I have taught at CalArts for 25 years and in that time developed an approach to improvising that utilizes all parts of our human makeup (intellect, heart, and body). World music is such a strong presence at CalArts and it has taught me that a strictly analytical approach to music education is not sufficient. Its quite amazing to see students grasp complex polyrhythms after only one semester in beginning African ensemble! The knowledge that they possess is probably more centered in the heart and body than anywhere else. Once that kind of information inhabits those areas of your being, you own it in a deeper and more gratifying way. I have tried to incorporate educational elements that I have gleaned from observing these various folk based approaches.
Another area that intrigues me is the psychology of improvisation. Having gone through so much personal pain (self criticism) on my own journey as an improvising musician, I have developed ways of seeing things in a more healthy and balanced way. There are so many stumbling blocks that we encounter before even picking up our instrument. The mere act of expressing our frustrations, pain, and insecurity takes away some of its stifling power. It is even possible to see the illusion of these things. The act of improvisation is so personal that each human being has to contend with all of these ego based “problems” in order to get to the “real stuff” beneath the surface. It is the human condition.
My workshops tend to emphasize these elements as much as possible. There are reams and reams of material on what cool scales or chords to use. It makes no sense to regurgitate information that is readily available with any quick internet search. In my teaching I attempt to take whatever information is available (mind) and bring other parts of ourselves (heart and body) into the process. Information is important but only as a tool for “expression”.
Below are some of the schools where I have conducted workshops or taught in other capacities:
Pasadena City College
El Camino College
University of Nevada, Reno
Arizona State University
Berklee College of Music
Eastman School of Music
University of Southern California
University of North Texas
California State University, Northridge
University of California, San Diego
California State University, Long Beach
California State University, Fullerton
Portland State University
Los Angeles Music Academy
UCSD Jazz Camp
Stanford Jazz Workshop
Below is a description of a new online video website for which I am developing extensive curriculum covering chord melody, melodic improvisation, technique, time feel, phrasing, chord substitution, and a number of other facets of jazz guitar. There is already a huge library of videos having to do with the conceptual and technical aspect of melody, harmony, and improvisation on the guitar. There is also a huge library of videos dedicated to the performance and description of solo guitar performances of various jazz standards for those students that would rather not deal as much with theory. Tavi Jinariu is the owner and founder of this website. Besides being an amazing classical guitarist he has created one of the most elaborate and visionary video lesson sites on the web.
There are basically three parts to the way my lessons are structured. There is a section that deals mainly with repertoire (Jazz Repertoire), a section that deals with theory and concepts for “going deeper” into improvisation on various jazz standards (Beyond the Basics), and a section that deals with basic jazz theory (Essential Theory). The Jazz Repertoire section deals with specific chord melodies on jazz standards and detailed arrangements on some other standards. In these video lessons there is not as much conceptual information to grasp as all of the chord voicings and melodies are already provided.
For those of you that want to understand what specific chord voicing I am using or how I mix bass lines with melodic lines, there is running commentary that addresses these concepts. For those of you that would rather just have the information as it appears on the page you can ignore those descriptions or even fast forward through the explanations. The chord melodies give you a guide for specific chord voicings that belong with specific notes in the melody and you are given freedom to create your own rhythms and inflections with my performance as a guide. The arrangements do not leave anything up to improvisation in that the melodies, chords, and rhythms are all notated in a detailed way.
I also share my insights about how I came up with the arrangements in terms of chord substitutions, rhythmic variations, and melodic variations from the original. Again . . . if you want to skip that information and just learn the piece as you would learn a piece from the classical repertoire that is fine too. Your choice.
The second heading called “Beyond the Basics” contains videos that deal with improvisational concepts on specific jazz standards or progressions. I often refer to this section as the “going deeper” aspect in some of my repertoire based video lessons. It’s important to remember that the videos in this section are saturated with information. These presentations don’t pause for effect or have tangential moments where we stray from the subject much like you would in a live one-on-one lesson. For that reason there is actually much more content in this format.
So . . . I advise that you move through these segments at an extremely slow pace. Take one small concept at a time and print the pdf associated with each segment so that you have both an audio and visual reference for the lessons. Repeated listenings are helpful in that sometimes the “aha” doesn’t happen for quite a while. It can be extremely abstract to hear someone talk about music and for that reason I end up playing quite a bit. The sound is sometimes just as instructional as the words. When the concept and the logic of the sound merge then you are really starting to get it. Be patient! This is a huge undertaking.
At the heart of most of these “Beyond the Basics” lessons is educational material surrounding a specific jazz standard. There are improvisational concepts associated with each tune, audio files for practicing some of the concepts, and specific melodic and harmonic examples that are meant to inform. I suggest that you absorb the melodic and harmonic information contained in the pdf’s at a slow pace in conjunction with the video. My demonstration of certain concepts on the video might make the road to absorbing the information much quicker. So . . . get used to going back and forth between the video and the PDFs. Sometimes two minutes of video that is chock full of information is sufficient in one sitting. You have to learn to gauge what pace works best for you. Don’t forget to make it fun for yourself. When your curiosity and enjoyment kicks in, it is much easier to absorb the material.
The third section (Essential Theory) deals with fundamental concepts that act as building blocks for improvisation. A lot of the videos in the theory section can be a little on the dry side (chord/scale relationships, learning how to build chords, ingraining melodic material, etc.) These concepts are necessary so that you have a complete understanding of the mechanics of melodic and harmonic improvisation. Once these ideas take root there will be much more freedom later when we move to more open approaches. Consider this as necessary to lay the groundwork for gaining greater ease when we look into improvising over chord progressions, learning comping voicings, expanding your awareness of time flow, and learning how to phrase. They are very heady topics and you have to live with these concepts for a while to absorb them. Again . . . if you don’t feel ready for them or they seem tedious, stay with the Jazz Repertoire section.
Use the audio files as a supplement to your practice on a daily basis. It’s important to just experiment with the concepts contained in these lessons in your own way while improvising or playing over a progression. As you do this more and more you get a sense of what works and doesn’t work, and your instincts are sharpened. The other added effect is that you start to engage the deeper parts of yourself (expression, time feel, refining your sound, etc.). Playing with the audio files also keeps you in touch with the enjoyment of playing. The main reason that we are all drawn to music in the first place. As you gain more experience with your own chord vocabulary you can also create your own progressions to improvise over using various digital programs (band in the box, etc.).
If you have other musicians that you can work on these concepts with . . . all the better. Music is really a social art. Interaction in any way makes growth that much quicker.
So . . . be patient with yourself and have fun!
Yours in music,