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My Jazz Mentor Gives You His Best Tips and Advice (feat. Justin Nielsen)

Welcome to episode 100 of the LJS Podcast where today we are celebrating 100 episodes! To do that, Brent has a very special guest on the show, his jazz mentor Justin Nielsen who got him into the music and set him on a path to success. Justin talks about what he teaches his students and some of his best tips for musical improvement. Listen in!

Listen to episode 100

Today marks a very special episode and a mile marker for this podcast, episode 100! It also kicks off our birthday month leading up to our 2 year birthday of the podcast in episode 104.

In honor of our birthday month, don’t forget to enter our raffle for opportunities to get our courses, eBooks, and backing tracks. We don’t do this often, but this is a special occasion. It’s also a great way to help us out by taking some of the actions required for entries.

I make a deal out of this episode because when I first started this podcast, I really didn’t know how long it would last. The Learn Jazz Standards blog had been going on for years quite successfully, but I didn’t know if the time and effort spent on a podcast would be worth it, or if anyone would even listen to it!

Well, here I am 100 episodes later and I couldn’t be more thrilled with it. It’s all thanks to you. Those who have been listening for a long time and even those just listening for a short time. Thanks for listening, and I look forward to serving you with more free jazz education content for hundreds of more episodes.

But for today’s episode, I knew I wanted to have someone special on. In this episode I have my jazz mentor, Justin Nielsen come on the show to tell us what he knows about learning jazz and music in general.

Justin had a huge impact on my musical life and pointed me in the right direction. I have to say, I would not be a professional jazz musician and teaching jazz on Learn Jazz Standards if Justin hadn’t taken me under his wing. He’s a musical hero of mine, and a great person as well.

I’m pleased to have him on to share some of his knowledge with you. Here are some of the things we talk about:

  • A public “thank you” to Justin.

  • How Justin got into music.

  • How he discovered teaching and mentoring young musicians is his life’s calling.

  • What he teaches his students on a regular basis.

  • Things both beginning and more advanced jazz students should do right now.

  • His eBook he wants to give away to you for free.

  • An opportunity to join his inner circle.

I don’t want you to miss this episode. I say this all of the time, but this is easily one of my favorite episodes to date.

Also be sure to check out his free eBook. You can find the link to that in the “Important Links” below. Finally, if you resonate with Justin in this episode, and want to make a living teaching music to others, apply to join his inner circle by sending him an email.

Important Links

Get Justin’s free eBook

LJS Inner Circle Membership

Free Guide to learn standards by ear: Learn Jazz Standards the Smart Way

Want to learn how to make a living as a music teacher? Email Justin at [email protected]

Read the Transcript

Brent: All right, hey, what’s up everybody? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website which is a blog and a podcast all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. Welcome. It is episode 100, that is right, 100 episodes of this podcast. I want to thank you all so much for listening especially if you’ve been listening for a long time or even from the beginning, I really, really appreciate it. I mean, this podcast could not continue without you. I really appreciate everybody who’s listened, who’s helped this podcast get to the big episode 100. If you’re listening to this podcast for the last month or so, you know that this is our birthday month.

Today’s episode 100 and then at the end of the month we have episode 104 which we have a very special birthday episode planned with a bunch of you, the listeners who have submitted recordings to us who we are going to be featuring on the show. It’s going to be really exciting, I’m really looking forward to that episode. Also, because this is the big mile marker 100, we have a really special episode today. I have on a very, very important person in my life. He was my jazz mentor and really helped me get into jazz, get into where I am now as a jazz musician, as even a person, and that is my mentor Justin Nielsen. Now, Justin, he lays it down today with some incredible jazz tips, advice. I mean, you’re just not going to want to miss this episode today. I mean, I thought about who I should have on the show and Justin was the guy that I just I knew he had to be on episode 100.

I just knew it and so I’m so glad I got to have him on. Man, he has some awesome freebies to offer you at the end of this episode so definitely hang on tight till then. It’s a longer episode but I couldn’t cut anything out of this because it’s all just complete gold and I know you’re going to love everything he has to say in the conversation that we have today. Now, like I said, it’s our birthday month and so I have a really exciting thing that we’re doing. We’re actually going to be doing a really awesome raffle. Really awesome raffle where it’s really just simple things you can do to help us this month as a birthday gift for the podcast such as give us rating reviews on iTunes, like us on Facebook, sign up for our mailing list, share this episode 100 with others.

There’s a bunch of other little things you can do to basically get extra raffle entries in for our prizes that we’re going to have and then we’re going to announce them at the end of the month. Some of those prizes include a top prize like all of our courses, all of our jazz courses whether it be, “30 Days to Better Jazz Playing,” or our new training course, “How to Play What You Hear.” Also, our entire play along collection which is like 250 or so play alongs, we’re giving all that away and a bunch of other prizes. I think total we have somewhere around 17 or so different people who will get a prize so it’s a good chance if you get in there and you do all the raffle entries, it will happen for you.

If you just want to give back to this podcast whether you’ve already gotten some of the courses or the books that we have and you don’t really need a prize, just want to give back, go to and complete some of those action items just to give back for our birthday, really appreciate it and of course you’ll get entered to the raffle for doing that as well, so We really appreciate it, that would be super awesome. Now, I don’t want to waste any time. I want to jump right into this interview because this is a really special episode today. Without further ado, here is my jazz mentor, Justin Nielsen.

All right. Welcoming on the show today is jazz pianist, freelancer, teacher, composer, and he’s one of my most important mentors in my developing days in playing jazz and learning jazz and that is Justin Nielsen. Justin, thanks so much for being on the show.

Justin: It’s totally my pleasure. Thank you, Brent, for inviting me.

Brent: Yeah, I’m really excited to have you on, Justin because first of all, this is episode 100, this is a really important episode. When I was thinking, what do I want to do for episode 100, how do I want to make this a special episode because it’s a special number, I couldn’t think of anybody else besides you because you’ve played a really important role in my life in that you’re one of the most influential mentors I’ve ever had as a musician and particularly in jazz. I met you sometime around my junior or senior year of high school when I started going to your school and you had this little tribe of kids learning jazz out in Boise, Idaho which is where I’m from, which where you live today. I joined you there and other students in the school that you’re starting up and from there you taught me the ropes and all these different things.

You played a huge role especially because after my senior of high school and some of my listeners who have heard me told a little bit of this before will recognize this, I didn’t go to college right away and I didn’t have enough money to go to college right away but you had a great solution for me. You had me stay with you for a year and study. I did a really rigorous program with you. Actually, kind of an insane program with you but I thank you for that. In a lot of ways you changed my life and so I want to thank you first of all just publicly for that just for changing the direction of my life influencing me to do something so beautiful and rich playing jazz, playing music and setting me up for the success I am today. I just wanted to say that, get all that out the way right up front.

Justin: Thank you, Brent. Thank you.

Brent: A lot of my audience they don’t know who you are. How about we just do the one minute Justin Nielsen bio, what you are, what you’re all about, what you’re doing right now.

Justin: All right, that sounds good. I have to start by saying the feeling is mutual, Brent. There’s a handful of students that you never forget and you’re one of those. I’ve been teaching longer, I guess the list of students like that gets bigger but still I’ll never forget that first batch. You were really part of the first round as I was a lot younger. Just getting started. You guys were the first real batch of students that really changed my life as much or more than you say I changed yours. There’s that, I wanted to say. Then, any teachers listening to this, you know that feeling guys. It’s better than your own career is when you start seeing things like this happen with your students. I’m totally thrilled with what you’ve done and really the person you’ve become too, that’s a really big thing.

Brent: Thanks, man.

Justin: Now I got that out of the way. Wait, what was the question? Let me go back here.

Brent: Just to introduce yourself to the audience, the one minute Justin Nielsen bio, what you are, what you’re doing right now.

Justin: All right. I’m a jazz pianist, freelance jazz pianist. I do some performing and touring, that kind of thing, recording, all that. I really think that my passion and biggest love in terms of my career is concerned is definitely mentoring and working with young creative musicians. It’s like the first time I started doing that I felt like I was effortless, it’s breathing to me and is rewarding as that. I’ve really been obsessed with the process of working with young musicians, helping them progress quickly and helping them navigate the really difficult and challenging world of being a creative person or creative musician in kind of non-creative world.

I mean, mostly that’s in terms of my work I have some recordings, I have some people I play with and everything but I’m really the most proud about I am the most excited about people like you, Brent, and a lot of my other students and what they’ve accomplished and what they’re doing now.

Brent: Awesome, you’ve definitely touched a lot of other people’s lives not just mine. What got you all started down this path from the very first place. How did you get into music? What was the early beginnings there? Eventually, how did you get into jazz music specifically?

Justin: Okay. My parents were both musicians. My mom was a piano teacher. My dad, conductor and music educator. He taught junior high, high school, college and also conducted community orchestras and stuff. Music was in my house, it was always there. I as a really young kid remember thinking, I’m just wondering if everybody just picks their instrument at age whatever and goes for it. I just thought this is what you did. That being said, I didn’t seriously commit to it or anything like that for years. My mom tried to teach me piano lessons. I’m sure a lot of people that have moms that are piano teachers, I mean, there’s a lot of them out there.

That didn’t resonate really well but around age 12, I guess what really turn me on to music was my dad actually gave me recordings of Beethoven piano concertos. I think it was Emanuel Ax playing piano concerto Beethoven concerto three and four, gave me that I think for my birthday or something. The first time I listened to it I didn’t like it. Tenth time I started to notice something. Then, the 100th time I was in love and knew my life would never be the same again-

Brent: Wow.

Justin: … since that I didn’t know a person could be especially as a 12 year old boy. Accessing places emotionally, spiritually, personally that I didn’t even know were there through music, it felt like a miracle.

Brent: Wow, in a lot of ways Beethoven was your first big moment.

Justin: Yeah, Beethoven, he was my first moment that, “Okay, music is it, for sure.” Then I was like, “I want to do that.” I started studying classical music. I took classical piano lessons, I practiced a lot. As a kid I actually got pretty serious about practicing. I would wake up at 5 A.M and walk to the community college a block away and go to a practice room before school. Then I would practice. I was basically always practicing my teen years. I was not very socially active. I think I feel that with the relationship with the piano. I did that and I thought I was going to be a classical musician for a long time until …
Just a simplified version but of course that how, “I got to do this thing.” Until I heard jazz I was about I think I was already adult. I was 21 years old actually and that was like an altar call or something. That was the Beethoven experience times I don’t know, maybe a hundred or something. I was a 100% sure I was going to be playing jazz or studying that music as long as I could.

Brent: What exactly resonated with you with jazz? Where there’s such a profound moment kind of a fall in love at first sight sort of a thing?

Justin: I think it was the freedom and the creativity. This isn’t to say, I know that there are classical pianist that feel the same freedom and creativity playing a Beethoven because there’s not like one way to do that either. For me, seeing and this was the first time I heard live jazz, it was I think I remember it was Kenny Barron, Lewis Nash. I can’t remember who the drummer was, it was so long ago. Anyway, I mean, I was hearing great musicians doing it. Thelonious Monks are talking about music is like dancing about architecture.

Brent: Right, right, that’s one of his bizarre quotes.

Justin: It was like, how do you describe what’s going on inside you when that happens? I think it was freedom.

Brent: Right. Just resonating with that as well as sometimes when you have these great musical moments, we all have good and bad musical moments but when you have those great musical moments and you ask yourself, “Why do I play music?” You can’t really describe it in words other than this feeling you get when you’re actually in the moment and you’re playing and you know, why do you keep pursuing it. You can’t really answer the question other than just like it’s just this feeling that you have that you know something is right when you’re doing it. Right?

Justin: Yup.

Brent: You fell in love with jazz, all these happen now. What happened after that? How old were you? Then, where did you go from there?

Justin: I was 21 years old and I was kind of in the middle of a classical piano degree at college which I ended up not finishing because slowly jazz took over I guess. I did this transition to where I was supposed to be practicing for my juries and actually I did go through the whole process. I played Liszt B minor sonata for my final jury and everything but there was this kind of slow process where jazz started taking up more of my practice time and especially just working in the area of jazz. I started getting calls from the local musicians and started playing.

Brent: Which is the Boise area, right? Boise, Idaho.

Justin: Boise, Idaho. Some great musicians here, the older generation and they started calling me. Next thing I knew I was just a freelancer musician playing gigs in Boise and teaching some private students. I don’t know, I don’t know that there was, I think a moment where my life got like I say where it felt like breathing to me. It felt like, “Okay, this is mine.” Life’s work, it was the creation of the private school, ArtsWest which went to, 10, 15 years ago was when I started or something. Then I was dealing with, I don’t know what it was about that. You know what it was? It was, okay, I began this process of having my kids learn by doing, having my students learn by doing, not just by practicing.

Brent: Right, right. So like going out and playing, is that what you mean?

Justin: Yes, getting you guys out playing every week and always preparing for the next performance and then, this is … Okay, I know this is exactly what … Okay, maybe discovering jazz was a 100 times the Beethoven but the first time you have one of your students like a kid, teenager, do something that they know actually move the people in the room. They hit that space themselves. The first time that happened that was it. I’m sure that was it and that’s when I knew I was going to be mentoring kids, young musicians.

Brent: The power of teaching, especially you know for the audience listening like it’s hard that you don’t know Justin but the energy that you exude, the positivity that you exude is so inspiring for students so I can understand why this is such a big moment for you. Just a little bit more background for the audience listening today, the school ArtsWest you started it now. Tell me if I’m wrong, you had a private lesson studio, a network with other teachers, and you decided to make that into an actual accredited school, how it went down?

Justin: I was running an afterschool program that were … There’s programs like this all over the country. There’s like 20 or so private teachers teaching in this afterschool program and really I mean I think actually it was that teaching the private lessons I mean there was a lot of great stuff coming out of that. Actually, I just felt this need to create a community. Like I say, I’ve always been obsessed with what’s the best way to get these kids to open up and I felt this need to create a community out of the kids that were taking the private lessons. In ArtsWest, that’s the original name of the school, it’s born out of that idea. Then it was a full-on private school for young musicians and artists and dancers actually. Doing all the academic work in the mornings and then first half of the day, second half of the day getting time and energy to invest in their art.

Brent: Right, right, absolutely. That was the year of the school started officially is when I came on and I was really glad to be a part of it. That’s what I was saying earlier, really started a big change in my life is I was going halftime to my public school and then I was going out to ArtsWest for the rest of the afternoon and spending time with you and a combo playing with other musicians, getting lots of time to practice and you’re telling us what to do. That was just so helpful to have a mentor and the part that you’re saying about getting your students out there and just doing, I remember, tell me if you guys still do this or if you still have other students doing this anyways, going out to the coffee shop Rembrandt’s every single Thursday.

We had a jam session and we would all go out there. Everybody was there every single week. All of your students were there, we were all playing the tunes we were working on and that was really special especially for younger musicians that were trying to learn and having that place to play. Tell me a little bit about that, tell me a little bit about the power that you think that brings.

Justin: People have asked me like what’s your curriculum and all that. I could even talk about that if we get there but I think number one is that you learn a hundred lessons from performing. My son plays baseball, he’s a great baseball player actually. His coach says baseball is a game of failures. Even the great players strike out seven times or don’t get on base seven out of ten times. It’s dealing with failure and success and even learning why you would want to be practicing in the first place. My son Jordan wanted to learn baseball. When he was eight years old he start saying, “I want to play baseball.” We signed him up for Little League. Two weeks later he’s playing his first game. If instead of taking him to a game we had gotten him a private batting coach to just work on his swing, he’ll be like, “You’re not ready to play yet.

You got to keep practicing the swing till it’s perfect, eventually, you’ll be playing but right now just keep practicing that swing till it’s perfect.” He may not have stayed with baseball, I doubt he would have. I think the thing about performing is you’re getting to, “Okay, here’s the reason why. Here’s the reason why you might want to practice.” Like I say, you’re going to watch some people get up there and really move everyone and you’re going to taste that and be like, “Oh, I want to do that,” or, you’re going to do that yourself and then you’re hooked for life if you do that. Then your teacher says, “You got to work on this transcription or whatever,” you’re a little more motivated to do it because you know why you’re practicing in the first place.

Brent: Absolutely, because becoming a better musician there’s no magic snap your finger, it’s here we are, we’re ready and now you’re good to go. There’s no magic formula, there are no shortcuts, it’s really long-term thing. I think especially in jazz music it’s like that because there’s so much harmonic complexity, there’s a lot of things going on that you really have to dedicate yourself to. Like you said, working on a solo, learning a solo by ear, that’s a hard task. That’s a lot of work. If you don’t really have anything to base off why you would want to do that, the feeling of actually performing, then why would you do it?

Justin: Exactly.

Brent: Yeah, I can totally resonate with that. Now, I want to talk a little bit about the stuff that you do teach your students. One thing that I really love about what you did for me is you just told me what to do. You sat me down and you said, “Hey, man, it’s up to you to do this. I’m going to give you all the opportunities, I’m going to tell you what you should be doing, then it’s up to you to do it.” Luckily, I’m kind of a self-motivated person so that super worked for me. What happened is and I was saying this early in the show is I didn’t go to college right away like all my other friends were doing, it’s a weird time of my life. You’re kind of there leading me telling me what to do and you gave me this program to work on.

It was actually an absolutely insane program which I thank you to this day for making me do which was something … I can’t remember exactly how it went but I think the goal was I was going to learn a hundred jazz standards by the end of the year. I think that ended up being like three jazz standards a week and then my aim was 32 bars, learning 32 bars of the solo every single week. Then I think there’s some other things thrown in there and then I was playing a gig with my friend and your other student, Shawn. We were doing that. Tell me about some of those things that I just talk about, why are those things that you had me do, learning tunes, transcribing solos, all those stuff, why are those things that you have your jazz students do?

Justin: This is where we need to start touching on, because before we got online here I was saying there’s some things I wish I had known or things I know now or at least things I do now, I should say, that I didn’t use to do. I mean, I do all of those things now but I guess my approach is a little different. If we’re wanting to talk about what I’m teaching now, things have changed a little bit for me. I feel like students, at least the students I work with benefit from having a really strong creative outlet that’s like half of it. This is the half where it’s like I’m not going to tell you what to do. You’re going to tell me what you want to do and I’m going to help you do that.

This is really different, this might not fit with the learn jazz standards concept but if you want to write country music song for this hour you get to do that. Whatever it is you wanted. If you want to play with your launchpad or whatever because music is like this infinite field of … There’s no end to this. As everyone is clearly seeing right now, especially your generation and younger, it’s all mixing together now. It’s not like I’m a jazz musician, you know. You have to keep your ears open to the whole thing and be curious so I spend a little more time letting them develop, even start begin to develop their own conception and sound from the very, very beginning.

That’s a new thing and I’m always having no matter how beginning or advanced or whatever my student is, we have them write music, perform it, and record it. I could go really deep into why I do that but that realm of writing, composing, performing, recording your music over and over again it’s not like this is the one last and you’re going to get out of this. There are hundreds of things you’re going to learn from failing in front of people or actually hearing what you sound like coming back at you. That is such a humbling-

Brent: That’s scary stuff.

Justin: First time.

Brent: Yeah, it is a humbling-

Justin: People stay away from doing it for so long because if you’re a guitarist, there’s Kurt Rosenwinkel, why should you do anything? Right? If you’re a pianist, I mean, come on, if I have a new piano student, [Branmaldel 00:25:24], Oscar Peterson, I show them a few videos. Then, okay you’re not going to be the greatest, most killing musician of all time. You almost need to discover that like right off the bat. There are so many lessons you learn from writing, performing or recording your own original music and it’s hard because this is mine, I made this and I’m showing it to people. I think just dealing with all, it’s also good I think again, this is what I wish I had known back when I was working with you guys but when they’re that young and they’re having to deal with the emotional onslaught that comes from releasing your first track of music to other listeners.

Anyway, that’s about half of it. Then the other half is jazz training. The other thing I guess is changed a little bit is some of my musicians really resonate, my young musicians really resonate with jazz and that is what they want to do. Even if they don’t, I still make them learn jazz because first of all it’s what I know but also I mean I guess anyone listening to this podcast already knows this but it’s almost what makes American music sound American. It’s in everybody’s bloodstream, it’s in our culture and it’s a tradition that has survived the test of time. It’s something for them to study and get them thinking on more subtle levels about music. Anyway, this other half, the jazz improv I teach it as a spiral.

What I do is I actually with my high school kids and junior high kids we only work on ten tunes for years just ten. What we do is it’s like a spiral so the first time around they hit these ten tunes just learning the melodies and the very bare minimum necessary required to be able to hang on a jam session on that tune. They might not even understand what’s going on yet but they learn the melody to the tune so they can play it ahead and they learn if it’s a tune it only has one chord or that one scale would work through the whole tune, they just learn that one scale the first spiral through. Then we do another. Then they run that through the ten tunes and then we come back around again and usually I’ll have them then learn to play the chords on the piano next time through.

Then, back around again the guitarist learn the first set of voicings and the background again, they do their first transcription and then and so on and so forth. It’s like that kind of thing. This is my way of doing it. Of course, obviously every week you interview someone and a different way of approaching it is shown to you. You have to find your own thing but that works for me because I feel like I mean it is really hard because the world of jazz and creative music is like this whole universe of information and it’s just incredibly intimidating coming to it, seeing the complexity and artistry of the people who have figured it out.

Even to just become a good solid professional jazz musician just the craft let alone the art which is a whole other thing, that in and of itself it requires such a commitment. It can be very intimidating. I do the ten tunes so that my students can experience what it’s like to really master a tune and to know a lot about it. Every tune is universe like that spiral could continue forever. You could spend the rest of your life studying ten tunes, of course, you don’t want to do that because you want to get work playing without using the phone, you want to be able to get work.

Brent: Right, right.

Justin: You know what I mean? That’s how I do it now.

Brent: That’s awesome. I love the idea of focusing in on ten jazz standards. Actually, in April I’m coming out with a new ebook, I’m really excited actually I don’t think I’ve announced this to my audience yet but it’s kind of on the down low but I guess everybody’s hearing it now. I’m coming up with this book, yeah don’t tell anybody. It’s a study of ten jazz standards actually and it really digs deep and analyzes these standards because when you look at, you can really hone in on some of them like you can learn so much about all the rest of them. If you just really focus on a handful of them you can get so much and learn so much about the harmony and in a lot of ways at least in jazz standard repertoire you can start just learning all of them by simply understanding the harmony of a handful.

Justin: Yes.

Brent: I think it’s really cool approach. I really love also what you’re saying a little earlier about how you’re having your students now just kind of do whatever they want to do, whatever style of music it is, composing their own music, I think that’s super cool. Like we’ve talked about before on this podcast is we can learn things from whether jazz is your favorite music to listen to or whatever it is that’s your favorite kind of music, you can learn so much by playing other styles of music too. In fact, sometimes lessons that you can’t learn in jazz on the other side of things too if you’re a musician outside of the jazz realm there are so many things that jazz can teach you about music and help you improve as an overall musician. I feel like you found this incredible sweet spot which is so cool and so amazing to hear. Basically, what you’re telling me is you now do the opposite of what you did for me in that.

Justin: Maybe.

Brent: You know what? I love that.

Justin: I was young.

Brent: No, but hold on. Let me just say this though, I totally resonate with what you’re doing with your students now but I will say I think it’s what I needed so much so at that point in my life because I was in a very … I’m trying to figure out who I was as a person, trying to figure out at least in the society, the class of people that I was surrounded with. All of my friends were going to college, I was not. I felt isolated, socially isolated, didn’t know what to do. What you did is you kept me busy for an entire year working toward something and you gave me a lot of stuff to do and it was amazing stuff to do. Again, I thank you so much for having me do all that stuff.

Sometimes each student has a different need and not to say that I was practicing I think five to six, seven hours a day and that was insane but like I said, that kept me busy. That really jump-started me in the direction I needed to go especially as a little bit I would consider a little bit of a latecomer to the music. That’s awesome. Okay, awesome. Sounds like that’s the stuff that you’re teaching your students and everybody listening right now, that’s a little hint as into maybe some of the stuff that you should be working on. Let’s hone in a little bit deeper here. Let’s pick a student here. Someone who is very new to jazz, we’re thinking jazz right now, strictly jazz.

Justin: Sure.

Brent: Someone who’s very new to jazz.

Justin: Sure.

Brent: At least in the beginning stages, what should they be focusing on? What should their practice session look like if they have an hour of time to spend?

Justin: Okay, it’s a brand new, brand new, just starting. I’ve been doing this so long, I cannot avoid the first thought coming into my mind is find a place where you’re going to have to play whatever song you’re about to study in front of people.

Brent: I love that.

Justin: Whether there’s a jam session or something you must, I think it doesn’t matter. I don’t think it matter, what school you’re going to, and it’s not on your teacher, you just have to find a place and a way to play on a regular basis. I’m just going to say that again because if I get a brand new student I’m always able to say, “Okay, this Friday or a week from Friday or whatever you’re going to play this,” and then, when I say that they’re already all in on learning the song because there’s a little peer, there’s a little tension and they’re highly, highly motivated to learn the song. Again, that would be my first thing, create a place you’re going to have to play at.

Even if you’re just starting out, I think. Let’s say we got a saxophone player. I usually start my kids on the tune, “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.” I mean, I will record it onto their phone is how I’ll do it but you can get it off of I mean there’s … Actually, if you have a teacher I just record it onto their phone because I want them to know the melody in its purest form.

Brent: Right, right.

Justin: Transcribe the melody to the tune and most people play this tune in C minor. I’d say, “Learn that melody by ear, Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.” If there’s someone listening to the podcast right now that wants to have your first experience with this. Step one, find a place, find a jam session. Step two, learn the melody to, “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.” Step three, learn the concert C, it depends on your estimate but learn the concert C natural minor scale. Then, I’m going to guess that has a … I know you do actually, I’m pretty sure, I have used that one. Go to YouTube, get the Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.

Brent: The backing track you’re talking about.

Justin: Backing track, yeah, sorry.

Brent: Yeah I put those up like almost ten years ago and for some reason a lot of people liked them, I guess people like backing track so there you go.

Justin: Yeah, it’s free so do that and then play the melody and start improvising over C natural minor scale and you’re doing it. Then show up at a jam session and do it in front of people and just be okay with whatever happens. It may work and it may not. You might fail. There’s a good chance of that. That’s a big part of the process.
Brent: I really love it because this is obviously been a theme of our conversation today is just going out and doing it. If you don’t do it … I have some students that occasionally I teach students from across the world, the big problem though with Skype lessons is it’s more like a consulting session. You’re able to tell them the things they should do and if you have the right student, they’ll actually go through and they’ll do the stuff and that’s awesome but the one thing that I always tell them is, “You got to go out, find your local jam, go find somebody else to play with.”

If you’re not having someone to play with then this stuff it’s like reading books like you can read all the books that you want and learn all the stuff that you want but if you don’t actually go and do it, you’re not going to really know it. You’re just going to have the book smart, you’re not going to have the actual street cred. You have to go out there and do it. I love that. What about a student that’s maybe a little bit more that’s been doing this for a while like how do they take their stuff up to the next level?

Justin: Okay, maybe let’s see, maybe you know the melodies to those tunes or something like that. Then to me I think if you’re not a pianist I would say learn the shell voicings over the form of the tunes on a piano. I keep having my students, I found this actually, especially with guitarist. Since you’re a guitarist and I’m sure you have guitarist, because you have so many options, there’s not only one … There’s a button I can push to play middle C of piano, right? Navigating that whole thing and how harmony, how the play changes, how to improvise lines over harmony that seems to come together for me within instrumentals when I make them learn how to play the chords on the piano. That’s what I would say next.

If you’re already hanging and by hanging I just mean you’re able to play the right scales over the right chords at this point. The next thing I would do is learn to play the changes on the piano. Then, I would say once you are comfortable with these underpinnings, the harmonic underpinnings of the music. If you play the piano on the tune, you know some basic chord changes, you can comp over it, you can play it, but you’re wanting to communicate. I mean, there’s this point where you master those forms and then it all drops away and you realize that was just kindergarten. I don’t want to depress anybody but these keeps happening by the way, these keeps happening by the way.

Then whatever your next level around the spiral you’re like, “Oh, I knew nothing about this tune,” but then you’re wanting to start, I would start transcribing on a regular basis which I’m sure your students hear that all the time. I’m sure this is one … Go ahead.

Brent: When you say transcribing do you mean actually writing down or do you mean just learning it by ear or do you mean both or what do you mean by that?

Justin: No, right now I actually just mean just learning it by ear. I’ve written out a few things but in my experience I’ve had my students learn that like reading basically the other way around just by segregating a lot. That’s a whole other topic.

Brent: Right, right. I just wanted to clear up the terminology.

Justin: Yeah, I know. Transcribing, musicians that you resonate with and what they’re doing. These are things I think you probably hear on a lot of different podcast. I’m sure almost everyone probably says transcribe.

Brent: It’s a big one.

Justin: It’s a big one. Then, I think Chet Baker is a good starting point. I have a lot of my students start with Chet Baker because he plays the changes. He’s got a lot of freedom. He seems to be spontaneously composing a lot of what he’s doing. It’s not really just rotating bee bop lines. I like that. I like starting with him. Anything, sometimes I’ll play something for my students to transcribe. Maybe if they’re not ready to lift something from a recording just to get them … Anyway, there’s that. Then, I mean there’s so much.

Brent: Yeah, of course it’s a tough question because it’s like who’s the actual student we’re talking about here because like what we’re talking about before, everybody has a different need. That’s great. I mean, that’s the great thing about jazz and I’m sure you agree with me and music, not just jazz. It is that it’s an endless, it’s just endless and that’s why I’ll probably be doing this for another 500, 600 episodes, who knows because there’s so much to actually talk about. There’s so much, there’s so many different angles to take things, so many different things to practice and just personal goals to achieve. It’s such a rich thing. I mean, it’s just amazing. It’s an amazing blessing to be a musician. You taught that to me too so I really appreciate that. Okay, let’s go a little bit away from, let’s close up the show here with just some questions about you maybe. What’s one of the best musical moments you’ve ever had?

Justin: I have to again go back to, boy, this is good. I had about five come to my head. I’m not going to say them all. I will start with I do initially start thinking about some experiences I’ve had with my students where the music they’re making surprises me in the most delightful and wonderful ways and they’re doing things that never in my wildest dreams I ever think I would be doing. I find that to be the most intoxicating experience, one of the most intoxicating experience I’ve ever had. That happens, I can think of a few but it probably won’t be of interest of the audience except just to know that for those of you who feel like teaching could be what you end up doing, it’s an incredibly rewarding thing to do.

Then in terms of concerts, I’m in a band right now actually that I have that every time we play it feels like Christmas to me. It’s a band called, you know that feeling Christmas eve when you were a kid you can’t even sleep because you’re so excited. You actually know Kobie Watkins I think, Brent.

Brent: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Of course.

Justin: He has a band.

Brent: He played with Sonny Rollins for a while, right?

Justin: Yeah, he played with Sonny Rollins for years. He has a band called the Kobie Watkins Grouptet and we’re actually putting out our first record as a band this year most likely probably in April.

Brent: Oh man, that’s going to be great.

Justin: Playing with Kobie, Kobie’s one of my mentors and to play with him is always a mind-blowing experience. You know, if I was going to go with one experience, this was actually another show I was playing and it was with this incredible drummer, Ra Kalam Bob Moses, his name. We did this little mini tour. He teaches at New England Conservatory. My brother was there. Anyways, we did this set of dates in Idaho and that was one of these experiences that every one knows about when you’re working with someone who is just, I mean, he’s played with everyone. He is such a powerful force musically but we would play, it was actually an entirely free music.

We had no tunes, we’re playing entirely free. We would play a day and then we would have a four hour drive to the next thing, five hour drive. He would just tell us like I mean, he was quite obsessed with how the degree to which we were not hanging on this gig and it was hard as this is free music so it’s like, “I thought there’s no … ”

Brent: I thought we were hanging.

Justin: How can you not hang, it’s free but this is what’s interesting, it’s like again it’s this thing you’re talking about it but he’s trying to get to a place but he can’t describe it. We play again, we play again. It was the last date of that tour that’s probably the most transcendent musical experience I can remember and that it was a night of entirely free playing. What I realized, he was trying to get us to do as close as I can get to words which I really can’t but is that he wanted us to be dialed in to a degree that I just wasn’t used to like not letting go of this being like a cat sitting in front of a mouse hole waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for that mouse to come with every hair standing up on its neck waiting.

He was looking for, he was trying to get us to that place where we were in that kind of heightened state of awareness and then responding in the moment to what was really happening. That really affected the way I played music from then on. I will never forget that and that started actually a journey in music that we have new started touching upon. I’d say that, I think I pick that one.

Brent: Okay, wow, that’s awesome. That’s really cool. When you have those moments that’s when you remember what you’re doing all this for, like why you do it and what makes it so amazing. Justin, I want to thank you so much for being on the show but I know that there is a little more when you talk about I know that you have an eBook that you want to share with the audience today. If you listen to everything Justin is saying right now and you’re just inspired, as inspired as I am, you’re going to want to check some of the stuff out. Tell us about this eBook.

Justin: Okay, let me start with just the first couple sentences of it, not exactly but the concept of the book and that is, this is actually something I wanted to get to say during the thing and so I want to make sure it comes out. To me this is the most important advice I could give if I have two minutes.

Brent: Here it is. Here it is.

Justin: When I was a teenager and we talked about I discovered music and it gave me the sense of purpose and meaning and experiencing things I never felt before, and I feel like almost every musician deals with this. This is the devil on the shoulder, there’s this fear it’s like almost terror sometimes that, “Okay, I love this so much. Can it be taken away from me? Am I going to lose this at some point?” To me those nagging through that was always with me. For me my temptation and again this is especially for teenagers and maybe college students but really everyone but the temptation is then to take that fear and have that manifest the question of, “Okay, how can I leverage this gift in a way that I can make money so that it will never be taken away from me?”

I feel like I think most people deal with this fear and to me it’s a lot of what I’m trying to do with my students is have them understand that you can be, there is a way to be so committed to music and to internalize it so much that it can’t be taken away from you. My life have been a freelancer so there have been times when I had very little money, there have been times when the phone was ringing. Other times it wasn’t but my commitment to music there’s a way you can … You can get to a place where you don’t have to worry about the outer aspects of your career and having to have those in order to be able to make music, that’s something that you can create and have for yourself that nobody can take away from you.

I think that’s really important. Then, the other thing is there’s … Along the same lines, two reasons why a person might study and pursue music. One is to feel superior to others and comparison and rating, ranking, and assessing and all that goes with that. If you do it for that reason, you’ll fail a few times. It’s been a theme today anyways. Then you will quit because when you fail that means you lost something, you lost. The other reason you could have for doing music is to transform, this is what I think the purpose of music is to transform suffering into beauty through human connection. If by being of service to other people by doing that very thing, those moment we keep talking about with different musicians you’re doing that.

You’re taking your pain and something is happening. It’s turning, you’re using it. You’re turning it into something beautiful. If you do music for that reason, you’re going to fail more times than you succeed but you’re not going to quit because you know that people need this. People need to know that the world needs us to be making music and that to me that’s what I would want a young person to know or even a teacher. Just anybody to remember, because it’s easy to get caught up because it’s not like you don’t do competitions, you don’t go to school, you don’t work jobs and play weddings or whatever.

It’s easy to get too caught up in the rubric and the rating, the ranking, the assessing and forget that more basic reason why you’re making music. That has nothing to do with how many people are listening to you, that’s something you can just have for yourself. The eBook is basically advice that I would give to a young musician. It’s free and I actually don’t have product tied to it or anything. I just am offering it to people.

Brent: That’s so cool. Folks, that is the money lines right there. Everything you just said was absolutely pure gold. I know I’m excited to go check out this eBook and I want everybody who’s listening right now to stop what you’re doing, whether you’re on your run, whether you’re at the gym, whether you’re actually sitting down at a computer listening to this, whatever it may be I want you to go and I want you to go get Justin’s free eBook. It’s called, “Sing Your Song.” Where can they go get that at, Justin?

Justin: Okay, it’s at I guess I want to explain why that’s- that’s the website actually for my afterschool program that we didn’t talk about much but that’s the name of that. Then, there’s going to be a link to the eBook on that site. You can just get it there.

Brent: Okay, so cool.

Justin: There’s that.

Brent: Then I know you have one other thing you wanted to share.

Justin: Yeah, okay the other thing is the life I live is not for everyone but I actually am incredibly happy. I love my life. It has a lot to do with my career. I think if music is your life, I think it’s nice if it can be your career also because career is part of your life. I have a job running an afterschool music program mentoring like I’ve been talking about. Young songwriters and jazz musicians, young creative musicians. I only work part-time hours actually, I teach 16 hours a week around the business, and other three or four hours a week and I make a full-time wage doing it.

I make a really nice salary doing it and it frees me up to do my creative projects and it frees up my weekends and I can still play. If people are interested in learning how to do that yourself, I’m just looking for a handful of musicians that are really committed, dedicated, musicians that are trained in creative music mostly jazz. I’m looking to mentor some pretty self-motivated people to start your own business doing the same thing that I do. If that resonates with you, you could just give them my email address and I’ll just personally talk to anybody who wants to hear more about how we could-

Brent: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I have your email address. Your email address is [email protected], N-I-E-L-S-E-N. We’re going to have all this by the way in the show notes today at, episode 100. If you want any of this you can go check this out there. to get that free eBook and be sure to hit up Justin if you want to be part of his inner circle, if you want to get inside of what he actually does, if that sounds like something you’d be interested, I want you to do that right now.

Justin, again, thank you so much for being on the show. You meant so much to me in my life and the way you’ve just helped shape the direction that I’ve gone in. Like you were saying earlier how I found my own gifts, my own niche to go into with this music thing and no one can ever take that away from me and I can continue to enjoy music and a lot of that is because of you. I appreciate that and I appreciate you having on the show and just unloading a ton of value on my audience and I’m looking forward to maybe having you on some other time.

Justin: Thank you, Brent. I got to say I’ve been wanting to just be able to sit down and grab coffee together or something and talk like this and it’s cool that we got to do it in front of a bunch of people. It didn’t feel like it to me though, it felt really personal and awesome. I’m glad we got to do this.

Brent: Awesome, Justin. Thanks for being on.

Justin: Thanks, Brent.

Brent: All right, that’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for being here and I want to thank you again, our special guest, Justin Neilsen for being on the show today for just giving so much value. I really appreciate him being on for episode 100. Be sure to check out to get that free eBook and if you want to become part of his tribe, send him an email, all that can be found in today’s show notes which is, 100. All right, remember, if you want to be part of our raffle for this month for our birthday month, go to

For every single action item there you will get entered into additional points for our raffle. Win some prizes like our courses or eBooks. We don’t do this very often. This is a special occasion so be sure to take advantage of that and also at the same time help out the podcast. All right. Next week we are going to be having episode 101. I look forward to seeing you back then.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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