Improving Your Playing: What’s Your Story?

Q: What are you personally working on to improve your playing?

A: Okay, getting more personal than usual here

I am in a constant state of flux with my practice habits. Different things bug me about my playing depending on the gigs I have one week versus the next, causing me to switch gears and focus.

Lately, I’ve been focusing on three areas of my playing:

  1. Grooving both harder and with a better use of space
  2. Playing through changes
  3. Soloing more melodically

I always assess a need and then try and attack it head on in as smart a way as possible.

The groove story:

I went a bit crazy while listening to one of my older gig recordings. I was playing with a funk/jam-type band, and while it grooved hard and the band loved the stuff, I felt like I was overplaying – a lot.

What do I do about that? I dug through my music collection and started both:

  1. Filling my iPod with the types of groove players I wanted to emulate (Meters, Stevie Wonder, Lettuce, D’Angelo…), and listening to it a lot in an attempt to internalize the mindset and sound. I realize that I get too busy when I listen to too much fusion, modern/aggressive NYC-style jazz, and so on. So I go back to basics (BASSics, if you will indulge that).
  2. I focus on learning the grooves which perk my ears when I hear them. I’ve been sitting down with old school funk and groove stuff and learning that stuff note-for-note!


This is a life-long thing for me, and my work never changes gears as it relates to playing through chord changes on jazz standards and other charts. I just keep working on them!

My typical practice routine for changes:

  1. Voice leading chords through changes
  2. Walking scales through changes (changing my scale with every chord change, but always walking in half or whole steps)
  3. Exploring different scales to play over any given chord

Soloing melodically:

I’ve always wished my soloing would be more organic, and more like a soul singer might sing over any given set of changes. In other words, I’ve always wanted to solo like a Stevie Wonder melody.

So I’ve been focusing on learning the melodies for the songs I like. If I hear a beautiful melody, I’ll figure it out, and then examine how they are moving through the changes. I’ve also been just really listening to the shapes of the sounds and have been practicing playing 100% by ear over tunes I don’t know.

I’m trying to develop both my ears and the real feel for a more blues-rooted vocal style in my note choices.

I’ve also been singing licks over tunes and then trying to play them on my bass. Anything I can think of to better connect my hands and my ears (with a detour around the brain, if you know what I mean).

I hope that gives you some insight both into what I use to develop my voice as well as (and more importantly) what you might do to better develop your voice.

Readers, how would you answer this question? Share your story in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Playing 100% by ear over changes you don’t know/see written down is something I’ve practiced before. It really helps train your ear to be able to hear where the chords want to move to. Its great.

  2. and.. adding to the list of tunes I have memorized is a big one for me right now. Getting so I don’t have to use a chart to play the 50 most called jazz standards around, you know the ones. Gotta just know them. Cold.

  3. In reference to what Ben said, many times with RYG Gospel we are called to back a singer on a song we’ve never done before or perhaps maybe the keyboard/guitar player knows it. Many times, we are called upon to back a guest pianist who is leading a visiting choir. This is when your ear really has to be locked in. Not only that, but you have to accomodate the feel of R&B or something similar with many. Knowing your major/minors and practicing hard daily on your intervals is mandatory. You have to know your chord structures cold. When you practice your scales, develop different interval patterns. The ones you wouldn’t normally use in a song. We are accustomed to certain intervals rolling into the next, so practice the oddball ones. I usually go to my Yamaha and come up with a series of 8-16 bar passages with real off the wall changes and then record them into the keyboard and then play them back. Then, overlay different ‘drumset’ and percussion styles behind those forcing you to develop lines that fit that pocket. Use different tempos. In a church as in a jazz club settting, you’ll get hit with new stuff quick with no real chance to even see a chart so all of the above isn’t ‘over the top.’

  4. Practice the standards, develop various melodies over the same changes, learn the chord structures, listen to players you like, sing your solos and then play them. become a life long learner.

  5. thanks for you r teaching us.