Pedagogy

  • The Pool Principle

    The ability to improvise effectively over the ii-V7-I progression has long been a hallmark event for musicians studying jazz. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a jazz standard or song from the Great American Song book that does not include at least one of these tried and true sequences. 

    As an improviser and educator, I do my best with students to relate playing over different sequences, chord qualities, etc, to something visual and often times, unrelated to music. This is especially true when discussing how to negotiate the ii-V7-I progression. 

    How many of you have been to the swimming pool before? My guess is that most of you have; if you have not, you’re missing out! At many pools there is a diving board and as I thought about how to relate playing over the ii-V7-I to my students, I thought about the sequence of diving from the board into the water. At first, these two things seem completely unrelated, but with a little bit of imagination, I’ve found my students have found the following concept immensely helpful in their ability to play over this progression. 

    To fully understand how this concept works, it’s first important to identify some common problems that students encounter when attempting to integrate vocabulary over this sequence. Often, I find the sheer number of options in terms of what to play over each chord, can be overwhelming; especially when a young student is first attempting to play over the sequence. Repetition is our friend and so that brings us to the first part of the “pool principle”. 

    Enter the “diving board”. Barring some seismic event, a diving board will always stay in its place; cemented firmly in the ground. For me, this is representative of the material I have my students play over the “ii-“ chord. As diagramed below, you can see that the harmonic information is a mixture of a D-7 arpeggio and scale steps that are all diatonic to D dorian minor with the exception of the tone Gb, which is a chromatic passing tone to where it’s headed, which is F natural on the downbeat of measure two. The information is effective both in the fact that it clearly outlines the harmonic shape of the chord and it also conveniently sets up the next chord in the progression via the chromatic passing tone on the upbeat of beat 4.

    Just as there are three parts to the ii-V7-I sequence, there are three parts to a diving sequence. Having already made our way down the board, it’s time for us to make the “jump”, or to play over the “V7” chord. If we look to history as any indication, the V7 chord is where we as improvisers can get away with a lot of things harmonically, provided our ears are trained well enough to make a strong resolution that ties the line together. In any scenario, when you “jump” into the water, no matter how many times you run from the board, your jump will always be slightly different than the time previous. What this translates to me harmonically is simply how safe or daring we choose to be as improvisers. Looking at figure 1a below, you can see that the information over G7 is again a mixture of scale steps and skips and it remains entirely diatonic to the key. Similarly, in figure 1b the shape of the line remains the same yet the harmonic information deviates slightly to allow for some non-diatonic tones to be introduced which create some harmonic tension. Perhaps the “jump” for figure 1b was a belly-flop! Along those lines, what would a cannonball sound like? What would an acrobatic flip sound like? 

    The only remaining part of our harmonic journey is the destination; better known as the I chord. For our visual, this brings us to the water. Again, all things being equal, the water in the pool is more or less going to be the same. Thus, the way we resolve our ideas from the “jump” to the “water” will be to resolve to basic chord tones; specifically, the Root, 3rd and 5th as diagrammed by figures 1c, 1d, and 1e below. Notice that the harmonic information over the “ii” chord as well as the “I” chord is very much the same in each of these examples. What changes each time through is which notes gets played over the V7 chord as well as the slight change in resolution depending upon whether the line is headed towards the Root, 3rd or 5th of the I chord. 

    An everlasting characteristic about improvising is imagination. As an educator, I’m passionate about connecting students to visualizations that go beyond the notes and rhythm and engage the brain in synthesis of the information from different perspectives. 

    I’ve found that in addition to using this visualization to teach how to play over the standard ii-V7-I progression, it has worked wonders when implying tried and true harmonic substitutes to play in place of the V7 chord. For example, a more advanced improviser will inevitably find themselves grappling with how to play over the “tritone sub” in place of the original V7 chord. 

    By keeping the “diving board” or the the material over the “ii-“ chord more or less the same, as well as resolving to a simple chord tone on the I chord (water), it provides the student with a higher success rate when integrating this harmonically unfamiliar sound in place of the V7 chord. The same ideology can be used to work on implicating other sounds over the V7 chord such as “altered”, “diminished” “back door ii-V7” and the “tri-tone ii-V7” sub. The more a student has something to hang their proverbial hat on when improvising, the more it alleviates stress when trying to integrate an a new harmonic sound/device. 

    Whether you have water-wings or you are an olympic high-diver, I believe there is merit to the aforementioned ideas and I hope you find the information fun and useful with your students! So, jump in, the water’s warm!

    Written by: Adam Larson

  • Three Little Words: What's Your Fee?

    As a musician, I find that one of the most difficult things to do is to negotiate fees for yourself for performances, recordings, etc. As an artist, I can relate to what I believe holds truth for many of my colleagues, which is that we often are so wrapped up in our practicing that when we get offered an opportunity to showcase our abilities, we have a hard, sometimes agonizing time, naming our price!

    Many performance opportunities that I’ve had in New York City come with a payment structure already set-up, which for better or for worse, takes the negotiating skills out of the conversation. The advice in this article is geared more towards the musician who has an opportunity to define what (amount) and how they want to be paid for a performance.

    Through conversations with many peers and colleagues, I’ve found that it would seem that many people tend to either undervalue (ask too little) their performance or ask for a figure that is so ridiculously high that a potential talent buyer couldn’t possibly take them seriously. Here lies the important question – How do I price myself in the ballpark without high- or low-balling myself?

    Over the course of my career thus far I’ve had an opportunity (and continued opportunities) to refine the process that has worked for me in answering this question. In the 12 years that I’ve been a part of price negotiations, I’ve never once had someone respond in a way that brought the conversation to a grinding halt. Each potential gig should be viewed as its own situation and thus the prices you set for yourself should welcome flexibility.

    One of the most important factors in pricing yourself for any particular event, is to look to history as in indicator. What has the status quo been for groups who have played this event in the past? Have groups played this gig in the past?

    In the beginning of negotiations I always give the talent buyer an opportunity to give me more information than perhaps they should. A smart talent buyer will always keep their cards close to their chest and put the onus on the artist to name a price first, because that will give them an idea of where the artist’s head is at. If by chance you come across a talent buyer who is transparent enough to tell you exactly what budget they are working with, this is a huge advantage to you as the artist, as it gives YOU a clear indication of where THEIR head is at.

    Let’s explore the more common of the two scenarios:

    After you’ve solicited the talent buyer for information about pay scale/structure, and they’ve come back and basically put it on you to “make the first move”, there are SEVERAL things you should consider before jumping the gun and naming ANY price; high or low. Factors that should cross your mind are travel, accommodations, incentives, etc. However, these considerations are extremely vague, and if you make the mistake of not considering each of them in-depth, chances are you will pay for it by quoting yourself too low. So, let’s break down each of them.

    “Travel” – You should be thinking about how much time it’s going to take you to get to the gig- that could mean “oh the gig takes 45 minutes to get to for me AND MY SIDEMEN”, or it could be complex…Perhaps as the leader you have to fly in and fly out to the gig, and your sideman are the people doing the driving to the gig. If anyone has to fly, you would be wise to consider the time spent getting to and from the gig that is involved to play the gig, and figure that into your overall quote. Time is money and although a performance may be a 60-minute engagement on one afternoon, if it takes you a total of 2-3 days to complete the gig, you should absolutely consider this when working on your quote. Make sure you are clear on whether or not the talent buyer will pay for your travel or if it is the responsibility of the artist; this should greatly affect your quote as well.

    “Accommodations” – Make sure that the talent buyer is committed to your housing situation. Do not ever assume anything- if you want a 4-star hotel with a gym, specify it! You may not get it, but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t say anything.

    “Incentives” – make sure you and the talent buyer are clear on how your merchandise can/cannot be sold. If you take a gig at a lower quote with the assumption that you can make some more money on the top in merchandise and you get to the gig and you find out otherwise, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot; twice. As an aside, you can maximize your total sales by using a tactful incentive for the audience members, pending the situation. For instance, let’s say you play a concert at a Church and you’re selling CD’s for $15. What would happen if you decided to let the audience know that 20% of all CD’s were going back to the Youth Programs that day. I don’t know about you, but if pre-announcement I stood to sell maybe 3 CD’s and collect $45, and post-announcement I sold 10 CD’s at $12/piece, I’d be much happier to come away with almost three times the profit and you get to do something to give back – isn’t that slick?

    It should go without saying that ALL of this should be specifically detailed in a CONTRACT! I could write an entire post about the importance of contracts, but suffice it to say that before you call anyone or make any plans for a gig, you should absolutely have a signed and countersigned copy of a contract, ensuring that everything has been accounted for. After being burned on a deal when I was 18 and having to go through a lengthy series of calls, emails and lawyers this past summer, I can’t stress how important it is to get a deposit for your gig upon execution of a signed contract. To me, this shows the talent buyer that you’re serious and in return, by them paying you a deposit (at least 50%), it shows you that they are equally as serious. As artists, we don’t have time to deal with payment headaches, so I highly recommend adding this to your contract if it is not already a part of it.

    I hope at the very least that this article has been thought provoking and ultimately helpful.

    Good luck!

    Adam Larson