“We learn an art or craft by doing the things that we shall have to do when we have learnt it: for instance, men become builders by building houses, harpers by playing on the harp.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II.1
The ultimate end of studying jazz music on any instrument is the act of performance, whether solo or in a group format. “Performance” here requires neither audience (beyond the performers themselves) nor professional venue. While these externalities will surely influence a musician’s playing, the ability to “play tunes” constitutes the essence of jazz performance. In order to play any given tune a jazz musician must be able to articulate its melody and harmony (roughly, “chords’), improvise a solo within the constraints of the harmony, and all the while tend to the tune’s groove (i.e. rhythm). When a player, with some rhythmic regularity (or calculated irregularity), plays a tune’s theme, improvises over its chords, and then re-states the theme, he has performed jazz.
A successful syllabus of jazz guitar lessons will cultivate this ability to perform tunes. The most obvious work required for this involves the repetition of rudiments that will initiate and reinforce a visual and aural understanding of the instrument. These are the exercises, the scales, arpeggios and chords with their inversions that must be internalized in order to reproduce melodies and harmonies of the tunes in question. Practicing such exercises with a metronome will help to insure that the student develops a strong sense of rhythm, the component of music most important for overall feel. However you slice it, jazz performance demands this sort of busy work.
Still, beware! This type of “practicing” constitutes the lesser component of a successful course of jazz guitar lessons, and frequently, in my experience, threatens to consume the more important agenda, namely that of fostering what I call “the connection.” When I begin teaching an aspiring jazz guitarist at any level, I begin with a tune, most often a blues. After playing a portion of the blues chord progression, I will sing an impromptu melodic line atop it and then ask the student to sing a line of his own. After the usual balking, the student will reluctantly and apologetically sing his own line, a series of notes whose origin is a mystery. Where has it come from? Is it one that the student recalls from his own past experience of listening? Is it wholly original? Is it a personalized rendering of a remembered phrase? Whatever its origin (a subject of longstanding and continuing debate among philosophers and cognitive theorists), the student has engaged himself internally to make audibly real a sound within himself. This engagement constitutes “the connection,” an emotional state in which a jazz musician spontaneously communicates a melodic line against a given harmonic context.
Moving oneself into this psychological space where musical ideas occur presents the student various challenges. In the example above, the student was asked to sing instead of play the line. Given that one’s mouth has been the primary means of communication since childhood, singing in this way, however far the notes fall from their mark, is surely easier than manipulating strings with fingers to match the sound in one’s head. Further complicating the issue, most students are dissatisfied with the lines that emanate from themselves, even when they are able accurately to produce them. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of making one’s instrument as communicative as one’s mouth, many students embrace with desperation the busy work of scales, arpeggios and chords described above. With their clearly defined patterns of repetition, such exercises offer a structured regimen preferable to the daunting freedom of attempting to coax imagined sounds from the guitar. Inevitably, this seemingly more productive and thus comforting manner of practice distracts the student from engaging his “connection.” Like the basketball player who drills his free throw, jump shot and dribbling at the expense of actually playing the game, the guitarist who practices scales and chords alone without engaging regularly his inner musical voice is lost when he takes the bandstand.
When I lead a new student through a course of jazz guitar lessons, I try first of all to impress on him the primary importance of engaging and cultivating the music that seems already to exist within himself. All busy work, from scales to inversions, in reality serves this journey of self-discovery and self-expression. I rely on tunes and singing as the means of maintaining the subservience of technical practice to musicality. For instance, all of my students, regardless of experience level, begin with the goal of performing a tune that they have always wanted to play. With this healthful incentive in place, the student is motivated to endure the disciplined and repetitious work required to perform the tune properly. In accordance with the advice of countless legendary jazz players/teachers (e.g. Herb Ellis, Oscar Peterson and Karl Berger), students are taught to sing, either in their heads or at a whisper, all sounds that they produce from the instrument, including pattern-based busy work. If a musician sings what he plays, he’s more likely eventually to play what he sings. Given this goal of spontaneously singing with the guitar, each practice session should be designed to move from the constraint of exercise to the freedom of performance. If a player aims to play “Stardust,” for example, he may begin by drilling the melody and any harmonic scenario (i.e. chord change) that require isolated scale and chord work. Though this work potentially threatens to consume the allotted practice time, it is essential that the student not stop here! Instead he must muster the courage to improvise over the tune, or even a section of the tune, for a portion of his daily regimen. Playing along with recordings or others is often the easiest and most fun way to move oneself from a state of exercise to a state of performance, no matter how inferior the performing may seem to the student. Each jazz musician needs to discover his own voice by doing now what he hopes continually to do better, namely performing. The bandstand must not be the distant goal of the lowly beginner locked in his practice shed, he must learn to perform by regularly performing.
Professional Jazz Musician
Teacher of Latin, Greek, and Music