Quick and easy mastery of improvising jazz

Okay, let me come clean that the title of this post is completely misleading. But when you first saw it, admit that you had a tinge of excitement that it could be possible. Sorry about that, but I’m trying to make a point. While jazz mastery is not quick and easy, I am going to tell you the truth about speeding up the development of your jazz skills.

This post came about because I saw something today about mastering jazz without spending long hours in the practice room. That got me going. I mean, do you really think that’s possible?

We are all drawn to promises of quick and easy because our brains are wired to find shortcuts and to be efficient. Our brain develops neural pathways from movements or thinking that we do over and over. And after a certain amount of repetition that movement or thought becomes reinforced so that the task or mindset becomes automatic.

That reinforcement relieves us from having to consciously think about a particular frequent activity. “Let’s see, I put my right foot forward, I balance on that foot for a moment, then I put my left foot in front of that…” Our brains are built to conserve energy by making repetitive tasks automatic so that we can apply conscious thought to new endeavors. 

Open up any sales email you’ve received over the past couple of days and count how many times you see the words effortless, simple, fast, easy, quick, etc. We are drawn to making things quick and easy at the subconscious level. 

Now let’s talk about jazz

Is there some shortcut that allows us to avoid long hours in the practice room? Is there some deep-rooted ability we can tap into that allows us to put our fingers to our instrument and spontaneously compose great music without those 10,000 hours of work we keep hearing about?

I’m afraid not, at least not if you aspire to play jazz at the level of which you dream. With any complex endeavor, mastery is not effortless. Shame on those who claim it is by praying on our hard-wired attraction to the quick and easy.

That presents a dilemma to those of us who honestly teach that playing jazz at a high level is hard and takes years and years of relentless hard work. The problem is that claim doesn’t sell very well.

Hmmm… not exactly something you’ll see Dr. Oz pedaling on tabloid magazine covers.

After getting all that off my chest by helping you see there is no free lunch, let’s talk about making the most of the time you do spend practicing so that you can speed up your improvement. `

Are you seeing steady improvement in your playing from your practicing? Do you want to?

That’s not a stupid question. You might be at a point in your life where you just want to maintain your skills for the occasional rehearsals and gigs which is perfectly fine.

But if you are practicing regularly and not improving as you wish, let’s fix that.

I created a lesson in the practicing module of my Improvisation Savvy course called Finding the Root Cause of a Playing Problem.


The point of this video lesson is to demonstrate how to break down a playing problem to its underlying cause. Too many players simply hammer away at something over and over hoping for different results. They may eventually improve but at the expense of so much wasted time and energy.

Think back to what I wrote earlier about how our brains create neural connections to automate certain activities we do over and over. Often, practice doesn’t make perfect, but rather, it makes permanent because of strengthening those neural pathways. So if you constantly put your tongue in the wrong place when you articulate a note and wonder why your playing isn’t getting more nimble, this could be the reason why. You are making permanent the wrong articulation mechanics.

Another example could be if you notice that you don’t swing as you wish you would when you improvise jazz lines. But rather than understanding the components of swing and then breaking down your articulation and sense of time in order to discover the culprit, you just keep playing as you do over and over. Your flawed sense of articulation and rhythm is becoming ingrained within your musical personality. It is becoming harder and harder to improve your jazz feel.

And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe this guy…


So, is there some quick and easy way to master jazz or any art form? Sorry, no. Playing jazz even pretty well is a hard, lonely, life-long endeavor. But there are ways to approach your playing and your practicing more effectively so that you improve quicker.

Focus on your practicing effectiveness by deeply listening to everything you play with a critical ear, strip away the surface appearances to get to the core problem, work that, and you will find yourself making steady fulfilling improvement as you surpass the players following the quick and easy claims.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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