Recently, an aspiring jazz music student asked me why it's so difficult to play jazz? In my many years of teaching this music, I know the overwhelming majority of students attempting to learn to play jazz won't develop into the musician they hope to become. That's the reality. Why? I believe the problems start early on in the beginning stages in where you place your focus in practice habits with jazz improvisation and theory. Beginners that excel avoid the practice habits that cripple long term progress. Bad habits are established early and the ones that don't excel keep repeating them. It's like a type of trap and these poor habits can go on for years.

jae jazz audience

Jazz beginners put too much emphasis on theory in my view. Theory rules everything in the beginning. Heck, some never really look at theory as ONE piece of the improvisational puzzle but rather THE piece. Mistake. Theory should be used simply as a framework that figures out the WHY of it all. Why does the V chord resolve to the I chord? Why does this substitution work or doesn't? Why does this note sound weird? Why doesn't this scale work over this chord? Understanding theory will tell you why, but instead of using music theory to play your solos use it to understand the WHY behind what you play. Theory should be used to understand and better conceptualize sound. Your sound. Improvising is creating sound, and without sound theory is simply a type of math. Improvisation is not about working out math. It's about sound.

The most important part in all of this is that the student needs to focus on trusting their ears. Ear training, considering you're dealing with sound. You have to learn to hear theory and learn to use it without thinking about it. Learn to visualize sound. Hear it mentally and learn to manipulate it. Sing your ideas. Literally. Everyday. Transcribe solos by ear too but focus on what you hear more so than the analytical perspective.

Again, develop your hearing. Your ears are your most important tool in terms of creating sound. Use theory to help in labeling sounds and understanding relationships and to classify your understanding. Hearing the music in your head and playing it will help you develop faster. I remember decades ago, the frequent listening sessions I experienced with friends. We would listen for hours. In that moment, you don’t realize what you retain over time. Those listening sessions proved to be invaluable for me long term. Listening is profoundly important because memorable listening experiences are more easily stored and recalled when needed, and as a working professional musician, you will need to access what’s been stored every time you perform.

Jae Sinnett hosts Sinnett in Session, The R&B Chronicles, and Students in Session on WHRV FM. He also shares his love of the culinary arts on Cooking with Jae on Facebook every Sunday at 6 p.m. Plus, catch up with past episodes