Master a Jazz Standard in One Month

(Scroll to the end to get the list of daily tasks. I’m going to start with a few words about when I tried my list for the first time last month. This list is mainly for wind instrument players.)

Although I have very little drawing experience, in October I participated in Inktober, where you get a daily prompt and draw something. I was telling a student about it and we thought, “It would be fun to do something like that with jazz!” So I came up with a list of daily activities based on my years of teaching and tried it out last month for myself. I called it January Jazz, and I went for broke, deciding to finally tackle Lush Life, which has long been a favorite but it’s never called at gigs, and it’s daunting.

I made each day’s task short and easy to understand. At first I thought maybe I’d made them too simple, as on day 8 I still didn’t feel like I could handle the song. Even around day 14 I was disappointed. BUT. Sure as Billy Strayhorn is a genius, around day 26 I played a solo that I actually LIKED. And I don’t like much.

There was one task I should add to this list on one of the easy days, and that is memorizing the lyrics if your song has lyrics. I did so with Lush Life, and it’s very important for phrasing and also for the feeling behind your solo.

And there was one task I didn’t complete. I did not get very far with analyzing Coltrane’s solo. I picked out a few “destination” notes and found out what part of the chord they were and just didn’t feel like I had the focus to do it all. Call it pandemic brain, call it old age, call it the bad influence of short tweets. Whatever. I just didn’t have the mental capacity that day.

One more note. I am vehemently against teaching by scales. There are chord tones and passing tones and purposeful outside tones. The end.

Anyway, here’s the list! I’m going to use it again in March with my friend Bobby’s suggestion, Wayne Shorter’s “Yes and No.” (Or Yes OR No, depending on who you ask.)

  1. Choose a song and listen to 3 versions of it. Make sure it’s a song you can find a background for. I use the irealpro app.
  2. Write out or print out the melody and chords–a lead sheet.
  3. With the background (these are always with the background, I’ll stop saying that now) play through the melody 3x and mess around with the melody 3x.
  4. Write out the chord tones including extensions.
  5. Play 5x using only one note for each chord. (Different each time through.) Did you find any voice leading you like?
  6. 5x arpeggiating each chord. Maybe from the bottom up, then up one and down another, etc. All from the bottom up is fine if you have a challenging song.
  7. Figure out what part of the chord each melody note is.
  8. Solo 5x however you want.
  9. Solo 5x using only chord tones.
  10. Solo 5x however you want but make sure you use eighth note triplets a couple times and quarter note triplets a couple times.
  11. Solo 5x however you want.
  12. Solo 5x, each time thinking of a different sentence and using only the rhythm of that sentence.
  13. Solo 5x. If your song has any ii-V-I’s, play 1,2,3 over the ii, 1,2,3 over the V, and a 1 on the I.
  14. Listen to 3 more versions of the song.
  15. Solo 5x however you want.
  16. Play the melody, solo 3x, and play melody again.
  17. Try the song in a different key.
  18. Back to the original key, solo however you want.
  19. Solo 5x using only longer notes the first time.
  20. Solo 5x trying to depict a different color each time.
  21. Try the song in yet another key.
  22. Take one of the solos you listened to on either day 1 or 14 and figure out which chord tone each note is. Also, what sorts of rhythms did they use?
  23. Solo however you want. Go particularly crazy!
  24. Listen to a woman instrumentalist if you didn’t before. Consider sharing her on your social media.
  25. If possible, record yourself or play for someone else.
  26. Tell someone why the blues scale doesn’t work just anywhere.
  27. Solo 5x. Any time there’s a V7-I, play the 7 of the V7 and the 3 of the I.
  28. Solo 5x pretending you’re your favorite jazz artist.
  29. Play 2x pretending your favorite jazz artist is in the audience. Play 2x pretending you’re playing for a preschool class.
  30. Solo however you want.
  31. Pick a new song!

Jazz, Interrupted

Though my private students have continued on FaceTime, Covid19 has stopped our jazz class for the time being. I thought I’d write about 1) what I miss, 2) what to do right now, and 3) what I look forward to when this is all over.

What I Miss

Of course I miss the just being together. I miss the laughing. We can chat on Zoom, but I do miss being in the same room. What can’t be replicated at all on Zoom is the musical interaction. There was one site that dangled the carrot of playing together with no delay, but that turned out not to be true. It seemed impossible, and it was. By the time one person hears the other and plays along, the first person hears everything off from each other. I miss the class playing together! In my personal playing life, I had recently started playing with a sax player who really seemed to enjoy improvising together with me. In another band I had just started to play with, the trumpet player and I hadn’t played together for 20 years. Reunion, interrupted. Income, interrupted.

What to Do Right Now

I hope you all have iRealPro. You can put their list of jazz standards on your phone and practice improv on your own. You could learn a new song every day (google to print out melodies) and still not be through the list when the world starts back up again!
You can listen to jazz on YouTube. An endless list! (Don’t forget to find women artists.)
You can make videos of yourself playing and share them with the group.
You can write a song about how you feel, with or without words.
You can message me for input. I’m still here for you.
You can message and chat with each other.

What I Look Forward To

I know it seems like this “distancing” thing is going to be forever, but it’s not going to be forever. It’s okay to miss playing together. It’s okay to feel sad. I do! We’re all missing playing together and missing friends and missing events, and we’re all having trouble wrapping our minds around what is happening. It’s okay if you don’t feel like playing with iRealPro or searching YouTube for jazz. Take it easy on yourself! But we will be back together before too long, and I look forward to finding a cool harmony or pretending to be a llama or spontaneously deciding to play Heart and Soul in a minor key. And it’s going to happen! Even if you’re graduating this year, you are welcome to come back. I’ve never looked forward to anything more!



Music Lessons During Social Distancing

I have been teaching classical trombone and jazz improv lessons since getting my music degree in 1996. When the coronavirus Covid19 hit and large gatherings were discouraged and I couldn’t gig, I lost about a third of my income. When a Bay Area shelter in place directive seemed imminent, my first thought was, “Oh my goodness, there goes the other two thirds.”

All of my friends who taught out of their homes (I teach at a store called Music To My Ears) immediately offered their students lessons via FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype. Technologically challenged, I froze. I had only used FaceTime before, and only when someone called me.

But I messaged my students and offered the FaceTime option for today. All but one of my Monday students took me up on the offer. I was glad that they’ve known me for a while and wouldn’t mind my fumbling with the details. I went to the music store so that I’d be there for the one student who wanted to come in, but as soon as I got there I had a message from them saying they’d like to FaceTime, too. By this time, six counties in the Bay Area had ordered a shelter in place, and I figured Sonoma County would follow.

My first student was the one who had decided at the last minute not to come in, and I was grateful, because they said it was because their parent worked at a hospital. It took us ten minutes to connect because neither of us thought to check that they had FaceTime on their phone,  but I was pleasantly surprised by how clear the sound was.

My second student, like the first, was all set up and ready. We talked about what a weird time it was. We went through the Arban book and talked about their maybe having a second phone next time so that they could use the iRealPro app like we usually do at the end of lessons. (Or a metronome.)

Another student brainstormed about what we could do with recording duets with a time lapse. I told them to take pictures of any music they printed out to learn so that I could see what I was supposed to be listening to.

In the end, what I was most happy about was not the relative security of my income but the chance to give a sense of normalcy to my students, and even to myself. I was so impressed that they were already social distancing so completely and so prepared for this new FaceTime challenge. I was so happy to see them.

A local news person posted tonight that Sonoma County will have some form of sheltering in place tomorrow. It’s a new world. There’s no doubt that in-person lessons are best, but for now I’m so happy to see my kids and give them the weekly dose of one on one attention they have gotten used to and, I hope, love.

If your young trombone player would like a few lessons via FaceTime during this crazy shelter-in-place, send me a message for pricing. 

On Jazz and Rock and Starting a Band

This post is not necessarily a “how to,” but  I’m excited to share about starting my own band for the first time at age 46, and maybe you will glean something from it.

First, my music history. I have a degree in music (trombone) and most of my paying gigs (besides teaching) had been pit orchestras, churches, and the like. Then about three years ago I joined a five piece band that gigged every weekend. There were improv solos, the people danced, and it was good. I left the band three months ago. It was a difficult time, and when a woman who works at one of the venues we played heard, she told me that if I put together a group she would book us. I figured other venues might do the same, and I began to think about the group I would like to have.

I don’t consider myself a natural leader, but I realized that the only way to have exactly what I want is to create it myself. And what I felt like in the moment was hard rock. After being the only woman in my previous band, I also felt like finding a group of women.

There are some nice things about being 46. One of them is that you’ve met a lot of people and they know you can play. I found a bass player quickly (my friend Tami) and then I started asking around. It turns out that someone I knew as a woodwind teacher was mainly a drummer. The singers who popped into my mind were too busy, but I asked a trusted singer friend for a recommendation, and the first name she gave me turned out to be a gem of a voice and person. I decided to bring in a token man, a trumpet player I hadn’t played with since college who has since toured with some big names. If there’s any instruction in this, it’s to be patient. Yes, I’d like to get back to my previous income, but I definitely don’t want to end up with someone who doesn’t fit. I was very careful and, against everything in my impatient soul, never put out an all call. Another thing that’s nice about being a little older is that the other members (mostly younger than me but still several years out of music school) knew what THEY wanted, too. They knew where they want to gig, how much money they want to make, and what kind of music they want to play. There’s every indication that we will work well together. And have FUN together.

Next I started writing and arranging. One thing I learned from my last band is that you write very differently for gigs where people want to dance than for an album or concerts where people sit in chairs. I’m moving on now, but I started with writing three hours of music that will, I hope, get people on the dance floor. One is even not so subtly named We Just Want You to Dance. They are all between 110 and 144 BPM. Now that I have a gig’s worth of dance songs, I am less restricted, and the best of the new stuff can join the best of the dance stuff on albums.

Another thing I learned in my last band is that booking gigs and showing up with the right equipment is hard work. I’m really glad I know that going in. Booking gigs takes pounding the pavement and having a social media presence.

Succeeding at gigs takes research into the setup of each venue. What is their sound system situation? How long do we have to set up? (Not that there aren’t surprises when you show up.) And by the way, know how much venues near you pay. How much will each band member take home? How will you pay for mics etc?

I lucked out in that the music store where I give lessons will let us rehearse there. I also lucked out that everyone in the band is probably capable of sight reading a gig. It’s actually hard to believe I’m so lucky to find these people. It’s hard to believe we’ll actually happen. But it seems to be happening! The harder you work, the luckier you get, as they say.

And as for jazz, well, it just so happens that everyone in the group has substantial jazz experience, so I have a feeling it will burst forth before too awfully long. It’s hard not to make this blog about my feelings. Blah blah blah I was sad, blah blah blah I’m afraid to hope. Blah blah blah sometimes jazz is too much. But I really just want to encourage anyone thinking about starting a group. Be patient, ask trusted musicians, put a ton of time into the writing/arranging, build a social media presence, and be prepared to have persistence when it comes to booking. Have fun, and tell me how it goes! 




International Day of the Girl Observations

Happy International Day of the Girl! It’s hard to believe that people are still having to fight for equal rights to education for girls around the world, equal legal rights, and the list goes on. It’s hard to believe that when you bring up industries that are male dominated, people still say “Maybe girls just aren’t interested in that field.” Girls today are being raised by parents who were raised by parents who believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Attitudes don’t flip like a light switch. We are all still affected.

Last night during jazz class, I hardly said a word. Observations: The girls got excited about arranging their own song, and I just sat back. One girl said, “Ooh what note is that? That sounds good.” They quickly figured out that it was a sharp nine and decided to make that chord a sharp nine. By the end of the hour they had decided on a road map and assigned someone to write a lead sheet before next week. A shouted “Let’s end on a five!” was voted down. They said “We’re going to have to stay ten extra minutes,” without consulting me. They decided to write some original tunes for a Sonoma Jazz Girlz album. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “Maybe girls just aren’t as interested in jazz.” It’s absolute nonsense.

8 Reasons to Keep Jazz in Your High School (#3 will shock you!)

Today a local music teacher announced that his high school’s administration plans to cut the jazz band class because it has fewer than 30 students. The teacher wrote a great letter requesting that the administration reconsider. I’d like to list his reasons along with my own here.

1. Jazz bands (“big bands”) are traditionally around 20 members. Jazz music is arranged for this specific instrumentation.

2. Most high schools fund a jazz class this size.

3. Not having a jazz program effectively prohibits students from majoring in jazz performance at college.

4. Jazz is THE American art form.

5. Jazz theory is complex and requires a highly qualified instructor. Club status would be severely limiting.

6. A jazz class sinking even below 20 students for a while is not an acceptable reason to cancel the class.

7. School jazz bands provide entertainment at school functions and community events.

8. Playing at community events brings positive attention to the school.

If I had a child planning on a career in music (I do) and they were zoned for a high school without a jazz class (they aren’t) I would, without a doubt, transfer them. Please keep jazz in your school!



Guest Blog on BrassChicks

Hey everyone,

Check out this guest blog I wrote for about jazz improv and women in jazz. Brass Chicks is all about brass—not necessarily jazz. Follow their blog!

Free Jazz Clinics (Or How to Get People to Understand)

When I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz, I emailed every high school band director in the county asking if I could come tell their band students about the class. Three directors responded. Maybe that’s about a quarter of the schools. We managed to add a fourth, and off I went to talk to the students.

I told the students how few women there are in professional jazz, and I told them what we’d learn in class. Organization and recruiting are not strong suits for me, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing all that. Ha! Not one girl signed up because of my visits. All my students came from their private teachers telling them about the class.

One problem is that high school band directors are ridiculously busy. I know that. Another problem is that there aren’t that many girls in their jazz groups for me to recruit. But I think another problem exists. I think that anyone who isn’t seriously focused on women in jazz can’t possibly understand why something needs to be done.

Here’s when it hit me. I have a friend. She is a professional classical musician. I’ll call her Nina. Nina has been incredibly supportive of my jazz class for girls. Classical music has plenty of problems with sexism. You’ve probably seen the stories about how many more women suddenly made it into orchestras when blind auditions were instituted. You may have seen recent stories about women suing to make as much money as men in comparable positions in orchestras. Nina has experienced plenty of frustration. I thought that if anyone understood, it was Nina.

Not long ago, Nina happened to get a glimpse of the jazz world. In the interest of anonymity, I won’t give details, but suffice to say, she IMMEDIATELY texted me and said “WE NEED TO GET MORE GIRLS IN JAZZ! I GET IT NOW!” If Nina, who had experienced being a woman in music and probably THOUGHT she knew the problem I was trying to address was so floored by a month or two in close quarters with jazz guys, how can I expect a high school girl to understand, or her male teacher, or her nonmusician parents? I’m afraid we all have a vague feeling that things are getting better, but numbers and anecdotes in the higher levels of jazz do not support this feeling.

My friend Tami, who is part of the angelic group of volunteers who come once a month to sight read with the Girlz, brainstormed with me recently. “How can I get them to understand the need?” I asked. Tami didn’t come up with an answer to that, but she did give me a great idea for recruiting. Last time, I only told the students about my class. Tami suggested I actually give a clinic. She, a former band teacher who knows me fairly well, was surprised by the quality of the class when she first came to help us out, and she thought the students and teachers would be more likely to get excited about signing up if they heard me play and experienced my teaching.

And so here’s my offer to every junior high or high school teacher in Sonoma County. I would love to come to your school one day this year and either work with your jazz band on the songs they’re learning (with an emphasis on any improv solos) or work on chords and improv in general. If your school has a budget for clinicians, great! If your school doesn’t have a budget for clinicians, I will come anyway.

Hit me up! See you soon!




Willow Weep For Me

All I wanted when I got to college was to fit in. An 18-year-old woman who felt like a girl, I sat in the top big band between two men in their late twenties and in front of and behind a couple more. The band had four or five women (actually pretty impressive), but I was the only first year.

One day early in the year, one of those men who seemed so ancient to me but probably had a lot of maturing to do and a lot of pain in his heart, looked past me to one of the other older men and made an inside joke about the song “Willow Weep for Me.”

I wanted to fit in.

I laughed.

Rookie mistake.

He glared at me and said, “You don’t even know what we’re talking about.” It wasn’t a joking “You’re my friend and I’m going to call you on that laugh and laugh about it with you,” it was a “You do not belong here.” Lest you think I’m misinterpreting, this was the same guy who had already told me I was in the top band because the director wanted to sleep with me, and he wasn’t kidding about that either. Although I know now he must have had pain in his heart, I still call him Dick Wilton in my memoir.

I always hated the song Willow Weep for Me after that. I’d never played it, but I heard it now and then.

I’ve blogged about quitting jazz before, so I’ll spare you the details. The short story is that after two years of college I quit jazz and finished my music degree just performing in symphonic band and brass ensemble and didn’t get back into jazz seriously until I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz about 20 years later.

In Sonoma Jazz Girlz, we use the iRealPro app (get this app!!!) when we don’t have a rhythm section. There’s a list called “1300 Jazz Standards,” and I chose a few songs from it to work on with the girls. After a couple months of showing the girls Youtube videos of female jazz instrumentalists, I finally thought, “Duh, I wonder if any of the 1300 jazz standards on my phone were written by women!”

There are precious few. One of them is Willow Weep for Me.

I Googled Willow Weep for Me and its composer, the successful and prolific Ann Ronell (1905-1993), and I wrote out lead sheets for that song with a little more pressure on my pencil than usual, thinking “That note is for you, Dick Wilton, and that fucking note, too. No, actually that note is for ME. This is MY. SONG. YOU were the joke. And you didn’t get it.”

In the beloved front yard of the beloved house where I grew up, we had a beloved weeping willow tree. Once, one of the major limbs broke off, and its many branches created a three-room home with green, leafy, walls glowing with sunlight. My dad let me play in it for a few days before getting out the chainsaw and hauling it away. I don’t remember what I did there. I probably brought out a pillow and a snack and a book and walked from room to room wishing I had beaded doorways in my house. Despite the tree’s name, I don’t remember ever thinking of it as weeping for me or anyone else. I thought of it as a secret, magical place of respite.

The beloved house where I grew up has since been sold, the beloved tree now entirely cut down. But I have my beloved jazz back, and I have my song—a place with many secret, magical rooms, and you can have your place, too, whoever you are.


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