Don’t blame the tool if you use it for the wrong task

There are lots of 'tools' available to someone learning to become a better jazz player.

  • Recordings of great players
  • Method books
  • Scales
  • A pitch tuner
  • Transcribing
  • Harmonic knowledge
  • Patterns
  • Band in a Box
  • A metronome
  • A keyboard (for non-piano players)
  • A recording device
  • Jam sessions
  • A teacher

Are they good or bad? It depends on the context.

Is a wrench bad? No, but if you try to pound a nail into a board with one, you'll likely hurt the wrench and bend the nail. Don't blame the tool. Blame your poor choice of using a wrench instead of a hammer.

The same is true with the tools listed above. Each has both its proper and improper use. The trick is to know the difference and maximize the benefit of the tool using it for what it's good for.

Consider a scale. Scales are an important component of harmony. Build your ear for keys and modes by running scales. Practice them slow and practice them fast in order to strengthen your articulation and range. Sing them and consider the intervals that comprise the different scales. Listen to how they sound.

But when you improvise, don't use the running of scales to mark time and imitate the texture of improvisation. Don't use them to play safe and artificial within the chordal harmony. That's the wrench pounding a nail.

Consider transcribing. Write down the notes that the masters played. Learn to play them like the recording with dynamics, inflections, articulations, and time. Study the note choices. Understand the form of the solo. Intersperse your own improvisation within their solo every four, eight, 16, or more bars.

But don't play them as your own in a performance and don't transcribe and thus imitate too many solos from your favorite player and risk your identity being replaced by his sound. As Shiela Jordan says, That's stealing someone else's voice. That's using a screwdriver instead of a brush to paint a wall. It's using the tool of transcribing poorly.

Consider a metronome.  Use it as a click track in a recording where you need to play in perfect coordinated tempo. Use it as an accountability tool keeping you from slowing down when practicing the mechanics of scales, lip slurs, and interval exercises. Use it to measure and track the strength and speed of your tongue like a runner using a stopwatch to measure lap speed. Yesterday, you were 16th notes at 110. Can you do 112 today?

But don't use a metronome to ingrain into yourself a sense of click-accurate time. The pulse of jazz is not a clock. It is a human being expressing their special view of the world. It's a groove. It's the organic motion of your life. It's a heartbeat. Jazz time is neither perfect nor mechanical. Using a metronome to practice the ideal of perfect time is like using a belt sander to cut wood. It's the wrong and destructive use of a perfectly good tool.

Getting better at jazz or any form of music requires that you know how best to use the tools at your disposal. Gather the tools and use them for their best purpose and then reap the rewards.

Use these tools for something they're not made for and you'll hinder your musical development and wonder why you're not getting better. And if you misuse the tool, don't blame the tool. Blame your poor choice and use of it.

5 Comments

  1. Ed Soph on August 3, 2021 at 12:49 pm

    There are so, so many swinging, heart-throbbing, soul enriching performances by the Masters that are not metronomic. The emotional context created by the group, not the individual, creates and modifies the tempo. It is a mark of unified, not individual, expression.

  2. Matt Snyder on August 3, 2021 at 8:06 am

    Mike Longo also despised the metronome. He taught his students to produce their own time using a hand drum and playing rhythms which produced swing through additive rhythm (2 against 3, 4 against 3, 5 against 3). Playing the time on the drum and tapping your foot to the rhythm then embeds the time feeling in your body at the same time you hear it, so it’s not abstract, you feel it in your hands, in your gut, in your body, and so then when you play your instrument you have a different sense of time, and a different sense of touch in your fingers. It’s then much easier to play with a solid consistent rhythm, then, and although it might not always be as precise as a metronome, it will be more organic. Mike produced as series of videos on this.

  3. richie beirach on August 3, 2021 at 7:56 am

    The problem is that players let the metronome ingrain itself into their subconscious musical mind, and even though it seems as though the metronome is being used as a background to learn a tune IT WILL EVENTUALLY CREEP INTO YOUR PLAYING AND MANIFEST ITSELF AS A VERY STIFF ROBOTIC FEELING FOR THE TIME.

    I have a lot of experience with this subject and I want to help people to avoid that NASTY ROBOTIC TIME FEEL LOTS OF SINCERE PLAYERS DEVELOP BECAUSE OF THIS MACHINE. You don’t need it!! Don’t use it!

  4. D Burton on August 3, 2021 at 7:39 am

    I use a metronome to learn an unfamiliar tune. After I am familiar with the tune, the metronome goes into a box, and I play as fits my mood. What’s wrong with that?

  5. RICHIE BEIRACH on July 31, 2021 at 9:10 am

    I like very much everything you say in your post EXCEPT for any mention of the dreaded metronome. You are DEAD WRONG ABOUT THE METRONOME BRO. I DO blame the TOOL !!

    Any use of it creates a FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY THAT THE METRONOME’S TIME IS THE REAL TIME FLOW . But it’s not ! NO MACHINE CAN EVER BE USED TO SIMULATE OR ENCOURAGE HUMAN TIME.

    You point that out very well in your cool post ,but you forget this very important fact: mofos that PRACTICE WITH A METRONOME NO MATTER WHAT THEY ARE PRACTICING INCLUDING ARTICULATION OR WHATEVER are being bombed with a robotic time that will embed itself into their unconscious musical minds.

    I have years of ugly experiences when I get a talented young student of jazz piano or sax and they have followed their teachers advice and practice with a metronome playing F blues rhythm changes Nite in Tunisia. They try to match the metronome’s robotic time and the results are always the same GOOD IDEAS NICE LINES GOOD VOICINGS BUT ROTTEN STIFF COLD SHITTY METRONOMIC TIME !! I BLAME THE TOOL !! It can be thrown away and CAN AND SHOULD NOT BE USED IN ANY ANY WAY CAUSE IT CREATES THIS STIFF VIRAL SENSE OF TIME

    Sorry bro ,,but this all comes from over 40 years of teaching all over the world.

    The metronome does much more harm than good. It is not essential for developing good time and any possible good that it could do for anything else is ENORMOUSLY OVERSHADOWED BY THE HUGE AMOUNT OF DAMAGE IT HAS DONE AND IS DOING TO THE PEOPLE WHO ARE USING ONE TODAY.

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