The skill of simplicity

I’ve received a couple of emails this past week making basically the same point about Pocket Jazz that I thought was worth sharing and exploring. I hope this will help you.

The point made by both of them was that some of the lessons seem only for intermediate and advanced players. One of the commenters was more of a beginner and the other was an advanced player making the observation on behalf of less experienced viewers.

One of the challenges of making educational material for thousands of people I don’t know, each from a different culture, primary language, instrument, need, and ability, is to determine the skill level I’ll aim for in my materials.

And even if I could precisely dial in the exact degree of difficulty, I’m biased by my own preconceptions of what I want to present and how to best present it.

With all that said, I want to share some thoughts on how to better cater the lessons to your own needs and ability so that you can get the maximum possible benefit from each lesson

This relates to a point I often make about practicing. This lesson is in my larger course, Improvisation Savvy, and I should make a lesson on this for Pocket Jazz. Watch this lesson below called ‘Finding the Root Cause of a Problem’.

Finding a playing problem's root cause

Stick with me here even though at first this may not seem related to the issue of the Pocket Jazz difficulty level. 

The lesson asks you to resist drilling over and over on the surface problem you hear in your playing. Instead, think about the underlying issue that may be causing the problem. 

In other words, think about that more fundamental issue and then create a way to practice THAT underlying skill. It requires you to be creative in how you practice. Think of yourself like a doctor who examines the patient (you) then after discovering the cause of the dis-ease, prescribes a treatment.

Back to Pocket Jazz, if a lesson seems too advanced for you, be creative in thinking about a way to use an element of the lesson that caters to your skill level. Think of an underlying cause of the difficulty, then work on just that.

Here’s an example.

Consider the Maniacal Metronome lesson in the ‘Better Rhythm’ section. It asks you to play your instrument over a less than obvious click track. But you have trouble keeping the pulse of this time on your saxophone. So put your sax down and instead of playing, tap your fingers on the table to keep the quarter note beat. Once you hear the beat well enough to do that, pick up the sax and play those four beats. An intermediate step prior to picking up your sax might be to vocalize the quarter note beat like “dot-dot-dot-dot”, etc.

Here’s another example.

The first lesson in the ‘Better Ear’ section is called ‘Bach for a Better ear’. in this lesson, I ask you to play a short phrase from a Bach Cello suite in different keys. But for you, that entire phrase is too hard to play by ear starting on any other note.

So play a simpler phrase that is already in your ear. Maybe play the first phrase from Mary Had a Little Lamb. Just…

Can you play that by ear starting on another note? Maybe your ear will hear up a fourth as the next key or maybe up or down a major second.

Too hard? What could be your underlying issue? A disconnect between your musical mind and your trumpet? Don’t frustrate yourself by trying random notes and failing to hear the phrase as you wear down your chops. Stop trying the exercise on your trumpet right now. It’s too hard. Play a note on your trumpet but this time sing, whistle, or hum the phrase. Play another note then sing the phrase. Maybe don’t even sing it, but imagine it in your mind. Keep thinking, “How do I break the difficulty down?”

Do you see how we are breaking down this exercise/lesson to its most basic level until you reach success? Once you have that success, add a degree of difficulty. Add your instrument or try another phrase.  If you are more oriented to classical music try the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony motif. There, all you are doing is hearing the descending major third interval. Too hard? Then sing it. Too hard, find another phase that’s firmly in your mind from a Christmas carol, patriotic song, or nursery rhyme.

Last example. If you are also working with my Jazz Patterns for Ear, you know that they can get difficult pretty quickly. So be creative in how you use this wealth of material to suite your own musical needs.

Rather than failing to hear the entire 3 to 5-note interval by ear on each new note played for you, once the track gives you that first note, play only that note. Too hard? Then just sing that first note. You can do this for all 60 patterns. Don’t try to play the entire phrase, especially as the intervals become wider and more difficult. Break it down to the fundamental skill: sing, whistle, hum, or imagine the sound of only that first note. Then build from there.

Get good at being creative in breaking down exercises and lessons to their underlying components. Strip away the friction of your instrument or the length of a phrase or the technical complexity of playing a rhythm. For more on this, watch the Pocket Jazz lesson called ‘The Beauty of Constraint’ within the practicing section.

As Dave Liebman said in The Art of Skill, “You are your only 24/7 teacher, so get good at it”.  The better you are at these fundamental practicing skills, the quicker will be your improvement!


2 thoughts on “The skill of simplicity”

  1. I play bass in a college jazz band and before that I directed a high school jazz band and over the past twenty plus years have also attended numerous jazz workshops. The single biggest impediment to young players improving is the unending desire to play faster. So many players will play a new phrase once and then immediately start trying to play it faster. Play it correct over and over at “Tempo de Learno” until you have mastered it, then turn up the pace a little bit at a time. Watch an eight year old at a 5K go sprinting out for the first hundred yards and then start to hyperventilate. Yeesh. One of the wonderful things that I discovered almost by accident was the 50% and 75% speeds of YouTube videos. I can be “Slo Mo Jaco”. Lord knows I’ll never match his incredible ability, but I can work out some of his lines (Havona, anyone?) and take that to the next time I’m soloing over those changes (which would be never). Still, it is a learning experience to work out solos by the masters. Builds a little confidence. As the late great Albert Collins was known to often say, “Take your time, son.”

  2. A good illustration of this was an issue I was having playing a certain passage cleanly. Repeated drilling of the passage at various tempos wasn’t getting anywhere. Upon closer examination and looking at the passage from a different perspective it appeared that a slight change to a “less-intuitive” fingering might work. Repeating the passage with this new fingering a few times enabled me to then perform the passage perfectly in time.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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