What I learned from a recent lesson with a Pro

For my birthday I decided to gift myself a couple lessons with a musician that I have admired and in many ways fashioned my own playing style after. He’s been in the jazz scene for decades and recorded with just about everyone of note for the past 40 years. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I emailed him and setup a lesson. It was very expensive compared to what pro lessons cost in my area. For example, I have 2 extremely famous national touring jazz saxophone artists in my home town that charge 1/2 of what this Pro charges. But I was happy to pay what it took to be able to learn from a music hero of mine. What I got for my time and money was a peek into the life of a really experienced jazz musician and the person behind the album covers.


We scheduled over an hour of playing time virtually. Like most people who give online lessons he uses Skype. I’ve never been all that happy with audio quality of Skype but I decided to hookup my MXL condenser microphone and Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface and dialed him up. I was quite internally excited to have one on one access with a musician for whom I owned nearly his entire solo discography. After introductions and some long anecdotes I played through a tune then he played a bit.


First thing that caught my attention was that his tone was huge! Even through Skype’s mediocre audio quality the sense of size and depth was clear in my studio headphones. I tried not to giggle when he took his turn on charts as I was so surprised that he sounded so large even when he wasn’t trying to blow the house down. The second thing was that his versions of standards had a few different chords than iREalB or the Realbook I used. This is a recurring theme as I’ve played with other professionals who complained that these sources either oversimplify traditional chord chords changes or just flat have them wrong.


Now a few days before the lesson began I emailed him my background, playing weak spots, some tunes I was working on, and what I wanted to get from the lesson. I admit the list was expansive but I was planning on buying multiple lessons if the first was a success. During the lesson we had lots of down time as he hunted down charts or pulled up an old recording. I could tell he was winging it.


In some ways I was hunting for the secrets of his style. Hoping that a few lessons would give me insight into his approach to playing. The technical how’s and why’s of his unique musical vision. What i got in addition to some brief playing moments were tales from the road, some details of his health.  If I didn’t communicate my needs in a way he understood then I may have been the  problem.


What I learned from him directly:

  • Memorize the melodies of the tunes, don’t be dependent on the Real Books
  • Embellish the melody
  • Don’t be afraid to arpeggiate the chords
  • Play with recordings of your favorite artists. Try to mimic them exactly.
  • I have a Mulligan type vibe when I play

What I learned from my experience:

  • I have a Mulligan type vibe when I play 🙂
  • I need spend more time with all of my chords especially dim and half-dim chords
  • I need to send him the charts ahead of time.
  • I need to be a bit more firm about keeping the lesson moving and the anecdotes more brief.
  • There is no secret sauce, no mojo just practice and time.


TAKE AWAY: Neither one of us was truly prepared for the experience. While I enjoyed the personal anecdotes and reminder of musical fundamentals I didn’t feel like I had accomplished all that we could have in the time I paid for.  What I experienced about personal tone will stick with me though.

Ernie Watts Masterclass – JEN Conference 2012

I am a big fan Ernie Watts, from his crazy huge mouthpiece tip opening to his amazing melodic improvisations. This masterclass offers a great view into his personal sound concept, philosophy, practice techniques and improvisation pedagogy.

Here’s a warmup exercise based on the warmup Ernie recommends to start each practice session with.

Real Life, Virtual Lesson and the rebirth of the video lesson

At some point in our musical journey most of us will seek the assistance of a more experienced musician to help us hone our skills. Traditionally this was done through a type of mentorship in which a less experienced musician might get the opportunity to learn from a pro either on a bandstand or in a practice room. Bill Evans (saxophonist) comes to mind as he says he really blossomed and learned a great deal from his early days with Miles Davis. There were many others and in some ways the tradition continues on but is much less present. For those of us without a pro mentor lessons are the next best option.

There are 4 styles of lessons in terms of interactivity: face to face, Skype (computer mediated musical lessons), video lessons, books.  Within each of these lesson styles are various levels of interaction with the instructor and with the musical community at large. For some online instructors the community is a vital part of their program.

I have to make it clear that my preferred method is Face to Face. I feel it is very important that the instructor is able to see and hear your technique clearly and from any angle necessary to help the musician be more efficient and comfortable as they play. Regardless of how long you’ve been playing a second set of eyes can be a great resource in helping diagnose any playing issues. For example, I had a tough time in a unison lick in the Thad Jones piece “Groove Merchant”.  It took a great friend and amazing local saxophonist to see that I could tighten up the lick at speed by using side C and forked F# to be more efficient. Those small changes reduced my finger movement by 25% and evened out the phrase.  Without being able to see this another instructor may have just sent me back to the practice room  to shed the lick more.

Skype lessons have been popular for quite a while now. In fact several of my favorite players currently offer Skype lessons on limited basis. Monsters like Tim Price, Ronnie Cuber and Gary Smulyan take the time to teach via this medium. Next to face to face this may be the only option to study with high caliber musicians that are otherwise unavailable due to geographic limitations. There are some serious limitations though and for the most part they are technical. First, if you’ve ever used Skype then you know that the audio can be quite tinny due to compression and is limited by the students equipment and or the instructors listening equipment. Secondly, the video is at a fixed position, so other than the instructor asking the student to turn or step closer to the video camera it is difficult  to observe the nuances of a students performance. Thirdly, and most importantly in my book, is the lack of direct human interaction at close proximity. Virtual lessons can serve to add a distance between student and teacher even greater than the physical distance.

Video lessons can range from the classic VHS tape to the more modern streaming sites. Sites like Bob Reynolds lesson site and  Jazz Everyone offer expert tutelage but very little instructor student time. By their very nature it would be nearly impossible for sites with hundreds or thousands of members to get a traditional 30 minutes to 1 hour lesson with the instructor. I mean the poor lesson teacher has to eat, sleep and write new material. The best of these sites really focus on bringing people together to answer questions and the instructor acts as a moderator to the discussion. This kind of group learning can be useful and provide a wonderful sense of community to those subscribed to the site. On the other hand to the paid subscriber it can feel as though they are not receiving the kind of attention they might want from the instructor. And there is little to no feedback on tone or technique from the instructor.

Books are the 4th type of musical learning device. Books include instructional manuals like Top Tones by Sigurd Raschèr or  Three-Note Voicings and Beyond by Randy Vincent. These tomes require the student to have a significant amount of self discipline. The student must learn to take the musical leap off of the page and into understanding of the concepts and techniques on display. To gain the most from learning books requires commitment to the material and the ability to see the big picture and the small details without someone interpreting the results. The student must be their own worst critic and greatest cheerleader. I think books should be the tool of last resort for learning to improvise or general musicality. Book have a place but i don’t think they can take the place of any of the other options.

TAKE AWAY: For the record I am currently a subscriber to online learning resources, own several dozen books, have taken lessons via Skype, Google hangouts, and had face to face lessons. Each learning method offers advantages and disadvantages. It is up to the student to discover what method works best for them. Though it has been my experience that as a player matures musically they tend to work down the list from being taught to teaching the self. So if you are looking to  improve your skills find a teacher and get to work.

Jazz Everyone: Online Jazz Lessons

For a couple  years now I have been making the website Jazz Everyone a regular part of my practice. The host of the website is Willie Thomas, or as he prefers uncle Willie.

Willie’s approach is not the modal Jamey Aebersold approach though he does use materials created by Jamey, with his permission. Instead Willie uses a system of Pentatonic pair steps moving around the circle of 4ths/5ths. This forms the basic unit of his system. Aside from theory Willie teaches rhythms and style.

On staff at Jazz Everyone with Willie Thomas is Gary Smulyan, Steve Wiest, and Charlie Porter. These power house players offer insight and additional creative learning directions. It is a pleasure to hear different techniques and views on improvising from real masters of their instruments.

It is my opinion that to truly take advantage of the material you have to be honest with  yourself and spend time mastering the material presented. To spend to much time on the easier portion of a lesson and blow through the more difficult sections is doing a disservice to you as the student. The material presented increases in difficulty gradually and logically so there are no surprises from lesson. Each lesson builds upon the material presented in the previous lesson.

Pro’s: Great material. Willie really makes his pentatonic pairs approach accessible and easy to follow. The Jazz Everyone  material is great for beginners all the way through seasoned veterans looking to add to their knowledge base.

Con’s: The lesson plan could be better spelled out. Logically you would do the beginner section followed then by the Intermediate section and finally the Player’s Corner and it’s subsections. The players corner section features video lessons and graphically shown theory. This section is valuable to students working through either beginner or intermediate sections.

Take Away: This site features an excellent system that will have  you improvising quickly and with more style then when you started. There is a community component feature which is not heavly trafficked but is available and answers come quickly. For the price it is a great place to expand  your jazz knowledge but this is only true if you can be diligent and honest with the material.