Mastering Blues Improvisation in 30 Days-Day One

A friend of mine emailed me a link the other day to a great blog post entitled “How to become a Master of improvisational blues guitar in one month“.  The writer of the article is Max Deutsch who describes himself as an “Obsessive Learner”.  Max has given himself a challenge to Complete 12 ridiculously hard challenges in 12 months.  Here is the list:

  1. November: Memorize the order of a deck of cards in less than 2 minutes
  2. December: Draw a realistic self-portrait
  3. January: Solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds
  4. February: Land a standing backflip
  5. March: Play a 5-minute improvisational blues guitar solo
  6. April: Hold a 30-minute conversation in Hebrew on the future of tech
  7. May: Build a self-driving car
  8. June: Develop perfect pitch — identify 20 random musical notes in a row
  9. July: Finish a Saturday NYT crossword puzzle in one sitting
  10. August: Complete one continuous set of 40 pull-ups
  11. September: Continuously freestyle rap for 3 minutes
  12. October: Defeat world-champion Magnus Carlsen at a game of chess

If you are like me, you probably will read Max’s list above and think “Wow!”  As I read some of Max’s posts on these 11 challenges I found myself feeling inspired!  How many of us go through life with such a drive and focus as this?  What could we do if we were to set a specific goal and wholeheartedly pursue it each month?

All of the goals above are impressive but today I want to focus on Max’s goal of improvising on a blues. (His other goal of interest to you might be #8, Developing Perfect Pitch, but that is for another blog post…..)  Let’s see what we can gain from Max’s blues mastery journey.  The goal Max set was this:

Can I play a stunning, expressive, and engaging 5-minute-long blues guitar solo after one month of intensive practice?

March 1st

On day one, Max first tries to tackle what the endpoint is for this goal.  How does he measure if it is successful or not?  He freely admits that words such as stunning, expressive and engaging are hard to quantify and are subjective.  He decides to further describe his goal as to “be good enough to keep the attention of those who listen for five straight minutes”.  In my mind, this is still subjective but it demonstrates the goal making process and how there has to be an endpoint that is in some way measurable.  Although still subjective, I guess if Max and the majority of his readers listen to his solo at the end of the month and feel he has met the goal, then he has met his goal.

As an example of setting a goal with an endpoint, You might decide that for the month of December you might work on your bebop scales.  If you leave it at that, what is the goal?  There really isn’t one.  It is too vague.  There is nothing to be measured or aimed for.  You might go through December haphazardly going through various bebop scales but what are you aiming for? How do you know when you have achieved it?

What if you made a more concrete goal with an endpoint?  “In December, I will work on dominant and major bebop scales in all 12 keys from tempos 60-320.  By December 31st I will record a video of me using bebop scales on Cherokee at xxx tempo.

Being more specific and detailed transforms a vague goal into a concrete aim that your mind can focus on.  To raise the stakes even more and maybe get the blood pumping,  you might decide to post this video on Facebook or even go to a local jam and play Cherokee with a band live.  The goal and end result has to be something that is challenging but that also motivates and excites you.

Any challenging goal you set will have some fear and anxiety attached to it. If it doesn’t, then it probably isn’t challenging enough.  Many of us tend to focus and obsess about the negative that could happen rather than the positive that will happen.  (Yes, I used the word will on purpose here…..)

When I was younger, I use to obsess with thoughts about what bad things might happen.  I would imagine the worst case scenario and dwell on it. I would picture myself on stage or at the audition totally messing up and failing over and over again.  I realized that this was causing a lot of anxiety in me so I decided to stop those thoughts immediately when they occurred.  Instead, I thought of the exact opposite positive thought.  I would put on recordings and imagine myself up on stage playing the solo I was listening to.  I would imagine every detail.  What I was wearing, how I was standing, the sounds of the crowd, the applause and cheers afterwards. If I had an audition, I would picture the room, the judge or judges, what I was wearing, what I would say, the confidence I projected, etc…  I would picture myself playing the piece perfectly and getting a perfect score.

This type of thinking and mindset started to change the way I felt about performing and playing.  It helped me become more excited and hopeful about where I was going and how I would do. After running the positive images through my mind so much it was hard to imagine that I wouldn’t do great.  Honestly,  after starting to think this way, I did do great!  Yes, there were times where I messed up or made a mistake but instead of being the nightmare I had expected the mistakes were more like irritating anomalies to me.  I would leave the performance or audition and instead of obsessing about the mistake (that is negative), I would turn it around and think about the 99% positive stuff I did.

Also notice in Max’s goal that he states “one month of intensive practice?”  It is obvious that Max is factoring in the work that needs to be done by the words “intensive practice”.  This is no “pie in the sky” dream that will somehow miraculously just happen with little or no effort.  Max has set the goal with the mindset “I need to work my butt off with focused diligent practice to make this happen!”

The second item Max tackles on day one is “Where is my starting point?”.  Any goal setting should start with a clear and honest evaluation of where you are currently at.  How are you going to know if you are making progress or on track to hit your goal if you don’t even know where you are at?  The first thing I do on day one of a new goal is write everything out.  If my goal is the bebop scales in all 12 keys I would get a piece of graph paper and write the 12 keys along the top.  Down the sides I would write tempo markings from 60 all the way up to 320 perhaps. I would draw lines across and down to create boxes that I could mark in.

I would then get out my metronome and see where I am at.  If I find I have the G7 bebop scale down from 60 to 320 then I would put an X on every box.  Why work on something that I already have down?  After figuring out what I have down and what I have to work on, then I can start moving forward.

As a side note:  My habit with these checkboxes, is to put an X when I have it down solid.  I have learned that even though I might get something down on one day, I might not have it down tomorrow or the next day.  My habit has been to put an X down when I have it down at a certain tempo.  The next day I try it again at that tempo.  If I do it perfectly, I put a dot in between two of the lines of the X.  the next day I do the same and the next day the same.  After four days there should be an X with four dots, each between each line of the X.  On the last day, if I do it perfectly again, I put a final circle around the whole X.  That signifies that I have it down and mastered at that tempo and can move on.  If I try it on one of those days and can’t do it, then I work on it and practice until I can do it but that doesn’t get the dot or a circle.  That only comes when I can do it the first time perfect……….This process helps me to not only perfect things I am practicing but also get the repetition in that is needed to solidify them in my brain.

Lastly, Max writes about his influences.  This is so important in any goal setting because you want to learn from the past great players that came before you and already did the work.  It is also important because you need to focus on who and what your influences will be during this time.  Who and what do you want to sound like?  You can’t copy and sound like everyone in 30 days but you can copy and sound like someone in 30 days.  Max picks B.B. King and John Mayer.  He also adds that stylistically he likes the blues playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King.  He picks four players of the blues that he is passionate about.  Four players that represent what he would love to sound like and play like in 30 days.

Now, if I had to guess, I would guess that Max started listening to those four players on an endless loop from Day 1. Over and over again. The great thing about music is that you can have it playing wherever you go and behind whatever you do.  It’s going into your ears and whether you realize it or not, I believe your brain is learning from it.  The sound and bend of the scoop, the phrasing of the lines, the space in between the lines, the flow of the lines moving up and down, the shape of the lines, the emotion and energy connected to the lines, the tone and sound of each note, etc……All this information is going into your ears and being processed and experienced to some degree by your brain.

Notice that although Max picks four different players he adds this:

Nevertheless, I can probably learn from all these guitarists, blending their styles with my own sensibilities to create my ideal sound.

It is clear that Max just doesn’t want to mimic or sound exactly like any of these players but instead, he has a clear vision in his mind of mixing the best elements of each together with his own sensibilities to create “my ideal sound“.  Even on Day 1, Max is making it personal and envisioning himself playing and expressing himself with “his ideal sound”.  The end goal is to take from these masters , combine everything with his own desires, feelings and sensibilities and then produce something of his own.

I also want to point out that although Max is picking four different players, they are players that are in the same vein and style of music.  They are players whose styles can be put together.  I think that is important.  I get emails from sax players all the time and I read things like “I want to sound like a combination of Michael Brecker, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond and Clarence Clemons. (Ok, maybe not that extreme…..)  My point being that Max picked four players that have aspects of their playing of the blues that he loved and would love to play.  He might love other players as well but for the purpose of this 30 day goal, it probably wouldn’t be helpful to pick B.B King, Allan Holdworth, John Scofield, and Ozzy Osbourne.  I think you get my point……..

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to take a look at Max’s musical journey and to see what we can learn from him.  If you are like me, you probably will jump to the last day and listen to his end result to see if all this is worth it.  You might have already done that.  If you listen to the Day 6 video and compare it to the last day their is definitely a vast improvement in my opinion.

I’m looking forwarding to going through each day and seeing what we can learn about goal setting, practicing, and moving forward in our own musical journeys.

Do you set monthly goals?

Are you working towards a specific goal?

Why are you practicing?  What do you see yourself achieving this week?  this month?  this year?

Let me know what you think in the comments below.   Thanks,   Steve

 

 

 

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Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 25 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site Neffmusic.com.

Comments

  1. Another interesting post, Steve. It’s not enough to practice a lot, you have to practice a lot and be intelligent about it. If you don’t learn how to listen to yourself objectively your progress will be slow.

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