Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jazz Improv Masterclass #1

What does it take to play a good sounding jazz solo? A master's degree? 20 years experience? Super human powers?

I have great news for you. A good sounding jazz solo is not rocket science and anyone can learn to play one. I like to break jazz solos down into 5 principles that I'll outline today. I'll go more in depth into each one in future articles.

Principle 1: Tone
How to do this correctly is different to each instrument. Some don't even have to worry about it. However, for wind players, this is the first thing people hear when we play and people evaluate how good we are with in a few seconds. Fortunately, with proper guidance, tone can easily be learned. If tone is not one of your strengths, all you need to do is to get help from your band director or a private teacher who can show you the fundamentals of good sound.

Principle 2: Time
One of the biggest errors beginning improvisors make is to try to cram too many notes into their solos. As they do this, they have little or no regard to time. This is an easy fix. Just keep track of the beat (tap your foot if necessary) and make sure your rhythms lock in.

Principle 3: Style
This one does take a little time to learn. The first step, though, is to be aware of it and not just rattle off lots of notes. This entails being aware of articulation and rhythmic patterns. The best way to learn this is by listening to the jazz greats. Listen closely to what they do and then imitate it.

Principle 4: Energy
Another fairly simple fix, but is more difficult for some people than others. A lot of it has to do with personality. Shy people, like me, have a harder time getting in front of people and blowing out. Trust me, though, it is a lot less embarrassing to get up and play a bold solo than a wimpy one. And if you don't feel bold, fake it.

Principle 5: Notes
What is the number one fear people have when improvising? Playing wrong notes. The thing is, though, I've heard plenty of good sounding solos with tons of wrong notes (they did have good tone, good time and energy). I've also heard solos with perfect notes that sounded awful (because they lacked the other principles). The problem with notes is that it takes a long time to learn all the theory. You mainly have to get started by learning your major scales well.

But for now, don't stress about the notes, just get started and have fun.

Assignment: Find a blues play-along and the corresponding blues scale. Then play around with the scale in time with the play-along. If you need a blues play-along, contact me, and I can get you one.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Writing Discoveries #1

One of my dad's favorite movies was Gumball Rally, a 1976 film about an illegal car race from New York to LA. One of the racers, the owner of a red Ferrari Daytona Spyder, hires an Italian driver (played by Raul Julia) to help him win the race. The first thing the Italian driver does when he gets into the car is grab the rear view mirror, yank it off the window, throw it out of the car and say, “The first-a rule in Italian driving: what's-a behind you, doesn't-a matta.”

For years, I wanted to write a novel. I would get started by writing two or three chapters, then go back and revise. You see, I am cursed with the perfectionist gene. I couldn't stand having an imperfect chapter sitting there. The problem was, after I spent all that time trying to tweak and fix it so that it was perfect, all of my forward momentum on the novel was lost. I don't know how many books I started this way.

Then the concept of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) came to my attention. The idea was to write 50,000 words in 30 days. When I tried it, in order to meet my daily quota, I had to not spend much time on what I had previously written. My perfectionist gene screamed at me. But a miracle happened: I finished a novel. It was awkward, confusing, and worst of all – imperfect. At the same time, it was wonderful. I had actually finished a novel! The secret? What's behind you, doesn't matter.

Now, I know that at some point you have to go back and fix things. That's called editing. When writing, especially the first draft, you are not an editor. You are a creator. You need to first get the lump of clay onto the potter's wheel so that you have something you can mold and work with. We can't take just a little lump of clay and work it and work it until it is the perfect part of a vase. We need to get the whole lump on the wheel first before we start shaping it into the form we want.

So, my first major discovery was applying the, “What's behind you, doesn't matter,” to writing. It freed me up. It taught me to turn off my perfectionist gene long enough so that I could get a manuscript out. And, yes, my perfectionist gene still whines at me when I ignore it, but I let it have it's way in the second draft. This keep it very happy.

Assignment: Just sit down and write whatever comes to mind. It doesn't have to make sense. Just push forward and don't look back.

Weekly Articles

I've set a goal to produce two articles a week that I will post here on my blog. One will be a jazz educational article on improvising, called Jazz Improv Masterclass. I originally envisioned this to be a podcast, but time has become too limited to produce it in that form. But I thought I could at least release the planned lessons as short articles. Later, I hope I can get back into recording the lessons.

The other article will be about my adventures while learning about writing. I am by no means an expert at the craft, but I feel I've learned several things that could benefit other people trying to get into the art. That article will be called Writing Discoveries.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Friends (not the lame tv show)

I thought I'd post to let people know that I can be followed in other ways. A couple of months ago I started doing Facebook (or is that Phazebook?) which can be addicting. If you want to follow that, my address there is

I also have a Twitter account, but no followers yet. I do have it set up so that what I Twitter goes to my Facebook. I plan to start putting more "tweets" in now that that is set up. You can find me at

I just started a Goodreads account as well. I'm still exploring that, but it looks fun. I'll need to transfer my reviews from elsewhere to that site. If anyone wants to befriend me there, they can.

Then, of course, there are the good ol' websites, and

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I'm reading through 2 to 3 chapters a day in my book and making a detailed outline as I go. It will probably be around 40 pages (single space) when I'm done. I think I also want to do the same thing to the Harry Potter books, just so I can do a deep analysis. I finally finished Da Vinci Code, but my deep analysis was abandoned when I got hooked into the story. I want to learn mystery-suspense from Dan Brown and world creation from Rowling. Now, if I can just find a way to make myself read Twilight. . .

I'm also getting time to practice sax again. It feels good. I spent last week brushing up on my bari chops since I had a rehearsal Saturday with the Salt Lake Jazz Orchestra (Jerry Floor's band) subbing for DB. This week, I'm focusing on tenor sax and R&B playing.

It's so nice to have all my students in the afternoon so that I can organize my mornings better. Of course, once my UVU students start up, that will completely change things.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This indecision's buggin' me

Now that school has started, my teaching is all shifting to afternoon. That gives me mornings to write or practice. I try to do both, but it seems after I do one, my creative brain needs a break and the other doesn't happen. I feel like I need to go back through my manuscript and write out a new, more detailed outline. I want to make a "bullet-point" outline so I can see each thing that happens and make sure important plot points line up.

But then I practiced sax for an hour and a half yesterday (no writing) and it was so much fun. I got the latest Smartmusic update which had several new Gordon Goodwin charts in it. Temptation.

Friday, August 14, 2009

It's done!

I finished draft 7.0 today. Now I need to fix a few things to make a 7.1 by Monday. Of course, I realize the work has only just begun, but it's still a significant milestone. I made several tweaks to the plot which I think will make more sense and streamline things more. I also came out about 10 pages less, though I'm sure there's more fat to trim.

I've been spending 4 to 6 hours a day on this, which I can do this time of year because I have fewer students. Next week, my teaching load should increase, which I need because the money is getting thin. It will be nice to be able to be a musician again.

On the music front, not much is happening, except I'll be performing "O Divine Redeemer" in church on Sunday.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Draft 7

I have been editing and writing like a madman the last couple of weeks. My editor wants me to finish this draft by the 15th of August so that we can start into the heavy duty editing that needs to be done for publication. So it's exciting . . . and scary. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be published, but my training is in music, not writing. I keep reading these books on how to write, which helps to highlight all the things I don't do right. I realize my book is not going to be high art, but I hope that my writing won't get in the way of telling a good story.