Thursday, March 17, 2022

Practising For Improvisation 2

 This is a continuation of my Introduction to a method for practising for improvising musicians. For part 1 read this.

I divide the committed improviser's daily practise agenda into 3 parts:


Grid work develops the basic technical foundation of our vocabulary and, as a by-product, the beginnings of our sound. Our technical facility is based on our control within the horizontal Grid (time), and the vertical Grid (pitch).

Horizontally, we first need to develop precision based on subdividing time into 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. We do this at the slowest tempo - for example, a metronome beat of 40bpm. We should start each exercise daily at the slowest tempo. This ensures that we start out with the maximum control over the muscles involved in playing, and over time, we perfect that movement. We should then increase the rate (the above subdivision system has this in-built), but only to the maximum point where we can still play with precision.

A rule of thumb with rhythm is to always keep your time reference/pulse as macro, or widely spaced, as possible. You will develop a more solid and reliable inner "clock" this way, and fast tempos become just a subdivision of slower ones. Nobody has perfect "time", but learning to subdivide very widely spaced pulses is a great way to stabilise your inner sense of time.

Vertically: our "master" grid is the chromatic scale - the 12 notes from which all vertical structures are drawn. However the grid which predominates most music is the major scale. The major scale's ubiquitous feature in music makes it something we know internally even as non-musicians. Therefore the time we spend on the major scale quickly becomes mechanical repetition, and we should be careful to investigate intervals and patterns outside of our comfort zone in order to expand.

Other scales give us much more opportunity to expand our internal vertical grid. All scales can be considered as vertical grid options when looking to expand our vocabulary. With regular repetition, the work on ear/hand coordination will internalise these sounds into our aesthetic. The diminished scale and the melodic minor (ascending) are scales that have been incorporated extensively into jazz, especially in the last 20 years, and to fully utilise the sounds these offer us,  much time should be given to developing our grid of these scales both melodically and harmonically.


Technical work is going to give us control, but there is little point unless we have something to say.

Developing content is learning to make effective, expressive and logical musical connections with the structures we have internalised. We could, of course, just leave it to random chance, as all music we absorb should feed our reservoir of content, but for the musician who seeks to find their own voice, we can use an ear-training process directed by the intellectual left brain in order to create an internalised vocabulary in our right brain that reflects our aesthetic.

How to develop the internalisation process? It's all in the way we approach it.  As mentioned above, music learned by ear is already taken in by the creative part of your brain - the right hemisphere. I encourage a process I call Linear Continuity. The simplest version of this would be to work generally moving through keys using a cycle of resolving 5ths. More on that later. 

However, sometimes we need to internalise music from visual/intellectual information, for convenience or to learn new or complex parts. For those new to the process, it has to be forced as soon as we've read through the piece or exercise a few times, and remember how it sounds. Put the paper away. Play repeatedly what you remember until you encounter a seriously blank moment, check the score, repeat. You are not memorising - you're internalising.

Our content comes through many routes. Mimicry and internalisation of recorded performances that appeal to us, or fragments of them, provide a window to how things work. Learning how our mentors phrase within a certain groove, or navigate a sequence of chords is a big part of developing the language, but ultimately, to develop our own voice, we need to develop our own ideas within the rhythmic, harmonic and formal structures that make up the repertoire we wish to perform. This is where the left brain directs things, and feeds the right brain new sounds, connections, combinations.


This is where we put the pieces together to form a complete picture - a complete blueprint for improvised performance.

This is a tricky area, because we will use our left brain to analyse, understand, and connect the pieces of the composition we intend to play, yet we want to arrive at a point where we are not thinking, merely feeling our way through with our right brain. Otherwise we can not be in the moment, can not be a part of the debate, and we will only get in the way of the music.

Here you have to make the clear distinction between practising and playing. You are practising when you are thinking about the structures in order to be able to navigate them accurately and feed your right brain true sonic references. You are playing when you are navigating by feel alone. You can practice the piece 20 times, but then you should play the piece at least another 20 times. You could also try alternating, if you find yourself unable to internalise the structures. Until you make it your own, you can also always go back to a reference recording of the piece if such exists. Listen. Absorb it's logic. If it's your own piece, or you have no reference, write a few choruses of "improvisation" using a sequencer, and learn them.

Then fly! Enjoy the moment! Nobody wants to listen to people practising.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Practising For Improvisation 1

Musical improvisation in jazz happens in a collective using shared forms, structures and language, making the performance a conversation, negotiation, or debate, unique to that moment. But how does the musician prepare for such a performance?

To start with, let's examine improvisation - the act of dealing with contingencies as they happen.

We all improvise. Almost everything we do in life involves being flexible to random occurrences, and yet getting where we want to go. We can all improvise music too. All it takes is participation - though our first efforts may lack coherence. It's the best way to start. We will immediately identify the priority of communication, and therefore, what is missing from our skill set.

The bottom line is that those who improvise, become better at it the more they improvise. From a negative perspective, you could say that those who fail to make plans, by necessity, become the best improvisers. Maybe that's true for some musicians too, but in my experience, playing improvised music is a deep joy I share with many dedicated and well-prepared musicians globally.

Preparing to be able to create on the spot, more than anything, means learning to be fully in the moment: assuming as little as possible, so that we can be fully aware of what is going on, and participate. We get this just by participating as much as possible in group improvisation. For the committed improviser, further self-preparation involves considering all possible contingencies, and honing the skills to confront them. A martial artist is a good metaphor, because of the immense discipline and deep study of all relevant skills required for mastery of the moment.

In music, the true art of improvisation happens when more than one musician is involved. It's about the negotiation. Solo improvisation has it's place - at the very least it's a part of the process of developing ideas for the main event, but it is not true improvisation in the jazz sense, because of the relative absence of outside influences, which means one can easily follow habitual paths towards well-practised themes.

This introduction will hopefully make it clear that practising, for the musical improviser, is completely different from practising for any other kind of musical performance. It's not harder or easier - it's just different.

The difference is present from day one of the process. Most music is studied in a linear manner, with the performance of existing compositions as our end game. Practising for improvisation is a laterally-focused process - better to learn to play that Bach prelude in all 12 keys by ear moderately well, than to nail it in one key. Then move on. 

An improviser is perfecting a process, not a result.


The central agenda in developing an ability to improvise music is Ear Training. The more we can recognise from what we hear, the better we can respond. A rule of thumb is that everything practised should have some aspect of ear training/expansion built into it. Once we have performed something to the point that the ear-hand coordination is well established, we should move on. Otherwise we are just developing the mechanical, and our right brain disengages.

First important point is that, though literacy is pretty crucial to an intellectual left-brain understanding of musical structure, that understanding is useless to us as improvisers until we know it "by heart". Far better to learn music by ear, as it enters through our right-brain, which is where we need it for making music.

The improviser must from the outset take on the internalisation of musical structures, horizontal (rhythmic), vertical (harmonic), and combined (melodic), so that they can recognise them, and then develop the ear-hand coordination to be able to include within their own performance, everything that they hear. A disciplined approach to this starts with what I call Grid Work, which forms the technical foundation of everything we do.

They must also know the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic language that will be used to communicate.. This is the most fundamental element, precedes even the ability to play an instrument, and starts with just concentrated listening. I am repeatedly confronted by students who want to learn to play jazz, but don't listen to it. Everything that comes out of me as an improviser and composer, is a product of my musical aesthetic, which is the selective sum of everything I have listened to. That which has resonated with me enough to work its way into my reservoir of musical vocabulary. The people that I improvise/communicate with best will be those that share more of those musical references.

The next part to this process is to develop that language into a personal one on our instrument. This has many routes, and I will deal with the details of these later. It usually starts with mimicry of musical performances that resonate with us. If we do a lot of this without going further, but really internalise the sounds, it is already massive. If we can also go beyond this, analyse what is happening, and learn to apply the ideas to other situations, we go even deeper, and here we start to develop our own voice. 


Ultimately, if all other things are equal, what governs how we prepare for improvisation, is how much time we are prepared, or have available, to spend working on it. If you have a full-time job and a young family to look after, then as long as you have an opportunity to play together in a group with other like-minded people once or twice a week, and you listen to as much music as possible, you will develop.

If you can add 2-4 hours of preparation a week, then focus on content - learning tunes and absorbing language from performances, then developing your own ideas from that. If you have 6 hours, then add some grid work on chords and scales, working in a way that best informs the ear - like playing through key areas around a resolving cycle of 5ths.

Beyond 6 hours, you have room for a fairly complete pracise agenda, which I will go into in part 2.

Read Part 2

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


I remember an incident: I'm in my late 20s at the time, a travelling musician, driving on one of the Motorways in the UK, and as usual, carrying several small-ish instruments with me. I stop for lunch at one of the Motorway service stops, and as is my habit at the time, I take the instruments into the restaurant with me - don't want to tempt fate leaving them in an unoccupied car.

In the restaurant I'm greeted by a group of older ladies on a neighbouring table, curious to know what's in my oddly-shaped cases:


"ooh! can you play us a tune?"

"sorry, I don't think I can play anything you'd know"

I immediately felt a bit disturbed by my own response. Here I was, devoting ridiculous amounts of my time to expressing myself on these instruments, yet I couldn't touch the people around me. I was developing all this for just a tiny group of initiates - jazz nerds.

It changed me quite a lot. I started looking into folk music in general. Into the musical elements common to all - principles of rhythmic and melodic beauty that are universal, authentic and timeless. Simplicity without compromise. Most of what I've composed and played since has tried to hold to these values. I want to communicate.


We're experiencing a tough moment in the evolution of popular music. The established order of things of even 20 years ago is gone. Much lamenting is done on the fact that the jazz scene is dying. But it's not dying, it's just being challenged, and because too many jazz musicians are still comfortably stuck in the language and traditions of the old order, they are still playing to an ever-dwindling little group of jazz nerds.

Jazz's life-force is in being able to create something really human and relevant out of the moment. Yet a lot of jazz performances infuriate me for being exactly the opposite. A sleepy trudge through the tried-and-tested. Despite the fact that it's not a jam session, it often follows exactly a jam session format: head-solo-solo-(bass)solo-drum4s-head. Who is this music for? The players or the audience? Is this some kind of musicians cooperative ego-stroking session? Why does everyone in the group have to take a solo? Why does a solo have to be the same length as the last solo?

Audience numbers, and consequently the availability of venues tell the story: few people are going to come to a gig like this - unless there are outstanding or famous players in the band. Even then, the audience will be from that ever-dwindling pool of jazz initiates.

If you've got a gig. Make it a show. Arrange it so that it has maximum effect. Work out the dynamic flow of each set, and then of each song. Decide which soloists you use where, not because you want to give them their rightful "chance to blow" but because they can create the necessary dynamic intensity. Maybe brief your players about what you're trying to achieve with each set/tune/solo.

I'm not saying that the jazz musician needs to change the content, or "authenticity" of what they are doing. Pop music stays relevant by reinventing itself on a regular basis. This is not done for effect - it's not initiated by the recording, production or management companies, but by the musicians themselves: they get bored with the established order, they question it's validity, and then they change it. They do this because their environment demands it. Times change, and the old order ceases to resonate with them.

Pop musicians also don't generally think of themselves as Pop Musicians. They just create and play the music that their aesthetic demands. Though you may have spent much of your formative years internalising the language, structures and lore of bebop, it is after all just one of the strings to your bow. Use them all.

As Louis Armstrong (and so many others) said: "there are only 2 types of music: good, and bad".

Constantly reassessing your musical purpose is the only way to continue being relevant.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Jazz Studies

I was chatting the other day with my good friend, Singapore bassist and sound engineer, Keith Ong. He, as an alumnus and beneficiary of my jazz workshop program Groove Works, was telling me about his rather under-whelming experiences during his first few semesters at Berklee College of Music, starting in their degree program after having spent around 2 years in Groove Works.

Of course, Groove Works is designed as a post-graduate-level program, and, whether you've actually "graduated" from anything or not, the agenda is on bridging the gap between having the information, and being able to do something creative with it. Undergraduate studies are, by design, pedestrian and basic at the outset.

Keith is one of the great successes of my program, who by now finds himself among the first people I will call if I need a bass player (or sound engineer). It's a no-brainer really: he trained for years under my guidance, following my musical concept, and now understands me better than most of the people I play with.

It got me thinking again about my vision for Groove Works, and what, if any, value there is in going through an undergraduate program that essentially just creates a bottle-neck of information that has little chance of assimilating itself into your creative flow within the time you are enrolled.

My own entry into the fledgling "jazz education" programs that were available in the late '70s, needed a lot of persistence, effort, and single-mindedness. At that point, there was still so much derision among the existing jazz practitioners that the whole idea of learning jazz in a classroom was ridiculous. "You ain't gonna learn how to play there!"

Before the late '60s, nothing like that existed. A few enlightened jazz musicians like Charles Mingus were conducting irregular workshop sessions to bring young hopefuls from their communities into the fold, but nobody had come up with the methodology or system for putting together a college-level curriculum. Even in the late '70s in the UK, the only option for music study was in a classical conservatory-type program. Berklee, in Boston USA, was actually a pioneering development. Now there are a massive array of options globally for the young jazz wannabee.

Jazz itself grew on the bandstand. Very few of the musical giants that shaped the legacy had any kind of formal musical training. A "jazz degree" was probably a common joke among musicians even of the 1950s, and even in my era was considered barely worth the paper it was printed on.

However, there are now some great programs out there. Now that jazz has developed a fairly substantial body of works, and produced it's fair share of thinkers and revolutionaries, it is very valid for those who intend to spend their lives working with the music, to get as much of an informed base on the subject before launching their careers. That is, after all, what a college degree essentially constitutes.

But is it necessary? Isn't there another way?


Instinctive - Informed - Intuitive

You can think of it this way: 
  • Stage 1 is where you find out what sounds good.
  • Stage 2 is where you analyse why it sounds good.
  • Stage 3 is where you learn how to make it work for you.

The longer you spend in stage 1, the quicker you will assimilate information in stage 2 and move on to the crucial stage 3, where you learn to expand and manipulate it to express yourself.

Music is something that those who have a sensitivity to it, know when it's working, and when it isn't. If you don't fully develop this awareness first, it will definitely cause a roadblock when you start to process the information. 

Literacy, though it can be considered as part of the Information stage, is something that should be introduced slowly during stage 1, or it makes stage 2 that much more difficult. Look no further than spoken language for an effective metaphor.

The biggest problem I see in those that graduate from the colleges where I have taught, is that they are still very much in the information-assimilation stage when the get spat out into the working world. This makes them less than effective as performers or writers, meaning that they find themselves at the lowest end of the musical food-chain, and will subsequently only get jobs among the minions of the music industry. They will then never have the time - let alone the inspiration - to develop further.

For somebody who started with aspirations of becoming the next Bud Powell, this can be a catastrophe.

3-4 years of concentrated study can't be sniffed at really, but given that most students on degree programs are barely out of their teens, and spend most of their time developing skills (musical or otherwise!) that enhance their social standing among their contemporaries, the actual academic assimilation agenda is often sidelined until the last minute.


My contention is that information should only be introduced in a way that can be applied right now. Any information must be ear-trained into your visceral aesthetic reservoir before you move on. This is a crucial core mantra with us: if you still need to read it, it's useless to you.

In addition, there is no automatic requirement to learn the entire jazz "standard" repertoire of tunes and progressions before you move into more modern and even perhaps more complex structures, or ones that interest you more, and before you start creating your own music.  Extensive stage 1 development would be the recommended prerequisite to being able to move into our "hybrid" stage, and this should already have produced a good base knowledge of existing repertoire, and the required literacy.

I set up this program to be a training ground for those that want to create a truly representative musical statement, to contribute effectively within a group performance as part of a dynamic and interactive collective expression. It should provide a liberating template in which we can incorporate the myriad influences that we all have from our diverse cultural backgrounds, tastes, and experiences. A stimulating forum that investigates the cutting edge of what is happening on our musical globe, and provides the crucial mentor-driven insight necessary to understand how the music works from the inside out.

I believe all of us who start out on the path towards jazz mastery are drawn to a quintessentially honest art form that expresses the existential truth, beauty and hope of life. My quest is to offer some of those I meet on the journey a way to preserve their dignity in remaining true to themselves.

This is the core of what Groove Works is. Over the years that I have been running the program, it has helped form the musical character and direction of some wonderful musicians. Many of those that are still part of the same scene are among the first people I will call when I have a chance to play my own music.

For more information on Groove Works, catch up with us on Facebook, or email us at:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Our Gift

Wayne Shorter: "what do you give as a present to life - in celebration of life - when life has it all? ...I would say that the effort of being original is like: "thank you!"." 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Art or Graft?

The ability to effectively express ourselves through an aural, visual, or language-based medium makes us Artists.

The role of Art in society is to represent in an abstract and visceral way the moment of time we live in, like a snapshot of the current state of our collective cultural journey. As conduits of this representation Artists have to be both hypersensitive to the momentary state of our environment, and absolutely truthful in our expression of it's effect on us.

I believe that the majority of us begin our journey in music (or any other art form) driven by a passion to express ourselves through it. What happens to those of us who decide to make it central to our lives is that in making it our "career" we need to make a living from it. This creates a conflict of interest.

The artist's struggle has eternally been the quest to reach an audience sufficient to provide the means to sustain one's life without compromise to one's expression. Unfortunately the realities of earning a living will often mean that we find ourselves reducing our expression in order to broaden our appeal. This will inevitably mean that we are using the skills developed to express ourselves, instead to fulfill an existing demand within the commercial market.

If, during our period of intense study and growth - normally during our teens an early twenties - we focus on the highest possible development of our art, we can emerge into the market with an already highly developed expression. In doing so we give ourselves the advantage of perhaps finding a niche within that market doing the thing we do best - and enjoy most. At worst we will be doing something on the right track which will get us there in time.

If, however, we focus our education on preparing us for the practicalities of the existing "industry" we actually become part of the problem. Where the modern take on education in the arts often fails is that it directs our focus towards developing skills specific to a job description. Practical from some points of view perhaps, but in my view pointless. This will be the reality you face anyway when you emerge into the market to offer your services. If you arrive with all your creative guns blazing, you will very likely be able to choose where you sit.

To be able to do what we are passionate about and earn good money should be the goal for all intelligent humans. Follow your passion and skills develop along the way to make you good at what you do; you will then be able to set a price to your product. Follow good money and you will probably hate what you do.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Ready To Learn?

Why do adults learn so much more slowly than children?

Could it be because adults start out from a position of already knowing something?

It's not a radical suggestion that the most valuable lessons in life will require you to completely let go of what you already know.

As a teacher I lead many horses to water, but I can't make sure that they all quench their thirst. Not because they are not thirsty, but because they all assume they know how to do it already.

The hardest students to get through to are the ones who come with a set of established values and expect me to just tweak them so that they work better. Most of the time the things that hold us back are deep faults stemming from a fundamentally wrong approach that is hidden from us.

A simple solution is to be like a child. Open your eyes and ears and take in every detail. Don't assume you know the end of the sentence because the beginning sounds familiar. Stay always in observation mode, even when you begin to participate.

Presented with something completely new, a child will take it all in without resistance and investigate every nuance, thereby understanding the thing as a new entity without judgement. An adult will immediately look for comparative reference points in their own experience in order to categorize, thereby reducing the revelation to a minimum and challenging their understanding of the world as little as possible. If they can't categorize it, they become afraid and defensive as their world is based on a set of established but fragile rules.

We are all in a hurry to grow up. To be the one who knows what's what. But the world is vast, and unless we travel constantly in a state of humility and generosity, speaking the language of every place we visit, we can't assume to know very much at all. If we live in a very cloistered, safe environment and have few real hardships in life, we know next to nothing. Accepting you know nothing is the power of growth.

If you have found someone whom you believe can teach you something, you owe it to yourself to throw away all assumptions and accept the way that is being shown you until it is completed. Anything less is a waste of everybody's time.

You can't add to a cup that is already full.