries and textbooks about grammar. Follow that beginners path for some time: play first, read later. This will build the vocabulary for your language.

Hold On, Where's The Improvisation?

"But I only played someone else's notes, where are my personal notes?" That is a valid question, I hope you did not expect to come up with an improvised solo the first time you are playing a Jazz tune, right? Right? Think again about learning a language, to be able to speak freely you need to have experience in emulating others. Be patient, it took you years to become a fluent improvisor of speech, with daily practice around people you love. But it was inevitable - here you are. Practice daily with music you love and you will develop, trust the process!



How To



Featured Album