Jazz musicians need to be learning lots of jazz language. What do I mean by jazz language? I mean jazz solos, licks, phrases, and jazz repertoire. Truly, becoming a better jazz musician is a life-long endeavor and a fun one at that! The real joy for me is studying the music.
But do you ever feel like you learn a jazz standard, a particular lick or solo, only to forget it soon after? If so, you are certainly not alone. It can be fun to sit down with your instrument and learn jazz language, but it’s also hard work. It can be frustrating to spend so much time learning a piece of musical information only for it to slip out of your memory not long after.
I don’t know about you, but I hate wasting time. So whenever this happens to me, I wonder what I could have done differently so that the information would have stuck better. Of course, there is a lot to be said for learning music the right way. A particular practice I would label as the “right way” would be learning music by ear. There are so many benefits you get from this. In addition, there are things you can do to help internalize music better, like taking it through all 12 keys.
But I want to share with you 3 great ideas to help you never forget the jazz language you’ve learned. These aren’t necessarily the most obvious and that’s why I think these are worth sharing.
1. Make your week or month all about it.
We all know that repetition is key to learn anything really well. You have to practice it over and over again. Yet I find that a lot of musicians are over eager to move on to the next thing, without giving enough time to develop a strong relationship with the music they were just learning.
Instead of trying to learn a lot of licks, solos, or tunes in a short period of time, learn just a few and master them. Less is more! Make your week or even your month about 1 jazz standard, or one lick, or one solo. Call that song at every gig and jam session. Practice it every time you have time to practice. Try to incorporate that lick into every musical situation you feel is appropriate. Discard your short term musical memory and go for the long term.
2. Teach it to someone else.
When I started teaching students, I realized that it was actually helping me learn things better as well. Why? Because I had to explain and demonstrate it to them, which is so much harder than simply doing. If I teach a jazz standard to someone, I actually have to think about the chord changes and how the harmony works. I also have to go through the repetition of learning it with them. I have particular musical phrases I teach students, and so guess which licks I remember best? The ones I teach my students.
You don’t have to have students to teach things to. Get together with a friend to jam and if he or she is willing, teach them a new jazz standard you’ve learned. Not only will you be forced to intellectualize it, you’ll get to practice it even more. Teaching is a great way of learning. I find that it is a two-way street.
3. Keep an audio lick book.
Now, maybe it’s not entirely possible to remember every piece of musical information you learn. Quite honestly, you don’t need to. Especially when it comes to learning small musical phrases from your favorite jazz musicians, you ultimately don’t want to be quoting them verbatim. You want the culmination of the language you have learned to manifest itself into jazz language of your own.
So when you are in search of some inspiration or ideas, it can be handy to have a library of the musical ideas you have learned in the past. Here’s what you do:
Learn a musical phrase (lick) by ear.
Record it and save it to a folder on your computer.
Organize it by chord progressions, styles, or even musicians (ii-V-I licks, Michael Brecker licks, Bebop licks).
*Bonus* notate it and accompany it with your audio recording.
Now you can go back at any time, look up an idea you’ve learned, review it and practice it again. You can listen back to it, and if you put in the extra effort, you can even read it. Keeping an audio lick book is an excellent way to keep revisiting language you’ve learned so that it can continue to influence your jazz playing.