Improve Your Jazz Improvisation: 1 Simple Shortcut

jazz improvisationAre you frustrated by your jazz improvisation?

Do you find that no matter how much you practice new scales, learn jazz theory, learn licks, or spend time transcribing you still can’t make the improvements you want to make?

Well, i’m going to share with you a story and 1 simple thing I added in my practice routine a few years ago that completely revolutionized my jazz practice and my jazz improvisation.

Fear and Loathing and Jazz Recording

As many of you know I’m a huge fan of NBA basketball. I see a lot of parallels between great jazz and great basketball. I’ve loved the NBA for over 25 years.

Growing up in Chicago in the 80’s and 90’s you couldn’t help but be a fan of Michael Jordan.

I loved how virtuosic he was with a basketball in my hands. His passion and work ethic toward basketball inspired me to become a better jazz musician.

Jazz Piano LessonsI would read every article and book I could find on Michael Jordan.

I wanted to know what made him tick and see if i could pick up anything specifically that I could apply to my music practice.

I poured over articles like crazy. I found little stuff like worth ethic and philosophy but I couldn’t find something super actionable that could directly relate to my jazz piano practice.

So, one day right after my 16th birthday, I was listening to a sports radio show and sort of half not paying attention.

The host was talking about Michael Jordan and how much time Jordan spent in the offseason working out, shooting free throws and… studying practice and game film.

In fact he said that studying the film of the previous years playoffs helped him improve the most over the summer.

Ok, I thought this was the same old stuff. I practiced hard everyday just like Michael did. I didn’t shoot free throws specifically but I did practice scales everyday.

This isn’t any new info at all I thought.

More of the same stuff and…wait…wait……did he just say he studies practice game film?

“Hmm…that’s kind of interesting I guess. I could study my own version of ‘game film’ for a couple minutes. Yeah, I’ll try it out but I’m sure I’ll already sound good so it won’t be that useful.”

A Star is Scorned…I mean Born

Record Yourself JzzLater that day I  went home and fired up the recorder and put it right next to my piano. Man, I thought this was going to be easy!

I’ll record it and really have fun hearing how great I sound. I’ll listen back for a minute and be just like Michael Jordan when he studied film.

So, I played the head to Summertime, took a few choruses of a solo on it, and then played the head out. It was consistent with the normal way I played at that time.

Now, I had never actually listened to a real recording of myself play before then but I sure I was sounding good at the time. I felt confident. 😉

I couldn’t wait to share the recording with people. Maybe I could get some gigs out of it too! Club owners will love it. It will be great!

After I got done patting myself on the back I thought, “Hey you know what. I think I’ll just take a quick listen before I send it out.

I’m sure it’s awesome but I want to review the great licks I played on it.”

This was the 90’s so I had recorded myself on my cassette player. So, I rewinded the tape and pressed play.

First thing I hear…

  • Bar 1: Wow, that left hand was way too loud on the first chord there. That must be a fluke I thought. The rest will be better I thought.
  • Bar 2: Whoah, I rushed those first two eight notes.
  • Bar 3: Man I played my left hand too stacatto on those syncopated attacks.
  • Bar 4: Boring. I missed the II-V into the IV chord.
  • Bars 5-16: More of the same garbage in my playing.
  • The solo was even “funkier” and not in a good way.

The licks I thought were cool just weren’t. Ugh! My jaw had dropped. “This is what I really sound like? I suck!”

Here I thought was the second coming of Oscar Peterson. I was embarrassed and my ego was crushed.

I felt absolutely horrible! And yet…this was the best moment of my young musical life. 🙂

Welcome To Reality Young Man

Like some sort of masochist i listened to the recording several times that week. I kept hoping that it would get better somehow.

The recording never got better but by listening repeatedly to it my playing did!

So, a week later I recorded myself playing Summertime again a week later. I listened back to the recording and studied it intensely. It wasn’t perfect yet but I had made some noticeable improvements

The next day I recorded myself again and listened back to that. Each time I did it my playing got better and better.

I still wasn’t anywhere close where i needed to but it was a huge improvement.

Not only did I learn humility but I also learned to develop the #1 habit that’s led to my success as a musician many years later.

Recording myself daily!

I truly believe that this simple habit is the #1 reason why I’m a professional musician today.

The Recording Never Lies

As you read from the story above the ego and the mind often plays tricks on musicians.

They’ll play a song and often times think they sounded better or worse than they actually did on it.

There are so many emotions arising while you play music that it can be very difficult to objectively grade your performance. Recordings never lie though!

When i record myself in practice it allows me to relax while I play and not be to judgmental of myself. I know I’ll go back afterward and critique.

While I play it is a time for me to concentrate, connect spiritually to the music, and just enjoy playing the piano! 🙂

It’s not time to be distracted by critiquing myself.

If I focus on grading myself while I play my groove, my listening skills, and connection the music suffers. These are not things you should ever sacrifice!

How To Constructively Listen and Learn

So, I’d like to give you a quick run down now of how I go about using a recording to improve my skills.

Step 1: I’ll warm up and choose a tune that I’ve recently been working on. Once I feel focused and relaxed I’ll pop the recorder on.

Step 2: From there I’ll play the head of the tune, solo for a few choruses, and then play the head out.

Step 3: As soon as I finish my recording I go and grab a notebook. With a pencil in hand I now listen to my recording 3 times.

How I Listen

Listen #1:

I listen to the performance as a whole without taking notes yet. I want to get a big picture concept of the performance as a whole.

I notice things that are really good and not so good. I don’t write in the notebook yet though. I’m trying to hear the overall performance first.

Listen # 2

On my second listen I start from the beginning again and start really employing the pause and rewind buttons. I take diligent notes about things I like and don’t like.

I’ll write down things like…

  • My phrasing got weird from bar 16 to 17.
  • Bar 23 was not a good chord voicing in my left hand.
  • Bar 31 and 32 my swing feel was really good.
  • Bar 40-44 my articulation was well executed.
  • Bar 53. Great lick! Didn’t develop it well though in bars 54 and 55.

These observations open huge doors for me.

Listen #3:

This is probably the most important listen that I do. Based off my notes from my last listen I really figure out what needs work in my playing.

  • Bar 16 and 17: After listening back I realize my phrasing wasn’t good because I’m not as comfortable as I should be over that chord progression. I make a note to myself to isolate that chord progression in my next practice session.
  • Bar 23: I listen back and realize that I’m tend to play that chord a lot in that situation. Wow! What a breakthrough. I’ll immediately start playing a different chord there. Yes!
  • Bar 31 and 32: I study why my swing feel is good. I notice I’m really laying back on the beat and accenting more on the upbeats.  That’s useful information for the future for sure!
  • Bar 53: Now that i listen back I realized i had started a really nice sequence there and I didn’t develop the idea after it well. Hmmm…I think I need to work on developing motives more over that set of chords changes I’ll add it to my next practice session.

So, everyday through these recordings I get a real sense of what is good and what needs improvement still in my playing.

These discoveries becomes the fuel for what I spend my time doing in all future practice sessions. It’s a direct path for me toward my own true artistic voice.

I listen back for what i would have liked to have heard in my playing. Then, I practice the skills to acquire my ideal sound.

This is a never ending process!

These days I even video tape my playing too ( As you can see in this solo jazz piano performance of Don’t Explain.)

When I video record it gives me a ton of information on how to improve my technique.

I also gives me excellent feedback in how I look when I perform. Since, I make most of my living performing this is PRICELESS information for me.

I have to make sure I’m not doing anything weird with my face when I play 🙂

Bravery And Personal Challenge For You

jazz practiceI know many musicians are afraid to hear themselves on recording. I know it can be scary if you’ve never done it before.

I’d like to close off the article today by offering you a challenge. Make a goal to record yourself 1x this week.

I promise you that you’ll not only survive but you’ll really make some huge breakthroughs in your playing.

It changed my musical life and I know it can change yours too.

That’s all for today. Now, go get some practice in!!


Did you enjoy this story? Please leave a comment below and let me know. Perhaps you even have a story to tell too?

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