Practicing “Autumn Leaves” and the DIY, Micro Jazz Studies Degree
Confession: When I started Nanoversity of Jazz, I only had a rough idea of what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to set up a small-scale, higher-education-like digital platform, but my life was too chaotic to get more specific than that. Now that I have a full-time job, I empathize with a lot of my students. We want our often brief practice to have the same focus of a college or university study. I realized what I wanted was a “DIY, Micro Jazz Studies Degree.” I wanted to review the material I learned as an undergraduate and acquire knowledge I missed out on by not doing my master’s work in jazz studies.
As with My Clinical Research Day Job, I’ll be assigning four monthly modules. You can do one module per week or do all four in one week and repeat (or substitute other tunes). Each module should take approximately one hour. Each month, the assignments will get progressively harder. In keeping with the season, this month’s tune is “Autumn Leaves.”
Jazz History | There are two approaches you can take to learning jazz history. First, you can track down several classic recordings of the tune you’re learning (this article has several great suggestions). Second, you can listen to the full album of a definitive recording of the tune. I’m going with the second approach using Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else recording of “Autumn Leave” (see YouTube video below). While you’re listening, check out the Wikipedia page for the album and do a deep-dive into the biographies of all the musicians and producers.
Theory | There are tons of online articles out there analyzing this tune (see above and this one), but for now I want to focus on analyzing and playing scales. Setting aside the tri-tone substitutions in the C Section, you play all the modes of the Bb Major scale (with one alteration). See below for analysis. Practice playing one- or two-octave scales for each mode (or simplify things and just play the first five notes of each). Set your metronome to 100-135 BPM and play quarter-notes or swung eighth-notes.
Composing/Arranging | Each month, try to write some sort of original musical idea for a given tune. For this month, try composing a bassline. Be sure to include technical notes and harmonic analysis (see image above). If you’re not sure how to compose a bassline, use this as a guide.
Repertoire | For this month, focus on learning three things on your instrument: 1) your written bassline (see above), the tune’s melody, and a solo based on the tune’s scales (see below). If you’re a drummer, voice the melody on your instrument and try to learn all three things on piano, vibes, or voice.
Cmin7: C Dorian (2nd Mode of Bb Major) | C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb (1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7)
F7: F Mixolydian (5th Mode of Bb Major) | F-G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb (1-2-3-4-5-6-b7)
Use a durable folder. Your practice folder is a critical tool for your High Intensity Interval Practice. The first step is to find a high-quality practice folder. Personally, I use a 2” three-ring binder with plastic sheets for papers. You may want to use tabs to divide 5-week sessions.
Print out a 5-week schedule. Because you will be working in 5-week sessions, it’s important to track your goals and progress. Figure out a calendar format with information for each practice day. Be sure to list your practice goal somewhere on your schedule. If you’re working on an 8-, 10-, or 12- week practice schedule, adjust your calendar format.
Print out leadsheets for each tune. Even if you aren’t working on the melody in your practice, it’s important to have leadsheets for each tune. If you’re only practicing one tune, file the leadsheet after your schedule (see above). If you’re practicing more than one tune, place leadsheets in the order that you will practice (or perform) them. As you learn more repertoire, you should include a list of tunes you’ve learned at the front or back of your practice folder.
Write out your practice etudes. While we’ll go more into this in Week 3, for now, it’s important to know that you need to create practice materials. An etude is any piece of music used for learning purposes. In addition to the melody (which is written on the leadsheet), other types of etudes include basslines, arpeggios (of each chord), chord-scales, and written or transcribed solos. If you’re new to practice, you should consult with an instructor for etude ideas.
Make technical notes. To optimize your practice, write out any notes about technique. This could include rhythmic subdivisions, fingering numbers, and bowing patterns. As with practice etudes, you may want to consult with an instructor for help with this step. Once you have your practice folder ready, you’re ready to move onto HIIP workouts – which will cover in next week’s posts!
Pick no more than 5 tunes at a time. In jazz, there’s constant pressure to learn and memorize dozens, if not hundreds of tunes. Instead, focus on learning 1-5 tunes at a time (over a 5-week period). This will help you stay focused and avoid getting overwhelmed. Even if you only memorize one tune at a time, you’ll learn 10 tunes a year!
Pick a theme for your tunes. When you pick your 1-5 tunes, have them all be part of theme that fits your practice goal. If you’re preparing for a performance, they should all be concert repertoire. If you’re trying to learn a particular genre, the tunes should all be representative of that style (or arranged in that style). As your practice goals change, so will your repertoire themes.
Listen to as much music as possible. The best way to select repertoire is to listen to as much music as possible. YouTube, Pandora, and high-quality radio stations are all great sources of tune ideas. Be sure to schedule time for listening as you would practice – workday commutes are an especially good time. Be sure to have a way to jot down the names of tunes that you like.
Listen to as many versions of a tune as possible. Once you’ve figured out a tune that you would like to learn, research it and track down as many versions as you can find. As you listen, make sure it is level-appropriate – that it will be challenging to learn, but not completely overwhelming. If possible, follow along with a leadsheet (see below) to really learn the tune. The more deeply you know the tune, the easier it will be to practice.
Track down a high-quality leadsheet for the tune. If you’ve selected a jazz tune, you’ll want to procure a leadsheet (a simplified chart with melody and chord changes) for it. Leadsheets are available in “Fakebooks” (which you can purchase in music stores) or for individual online download. Make sure the leadsheet is legible and has the correct chord changes (some tunes have multiple variations, so you’ll need to pick the one that works best for you). Once you have tune(s) and leadsheet(s), you’re ready to create a practice folder – which we’ll cover in tomorrow’s post!
Having a single focus will turbocharge your practice!
To get the “Intensity” in High Intensity Interval Practice, you need to be hyper-focused. A good way to do this is to identify a primary goal. In a later post, we’ll talk about recording your goals in your practice folder. Today’s post is about what to think about when selecting your practice goal. I’ll share my goals, then give you some ideas for figuring out your own.
The simplest goal is preparing for a specific concert. If you’re a beginner, you can organize informal jams or house concerts to gain performance experiences. As soon as you’re able to, try to get plugged in with a college or community group that performs regularly. When preparing for a performance, be sure to budget adequate time to learn repertoire. As a bonus, your repertoire will be picked for you (we’ll cover tune selection in tomorrow’s post).
Another effective goal is to learn more about a specific domain of a certain genre. Maybe you want to learn Latin drum grooves or other timekeeping goals. Maybe you want to memorize several jazz standards in all 12 keys or other melodic goals. Maybe you want to solo in odd time signatures or other soloistic goals. As you gain more experience with HIIP, you’ll get better at crafting these types of goals.
For the next five weeks, my goal is to prepare for an upcoming Gypsy jazz concert. Because my time is limited (5 minutes a day, plus time for setup and tuning), I need to stick to the timekeeping domain. This will involve practicing basslines in the upper and lower registers of the bass (something that is technically challenging). In the future, I want to practice melodies in the upper register (melodic domain) and solo material – such as scales, arpeggios, etc. (soloistic domain). It’s important for me to stay focused and address each of these one at a time.
Today, take 5 minutes to answer the following questions and craft your own, single-sentence goal:
Is there a specific performance that I can prepare for?
What genre(s) am I interested in learning?
Which domain – timekeeping, melodic, or soloistic – do I wish to focus on?
Tomorrow, you’ll pick tune(s) to help support your primary practice goal!