Today, we have the first of our interview series for Improv Month here at Musical U. To celebrate the launch of our new improv Roadmap that helps you learn to improvise from scratch, we’ve put together a month packed full of material all about improv.
In our first episode for improv month we talked about how to approach learning to improvise and how it’s something core and fundamental to any musician, it can take on many forms across many genres.
At the same time improvisation is something that is most commonly associated with jazz music in particular. And so, we were keen to kick off improv month talking to someone who’s expert in how you learn to improvise jazz.
Nick Mainella is the host of the “10 Minute Jazz Lesson” podcast which really lives up to its name! As jazz fans but not jazz musicians ourselves, we have been really enjoying listening to this show and we would highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in learning to play jazz.
The way Nick discusses improv on his show was so well aligned with the way we teach it at Musical U we knew we had to have him on the show, and we wanted to start improv month with this interview because as you’ll hear, so much of learning jazz improv is in fact applicable to any genre and style of improvising.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Nick’s own upbringing and what he did to compensate for not having a natural ear for music.
- The specific exercises he finds most useful for learning to improvise.
- One powerful memory he has that helped set his mindset right for improvisation for years to come, and which he passes on to his students if they’re at all shy or nervous about improvising.
- And why someone who wants to play jazz might actually be best served by first studying the blues.
It was so much fun to talk to Nick about jazz and improv and he dropped several really valuable nuggets of wisdom in this conversation – simple things that you can go away and apply yourself and really benefit from.
Listen to the episode:
Links and Resources
- The 10 Minute Jazz Lesson podcast
- 60 Days to Crushing the Blues course
- The Riff Everyone Plays Wrong
- Donna Schwartz Music
- About Active Listening podcast episode
- About the Power of Solfa podcast episode
- The 10 Minute Jazz Lesson podcast: Learning Vocabulary
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Christopher: Welcome to the show Nick. Thank you for joining us today.
Nick: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Christopher: So I’d love to start at the beginning and we know about your fantastic projects these days with the Ten Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast and the courses you’ve been developing, but where did it start for you as a musician? What were those early years like?
Nick: Yeah, I guess it’s a pretty standard story at least for people in the U.S. I actually grew up — my father is a great saxophone player, had been a music educator. Let’s see. He’s been teaching music in public schools for about forty years now so he was a huge inspiration, played with bands all over the area, went to Berklee in Boston in the 1970’s, always had an amazing record collection around the house and I just kind of grew up listening to him play music and kind of absorbing that culture so when it came time to choose an instrument of course everybody wants to be like their parents so I chose the saxophone because that was the instrument that I had kind of been hearing so that was about, you know, fourth grade and then I had the distinct opportunity of growing up with one of the best music programs in the area, probably the best music program in the area so I knew from a young age that I was diving into, first of all kind of a very serious program that had expectations from their students and just had a general culture of, you know, “If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it to the maximum.”
So I took to the saxophone almost immediately. I think that was probably — had a lot to do with just listening to so much great music and having the sound in my ears growing up. I don’t think it was necessarily natural ability but an intense desire to do it well almost right from the very beginning and also, you know, there are so many great musicians around me and growing up with my father teaching in the same school system as I was going to I got to hear all the high school musicians and be sort of around the best of the best in my area so basically just took it from there and as I went through middle school and high school starting getting more and more serious about it and studying privately. That was a huge thing that my father had me do very early because he understand the value that comes along with having that one-on-one time with a great teacher. So I think, you know, right in sixth grade, probably I started studying privately with somebody and that was huge for me because I think you start to realize how deep music iswh you get that one-on-one time with a fantastic musician. And then, you know, when I got to high school it was just kind of the same but a little bit more full throttle, a lot more musical opportunities, chances to perform, different ensembles, doing things like the all-state festivals, honors bands and stuff like that. It just kind of got me more and more excited about it as I got older and older and more experienced and ended up deciding to go to school for music so I went to my undergrad at the University of New Hampshire here in the United States and majored in performance and then ended up taking a year off after that to do some gigging and teaching and just generally live the life of a musician which was really eye-opening for me and I’m actually very very glad that I did that, took that year in between undergrad and graduate school and then I headed out to the midwest to go to Western Michigan University to do my graduate work and that really I think was a turning point for me. Being a graduate student allows you a lot of time that I think undergraduate work doesn’t to just conentrate on your instrument.
When I’m in undergrad, you know, you’ve got all these classes, you’re running around, you’re taking all your general education requirements, it’s generally just a crazy time of life and unfortunately sometimes the instrument and music takes a back seat to just kind of being crazy like I said, you’re kind of running around trying to take care of all this extraneous stuff. So when I got to graduate school I really felt like, “Okay, I’ve got,” you know, “four to five hours of uninterrupted time and the time that is interrupted is to actually go and take classes that are very, very much related to your career after you get out of school.” So I truly believe that those two years that I spent in Michigan were someof the best of my life just in terms of really, really getting into what I was gonna be doing after school.
So that’s kind of it. And since I’ve gotten out of, you know, that was about eight, nine years ago that I graduated from Western Michigan and basically just been doing kind of the approach that I think most musicians have to do these days, a mix of teaching, performing, you know, very recently having gotten into the kind of entrepreneurship route, although I do think that all musicians are naturally entrepreneurs you won’t last very long if you don’t have that entrepreneurial spiritual to kind of make things happen for yourself. But yeah, that’s kind of it. I play with a bunch of bands here around the Boston area, do a lot of teaching both online and in person, and doing these podcasts and doing this kind of online education thing which I think is gonna open up a lot of doors for musicians of the future, this connectedness that we have that wasn’t around in the very recent past, you know, we didn’t have this. So yeah, that’s basically it. That’s kind of my story.
Christopher: Cool. And you mentioned that jazz was around you almost from the very beginning with your family and your father. Was it jazz, jazz, jazz all the way through that journey?
Nick: It wasn’t, actually and I think that’s one of the best things about it when I think back on my development as a musician. My father was very, very into like, a wide breadth of music. He was definitely into jazz, but, you know, bands like Tower of Power, Chicago. He was also very, very into, like, classic rock and then another thing, I came up with a group of musicians that I went through high school with that I still play with to this day a lot and they opened my eyes to so much different music. Like, I’ll never forget in I think it was ninth grade probably my freshman year, somebody — one of my friends handed me a Tribe Called Quest CD and this was like, it blew my mind, you know what I mean? I wasn’t on the hip hop radar at all, didn’t think that I would like it and then I got this record and I wore it out and to this day, like, one of the biggest genres of music that really gets me going is the hip hop side of things so it really allowed me to, you know, discover a lot about other forms of music and also not be kind of a jazz snob as some people tend to be. They think it’s, you know, the only music that’s worth playing, worth listening to and it’s — I really don’t think that’s the case, you know, we had a metal band in high school so really, we had a lot of different stuff going on and I really credit that to keeping my mind open when it comes to playing music.
Christopher: Hm. And I think you’ve neatly sidestepped a challenge that lot of musicians have around jazz which is it can seem very intimidating and like an advanced genre you will eventually be able to play and it sounds like because you had that taste from the beginning it was always part of the medley for you. It wasn’t that jazz was unreachable, that you would eventually get there. Is that right?
Nick: Exactly. And the thing about jazz is that, I mean, it is intimidating and that’s, I think that’s part of the allure, right, is that this is a type of music that you can go, you can study for your entire life and not get to the nexus of playing jazz. There’s always something new to learn. There’s always something that you can improve upon. So yeah, that kind of, it’s a double-sided thing, you know, where I think part of the reason that people play jazz is because it is inimidating and you can prove something to yourself if you can actually sound really good playing jazz but I do agree with you. I think that it is less intimidating to just start than a lot of people think it is. You can definitely just go for it and come out with a lot of great results without dedicating 12 hours a day to it, you know?
Christopher: So at Musical U when we cover the topic of improvisation, which is obviously at the heart of jazz, we come back again and again to your ear and the importance of understanding in your head what’s going on in the music not just intellectually from a theory perspective but orally understanding the notes. It sounds like you had a, I mean, the way you describe it it sounds like a very neat, straight line trajectory to career success but were there any problems for you along the way? Did you have a natural ear from day one that let you improvise jazz, or how was that journey for you?
Nick: Yeah, that’s a really good question because without a doubt the ear is the, sort of the key to unlocking everything when it comes to music and especially jazz because it’s such a, it has such an aural tradition to it, you know, real books and pieces of paper are a fairly new thing in jazz music, you know, if you look back to the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, there wasn’t any of this stuff, you know, you went to the gig and tried as hard a you could to remember what they were playing and you went home and you figured it out, right? But it definitely wasn’t a straight line trajectory to me. In fact, I definitely don’t have a natural ear and that was actually really tough for me when I was coming up because I was actually surrounded by people that had that very natural ability and at times it was very, very frustrating because I was working so hard to get better at this music and I was watching some of my peers get better a lot faster than I was and I think it didn’t really register with me until I was a little bit older that it was in fact my ear that was, kind of, holding me back so just like anything else in life, if you’re not naturally gifted in a certain skill you just have to work, work, work on it and even through my undergraduate work I was still very, very behind when it came to ears and to this day I still feel very, very behind when it comes to aural skills but it’s something that I work on every single day and it’s probably the most important part of my practice routine. In fact, I take care of it at the very, very beginning of my practice every day because I know that I’m gonna be the most on at the by beginning of my practice routine. My mind is gonna be the freshest, so I tend to reserve that for the thing I feel is the most important and without a doubt for me that’s ears, for sure.
So it hasn’t always been easy. It’s still not easy but, you know, I think the difference is today I realize just how important it is and that I’m trying to get better at it, you know, all the time.
Christopher: I’m sure that’s really reassuring and inspiring for a lot of our listeners to hear someone who is as established as a jazz educator as you are didn’t find that it came naturally from day one and did put in the work and was able to achieve what they’d hoped to in terms of improvisation.
Take us back, though, to when you were maybe starting to recognize that your ears might be an area for improvement. Where there any kind of milestones or lightbulb moments or concepts that made it easier for you to learn these skills and to develop your ear?
Nick: Yeah. I think that there was definitely one moment — I can distinctly remember this — where whenever I was playing tunes when I was younger the way that I would keep track of where I was in the tune was just simply to, like, count. So you can see how that could get in the way of fully expressing yourself when you’re improvising if your mind is caught up in, “Don’t get lost. Don’t get lost. Don’t get lost.” I mean, that’s a huge hindrance to feeling free when you’re improvising so I can distintly remember one day being in my jazz combo ensemble in college and we were playing a tune and all of a sudden I stopped paying attention to the counting and normally this would be a recipe for disaster. I would get totally lost and not be able to recover at all, finish my solo halfway through the form, something like that but I stopped counting, I let go, and all of a sudden I could just hear where the band was and that was, like, you know, the biggest lightbulb moment I had gotten to that point was, Okay, a lot of this work that I’ve been doing, it’s paying off, I can actually hear what the chord progression is,” and I immediately knew that this was gonna be huge for me, you know, it was gonna be thing that was gonna open a lot of doors for me. So that would be kind of my epiphany moment and the nice thing about it is, is I’ve found once you can develop that skill and do it one time you pretty much have that skill from then on, right?
Now, it’s not like I never, ever got lost in a tune ever again in my whole life. I wish it were like that but it was a moment where I could feel finally confident in my ears and learn to open my playing up a little bit more because of that confidence and not being tied to, “Okay, we’re in this measure, now we’re in this measure, now were at — oops, don’t — wait, are we in this measure or are we in that –” you know what I mean? Like, I’m sure almost everybody out there has gone through that feeling of barely hanging on to keeping your place. So just got to keep doing it and eventually it will happen. I think about playing music as a lifelong series of frustrations followed by epiphanies because you work, work, work for months, even years sometimes with no end in sight and it’s easy to get into that mindframe of, “This is never gonna happen for me. This is never gonna happen,” and then one day, boom, it clicks, and all of a sudden you have that skill for life, at that point.
Christopher: Hm. I think that ‘s a great way to think about it. So at Musical U one thing we often explain to people is that when it comes to ear training there are kind of two ways to do it and one of which we’d call active ear training when you are doing repetitive exercises, for example, to recognize different types of intervals and you’re specifically trying to develop that skill and the other is what we’d call passive ear training where you are working in music, you’re practicing, you’re using your instrument. You might be trying things like playing by ear or improvisation but you’re just kind of allowing your ear to develop passively along the way and it sounds like with that form understanding for you that was kind of a byproduct of passive ear training. You’d been playing and you’d been playing these forms and you’d been aware of them, but it was that kind of subconscious process that finally unlocked that for you.
What’s the balance been for you overall in terms of active versus passive? How have your ears developed over the years?
Nick: Yeah. I mean, I think the the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m just a huge music fan so I’m listening to music all the time so that’s kind of my passive ear training, right there, right, and then going into situations where I’m playing new music by a composer that I’ve never, ever heard before and of course you want your ears to latch on to that first, first and foremost. You’re trying to kind of feel out the landscape aurally, right? So that’s another form of passive ear training but you’re actively participating in it. And then I think the biggest things in terms of active ear training for me is sight singing. I can’t say enough about sight singing. I think that that is probably the biggest part of my develop in terms of active ear training because what you’re doing is you’re getting your natural instrument which is your voice to reproduce a series of intervals or a melody, you know, things like learning solfegge. And it’s kind of funny because a lot of jazz musicians will, “Well, I don’t need to know solfegge. I don’t need to know that stuff. That’s for, you know, vocalists or classical musicians or…” but it really is something for everybody, you know, if you have that skill down you can make sense of so much of the music you’re playing if you can sing it first, right? And solfegge is a great way to go about that. So sight singing, things like, there’s a very, very famous teacher who passed away a couple of years ago in the Boston area named Charlie Benackis and since I grew up in the Boston area a lot of my teachers had studied with him and he had this great, great, ear training system where he would play a little, you know, 1-1-5-1 progression and then play a note and you would have to identify that note and the beauty of the system was first of all you’re hearing the note against tonality so you’re hearing it against a cadence that you just heard. So you’re learning to relate that note to, like I said, a tonality but the beauty of this ear training system was that after you get really good at identifying one note then you move on to two notes, then you move on to three notes and so on and so forth until there is a couple of teachers that I had that you could play 11 notes and they could actually tell you what note weren’t playing.
Nick: So that’s a pretty amazing level of aural comprehension. So that was a big thing that I did and then just things, like, you know, having a friend play chords, identifying them, playing a root and singing up a chord, so a lot of it was very active for me just because I knew that I had a natural deficit when it came to ear training but of course the passive ear training is still happening every day just simply by listening to recordings and maybe singing along with them or listening to a recording so much that you know every single note in that recording. That’s definitely a huge part of it. So I would say it was pretty balanced for me in terms of active and passive, the passive being the really fun part and the active being the part that was a lot of hard work.
Christopher: Very cool. So what I love about that answer and I think the reason I’ve enjoyed listening to your podcast, The Ten Minute Jazz Lesson Podcasts so much is that you, I think are coming from a similar perspective to us on this topic, you know, you didn’t just give the stereotypical jazz educator’s response of to train your ears, just transcribe and repeat the vocab of the artists you admire. Clearly, to you it’s important to really understand and pick apart the notes you’re hearing and the chords you’re hearing and the relationships between them.
Nick: Yeah. Absolutely, and I mean, for jazz transcription is probably, you know, the most important thing that you can do, learning from the masters came before you. But yeah, there is a difference between, you know, taking a line and playing it verbatim. So let’s say you take a Charlie Parker lick and then you literally just insert that lick into your solo. That’s a great way to do it at first, and I highly suggest that everybody do that so that youknow what it feels like to play what the greats have played before us. But very, very quickly, if you want to kind of make your mark on music you’re gonna have to take a left turn from that and I fully believe, and this is something that we talk a lot about on the podcast, is, take a great lick from somebody that you love and then somehow make it your own. So it’s more about unpacking the concepts that they’re using rather than just learning the line verbatim, right? So that is a big thing and I think that that is, like, picture your favorite artist, right? So anybody listening out there, think about your favorite artist and why they’re your favorite artist and I think a big reason why they would be is because they’re unique. They don’t sound like anybody else, right? They have their own voice. So I think it’s important to develop that as quickly as possible but also jazz is a music where we have to pay homage to the people that came before us and we have to learn from them, right? It’s kind of awesome in jazz, and I guess it’s like this in a lot of fields, but I can take lessons from John Coltrane simply by sitting and learning the stuff that he played and, you know, I’m sure I don’t have the same thought processes he had, but I can interpret it in my own way, and, you know, in a sort of a once-removed kind of way I am taking lessons from the greats so I think that’s a fantastic way to go about it.
Christopher: Yeah. I really appreciated the way you explained it in your episode on learning vocabulary, which was you were immediately saying, “Yes, learn it. Yes, learn it in all twelve keys, but the way to learn it is to think about, you know, what notes are they picking? Are these the chord tones? Are these passing tones?” You were really saying, analyze it so you understand what makes that riff that riff and then obviously you have a much better ability to make it your own or to play it in any key. And I think that’s a subtlety that a lot of people miss out on when they hear team advice, learn vocab or study the greats, they just kind of learn it by rote and that’s that. So I really appreciate it that you went one level beneath and you really encourage people to pick it apart themselves.
Nick: Yeah. And it can be maddening, to tell you the truth to try to regurgitate vocabulary exactly because , I mean, think about what you’re doing at that point. You are trying to play something that you’ve in essense memorized, right? So if you get halfway through a line that you’ve memorized and you mess up, you’re done, right? You’re gonna, you’re falling apart at that point because you’re never gonna have thought about, “All right, if this line falls apart, what do I do? What do I do?” Right? So for a lot of years I actually did that. I would try to insert vocabulary verbatim and I mean, my solos were terrible because it really was, it was like trying to cobble together a whole bunch of disparate music and it didn’t sound like me and if I messed one of the lines up that was it for the next eight bars. I would just be so mortified that I couldn’t, you know, play that Charlie Parker line exactly like I memorized it and what’s wrong with me, and then at some point I realized, “Okay. I can’t do this anymore. It’s just not gonna be sustainable” and it’s, like, going back to the answer before, “it doesn’t really sound like me,” you know. So I think you can almost hear that when somebody’s just kind of regurgitating vocabulary and some people are really, really good at it and you can still tell that they’re kind of doing it but it sounds amazing. I’m definitely not one of those people.
Christopher: That’s interesting. It reminds me of Scott Devine from Scott’s Bass Lessons put out a great video last week called something like, “The Riff That Everyone Plays Wrong,’ and he had this bass line from Sissy Strutt where he put together, like, five YouTube videos of famous people misplaying this bass line and it’s funny because, you know, the point of video was to teach you how to play it right and kind of identify, like, this is the rhythym section, this is a bit of the rhythym that everyone plays a different way but I think the underlying message was interesting because it was “All of these famous people play it wrong. It doesn’t matter.” You know, they’re playing a good baseline and the fact that it’s not 100% true to the original really is beside the point. No one cares in the audience.
Christopher: I think that’s an important thing to remember when you’re approaching with admiration and respect these greats of jazz that doesn’t prohibit you from making it your own and feeling free to interpret it your own way.
Nick: Exactly. Exactly, and, you know, just one last thought on this. If you’re trying to sound as good as somebody like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, it’s gonna make you feel bad because I don’t know about you but I have no delusions of grandeur that I’m ever going to be the musician that John Coltrane was so I think the most that I can hope to do is develop my own sound and not compare it to somebody like that and not say, “Wow, you know, John Coltrane was playing all of these sixteenth note lines and he was doing all these different substitutions and, wow, it’s so amazing. I need to do exactly that. It’s just not gonna happen, so it’s better for me to kind of take my own path while continuing to try to be as skilled as I can and as good as I can on my instrument and my music. I find it really kind of toxic for myself to try to compare myself to somebody like that.
Christopher: Mm-hm. So we’ve gone deep there into a few aspects of ear training and improvisation but I’d love to step back if we could and talk a bit about how you would approach improvising with a student, you know, if someone came to you and let’s pretend they’re an adult saxophone player who has a few years of technique under their belt. They’ve got the basics of playing their way through a jazz standard but they are, you know, on step zero when it comes to improvisation. If they come to you and say, “Hey, Nick, can you teach me to improvise?” what would that look like?
Nick: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think that a lot of it has to do with the individual. I think that would be the most important thing to me is I would kind of like to hear them play first to see what some of their strengths and weaknesses are but I think a couple of things that I give to all students would be knowledge of chord symbols. That’s one thing that I think turns a lot of people off from the very beginning because if you think about it, this system we have of writing chord changes and what they infer it’s akin to learning a different language and obviously we’d know how intimidating that is to learn a completely different language so I think knowledge of chord symbols and trying to simplify that as much as possible is usually pretty close to the beginning for me so that somebody can confidently look at something like the blues or a basic jazz standard that has pretty tame chords in it and be able to make sense of that, know what the scale that goes along with that chord symbol is, know what the chord tones are that go along with that chord symbol.
Chord tones are really important to me as well because they’re kind of the safe zone. You know that if you’re playing a chord tone it’s going to sound good no matter what, so that’s a really, really important thing to give people almost right away because they feel like, “All right, at least I can get through this and I know that these four notes will sound good over every single chord.”
So that’s a big thing in my book and that goes more to like the analytical side and then a second thing would be, like, almost immediately will give somebody an extremely, extremely easy solo to start transcribing. Lately I’ve been giving all my students, like, a Chet Baker vocal melody to actually transcribe because he’s so clear in the way that he sings and he tends to be very simple but beautiful and effective. So, you know, knowledge of chords symbols and immediately getting the ear going, immediately getting it to assimilate stuff into your ears and then reproduce it on your instrument I think would be the two biggest things, and then, of course, you can branch out into the thousand other skills you need shortly after. That’s a good kind of place to start that doesn’t, like you said, intimidate people too much.
Christopher: Very cool. I think those are two really valuable, practical starting points. One thing we’ve found is that like jazz itself, improvisation can be really intimidating to people and particularly if you come from the classical world you’re taught to not play your own notes and you’re taught to only play notes if you’re confident they’re right. Do you have any kind of mindset approaches or kind of philosophy of improv that you impart to your students if they come to you with that kind of rigid concern about making mistakes in improv?
Nick: Yeah. I think what I would do at first is just kind of play free as kind of out there as that sounds. It’s a great way to just kind of let go on the instrument and I make it clear to my students that, “Okay this is not an exercise where we’re really trying to accomplish anything. Let’s just play,” right, and it might sound, well, it will definitely sound horrible at times. It will definitely sound beautiful at times but the important part here is that we’re just kind of connecting with our instrument, connecting with our ears and just kind of going for it and you’d be amazed at how nervous this makes people, especially, like you said, people coming from a world where everything is very, very rigid and you only play the, you know, the most difficult repertoire and you, you know, at all times, when you pick up your instrument you need to be sounding amazing and you can never let anybody see the weaker sides of your playing. That’s a very militant way of thinking about music but it’s pervasive in a lot of music so I like to just —
I’ll never forget this. I had a great combo instructor in my undergraduate work and one of the first days that we came into combo he turned off the lights and he said, “All right, we’re not turning them on for the next 40 minutes and we’re just gonna play. We’re just gonna play.” And it was huge for me, I mean, if the lights had been on, you would have seen the panic written all over my face but it was really, really beautiful what he did. He turned off the lights to take away any of that self-conscious feeling you might have. You can’t see the people you’re playing with so there’s no visual communication and it really, I think it dropped everybody’s guard. It opened everybody’s ears up and it provided for this amazing way to connect with this new ensemble that I was playing with and it kind of set the tone for the rest of the year because one of the first days we had had this connection that we all made through our ears and this dropping of ego and dropping of self-consciousness and we just kind of went for it.
So I would say that, like, if you are somebody who gets caught up in feeling tied to a certain way of playing or feeling married to the aspect of, like, “I can never let anybody hear me sound anything less but my best,” you know, just get into a room with your instrument and just play, you know, just play whatever comes into your mind. Just let it come out of the instrument and don’t judge yourself, you know. That has a great way of really opening up your connection with the instrument and your connection with music in general. So I don’t know if that’s too, like, woo-woo, out there, but —
Christopher: No, I love that and I think it’s fantastic because just play is advice you do sometimes hear in the improv world, you know, the jazz greats, “Oh, they just picked up a trumpet and they played.”
Christopher: But what you just explained is 100% practical. It’s saying, you know, “Strip off your inhibitions. Strip off your, you know, judgmental voice inside and just get back to connecting with your instrument and your ears and making music for the sake of making music.” I think that’s a lovely way to approach improvising.
Nick: Because, I mean, when we were kids and we first picked up our instrument, I mean, we sounded horrible but it was the funnest thing in the world to do, right, was to pick up your instrument, make some interesting sounds. You didn’t know what you were doing but you didn’t care. It was kind of the wonder of that instrument and going, “Wow, I can actually make a sound on this. This is really cool.” So I try to get back to that not always super successful at it because I can get caught up in my own stuff just as anybody else can but I try to do it on a semi-regular basis.
Christopher: Mm-hm. That’s interesting. That’s something that’s come up a few times on the podcast is that concept of beginner’s mind and how actually the beginner can have a huge advantage in terms of experimenting and being open to new ways of doing things but of course we all get caught in the trap of expertise and those adult inhibitions. It can be really hard to reconnect, so I love that exercise to just kind of, maybe even turn off the lights yourself and get back to just playing.
Nick: Yeah, and I get, some of my youngest students are the most inspiring to me and I’ll steal stuff from them all of the time, whether it be just their attitude about the instrument, I’ll start thinking, “Wow. I need to have more of that kind of attitude, just having fun,” or whether it be something really interesting they do on the instrument that because we’re studied musicians that have an expectation about the way we play we would never do. So I’ve stolen stuff from elementary school kids a lot (laughs) because they just think about it in such a different way than we do.
Christopher: Very cool. So we’ve talked a lot there and said almost nothing that’s specific to the saxophone but you are a saxophonist. That is your primary instrument and I believe you even have a new podcast coming out, “All About Sax,” is that right?
Nick: Yeah, absolutely. So myself and a colleague of mine, Donna Schwartz, she lives out in California, she’s very, very connected with the saxophone world, saxophone industry. He’s a marvelous educator and saxophone player. So we had an idea to start a podcast and we’re going to call it, “Everything Saxophone,” and what we’re really gonna try to do is just cover every aspect of playing the instrument. It’s going to be based around interviews with some of our collective favorite saxophone players just trying to get into the minds of some of the most talented people in the world and then, you know, doing stuff like reviewing equipment. Equipment’s a big thing for saxophone players. You can go down that rabbit hole very, very easily so maybe starting to talk about some of the better equipment out there, reviewing albums. I think it’s just gonna be generally a place for the saxophone community to kind of rally around but certainly if you don’t play saxophone I would recommend tuning into the interviews because, as we all know, regardless of what instrument you play there’s just brilliant people playing every instrument and that’s one of the things that I enjoy the most is hearing interviews with my heroes and getting into their thought process a little bit. So we’re really excited about it. We’re gonna launch sometime in March and hopefully bring a brand new episode of interviews and reviews and all of that kind of stuff every week.
Christopher: That’s amazing. I’m a big fan of Donna’s so I’m excited to hear that you guys are teaming up on that one.
Nick: Oh, great, yeah, she’s amazing.
Christopher: So that is, as you say, applicable and interesting even if you don’t play sax and one thing that jumped out to me on your website was you offer Skype lessons and you say on your website, you know, even if you don’t play saxophone, drop me a line and let’s talk because maybe I can still help you with jazz with improv. Tell me how that works, number one, how the Skype lesson thing is working, because I know a lot of our listeners are probably interested but haven’t tried it and aren’t sure if it is as good as an in-person lesson and secondly, you know, specifically if you’re teaching someone who doesn’t play sax, how does that work?
Nick: So I’m not gonna lie and say that Skype lessons are exactly the same as being in the same room with somebody. I mean, it’s definitely a different experience, right? So there are some things, you know, subtlety of tone, things like that that aren’t quite the same when you’re teaching over Skype but I still think that it’s an extremely valuable tool and I’ll use myself as an example.
I regularly take lessons with people all over the country that normally I would have to get on a plane or get in my car and drive six hours to New York City or something like that. So I’m currently using them myself and they’ve been invaluable to me. I can take lessons with my heroes from this room that I’m sitting, you know, talking to you in today.
So I take a bit of a different approach to Skype lessons where a lot of it is based on Sibelius, so I’ll fire up Sibelius and that’s actually one of the beautiful things about Skype lessons is that you can share your screen with the person you’re having a lesson with and I can literally write out exercises to my heart’s content or illustrate any points that I’m making and I find that students really, really like that and in fact I have a lot of students that come into the Skype lessons really unsure of whether they’re gonna like t or not and then at the end of the lesson I’ll say, “Wow,” you know, “that was really great the way that we can share this Sibelius screen and anything you’re talking to me about that you can immediately illustrate and we can listen to it together.” So I think that that’s one of the greatest aspects of it and that makes it something that surprises a lot of people.
And then going to your point about, you know, instructing people not just on the saxophone, jazz is such a deep topic that, you know, we don’t need to be playing the same instrument to get a lot out of our time together because there’s a million things that we can talk about as relates to just harmony to ear training. In fact, I have a lot of guitar students, I have flute students, I have students of every different instrument and we’re not, obviously I can’t instruct a guitar player on how to, you know, what’s the best hand position for this chord or instrument-specific things but we can certainly get very, very deep in, “Okay, how do we play over the blues?” “How do we start to approach bebop?” “How do we solidify an ear training routine that works for you?”
So I find Skype to be really, really great for that kind of stuff. While I would love to be in the same room as all of my students it’s just not possible and it’s really, really great these days that if you find somebody who you really really enjoy their approach to teaching and their way of thinking about music you can email them and be virtually in the same room as them the next day if you want to. So I think the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks and I’ve gotten so much out of taking lessons and teaching over Skype that I think it’s one of the best technologies out there.
Christopher: I 100% agree and the advice I give when people ask is that if you’re at day one of learning an instrument it might be good to do it in person just because there’s the physicality that you might want some pointers on, but after, you know, a month or two of playing you’re absolutely as good doing Skype lessons as in person and to me you’re much better off with an excellent teacher you get on really well with on Skype than a mediocre teacher who just happens to live down the road and no dispespect to music teachers. I have huge admiration for all music teachers even the mediocre ones but I just think that, as you say to be able to to connect with someone who truly gets what you you’re trying to do and teaches in the right way for you is a really powerful thing.
Nick: It is. It’s invaluable and without a doubt the comment I hear the most from these, you know, some of the best jazz players in the world that I’ve been lucky enough to study with over Skype, they always say, “All of my most serious students are Skype students.”
Christopher: Oh. That’s interesting.
Nick: Because it’s true, I mean, if, like, you’re willing to, you know, do, kind of the distance learning thing, generally you’re pretty serious about music and you’re definitely seeking to take lessons with the best people possible even if they don’t happen to be in your immediate area.
Christopher: So one last thing I wanted to touch on before we wrap up was if someone went to The Ten Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast website what they might expect to see is a course on learning jazz but in fact what they’d find is a video course called, “Sixty Days to Crushing the Blues,” and if you’re not immersed in the world of jazz yet that might strike you as pretty odd because to a lot of people blues is a separate genre to jazz. Tell us about that course. Where did that come from and why is it blues that you teach in the course?
Nick: Yeah, so blues is probably one of the most important tools for jazz musicians that can open them up to the rest of the world of jazz and you only need to think about kind of the linear history of this music, right, I mean, it started in the fields with spirituals and then shortly after that it morphed into the blues and then it morphed into this thing called jazz and then it morphed into, obviously a lot of other things but jazz really did come from the blues so every jazz musician is expected to be able to play over the blues and in fact that is one of the first things. If you were to look around the United States and you were to take a peek at all of the different states like jazz all-state, that’s what we call it here, like the honors bands, generally what you’re going to find is the audition requirement is play over blues, all right, so this is one of the most important things and it’s really nice because the blues is very accessible, you know, generally it’s a twelve-bar form, so you’re not caught up in these 32-bar forms that you can get lost in very easily, generally they’re comprised of anywhere from three to seven chords, right, so you’re not dealing with a million different chords coming, flying at you as fast as possible and it really opens — there’s a lot of the essential chord progressions that we see in a lot of the other jazz standards or other forms of jazz. They’re represented in the blues, right, you know, playing over the one chord, playing over the four chord, playing a 2-5-1 progression.
It’s all there in the blues so I like to start a lot of my students off, in fact, that’s probably about 90% of my students, that’s the first thing we work on is the blues and if you can develop a skill set over the blues you can transfer that skill set to so many other things you’re gonna do in jazz so when I developed this video course I thought it would be great to do kind of a reflection of what it would be like if you were studying with me. I would give you a certain assignment to do over this week and then that would progress into these next assignments and that would progress into these next assignments and one of the tough things is that, like, if I’m teaching an adult student or an extremely busy high school student they don’t always get to complete that stuff every single week so with a video course it’s really great because whether you have 20 minutes a day or whether you have eight hours a day it’s kind of a self-guided course of study so you could spend three weeks on the first week, right, and that’s totally fine but I’ve basically called it “Sixty Days of Crushing the Blues” because it is laid out and it’s an eight-week course, right, and it really will bring you from, like, your very, very basic knowledge, “What do these chord symbols mean? How do I get around them?” to towards the end of the course you’re really playing some bebop material and really starting to understand how some of the greats approach the blues to get that sound that we kind of all want to achieve.
So I highly suggest it if you’re looking for an easy way to get into improvisation. That can be a great way to start and it’s great because you can, like I said, you can really just take yourself through it without anybody kind of breathing down your neck and I tried to make it as accessible as possible, kind of, make it as high-quality as possible, so.
Christopher: Very cool, and given everything we’ve been talking about I’m guessing this is not just something for sax players.
Nick: Right. Exactly. In fact, it comes with PDFs and concert pitch, B flat, E flat and even bass clef so it’s really accessible to anybody out there.
Christopher: Very cool. Well, it’s been such a pleasure to get to talk to you, Nick. I’m a big fan of the Ten Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast and anyone listening who’s enjoyed hearing us talk about improv and how Nick approaches it, I highly recommend checking out that podcast. There’s a huge back catalog of really valuable episodes touching on every aspect jazz including the kind of improvi ideas we’ve been talking about today. Also that Sixty Days to Crushing the Blues course I agree that’s a fantastic place to start if you’re interested in jazz but feel it might be a bit overwhelming or intimidating. I think the way you’ve structured that is really elegant and of course if you’re interested in Skype lessons do check out Nick’s website and we’ll have the links to that and everything mentioned in the show notes. Thank you again, Nick, for joining us today. It’s been such a pleasure.
Nick: Oh, yeah. Thank you so much. It’s been great talking to you and congratulations on your podcast. It’s really one of my favorite ones out there. I definitely tune in as much as I possibly can and you’re doing great stuff over there so keep it going.