Rhythmic Scales

Rhythmic Scale GraphicJazz is one of the many languages of the musical world, and those who wish to speak it in a spontaneous way must be familiar with its vocabulary and grammar.  Complete command  of all the scales and chords that are the building blocks of the repertoire is one of the minimum requirements, but oftentimes while practicing these elements, the student neglects the rhythmic aspects of this music.

While I do advocate practicing scales and arpeggios with swing inflection, the initial way this work is approached is usually with a steady stream of 8th notes.  Not a bad thing, for that alone allows for plenty of opportunity to find the magic of the groove.  However, the language of jazz is rich in its rhythmic diversity, and while we have the opportunity to learn and absorb some of that while playing the written repertoire, I don’t always hear those rhythms improvised fluently by beginning, and even intermediate improvisers.  We can’t fault their inexperience, for the nuances of our spoken languages are heard even in the youngest children, right from the time they begin speaking in sentences.

While listening to a recording of one of my student’s improvised performances, I could hear an obvious need for him to become more familiar with the chords and scales of the tunes.  His hesitation was hurting not only his ability to play longer phrases, but as a trumpet player, the singing quality of his airstream was also missing.  More striking though, was his underdeveloped rhythmic vocabulary.  This student is a good musician, with years of experience in the realm of classical music, so it seemed that he needed the direction of a better lesson plan from me…one that could simultaneously:

  1. strengthen his facility with the chords and scales
  2. help him create longer, more flowing phrases
  3. add to his familiarity with the music’s rhythmic vocabulary

We began by using music from his jazz group’s repertoire, in order to give him the added benefit of more practice time with those specific tunes.  Starting with the first chord (C7) of a C Blues tune they had been working on, I used the initial rhythm from another tune in the group’s set list…Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” (missing that excerpt’s 8th note pickup).  Example A (seen below) shows this rhythm applied to the C Mixolydian mode, our chosen applied scale for the Blue’s opening C7 chord.  Example B is the same scale, but is now descending, and played beginning a diatonic second lower.  Here there is no reason the ascending mode in Example A couldn’t have started on a low Bb, or the descending mode of example B played by beginning on the top E instead.  During an improvised solo, who knows what your entry point to the scale of the moment will be, so it is best to be able to play any scale in any direction, and from any one of its stages.  This helps the player to not only become more familiar with the scale, but to also hear how different it can sound, just by changing the starting note.  Also, since the rhythms will then be encountered at a different place in the scale, there will be a different set of fingerings to “drum” out each those “Confirmation” rhythms.

Rhythmic Scales- BlogSomethings to be aware of though, are the scale notes that receive more attention because of their length (like the low D and high E in Example A), or their position in the phrase (like the first or last note, the note before or after a large intervallic leap, or right before or after a rest).  These are “Hit Points” (a term used by Herb Pomeroy in his famous Line Writing class at Berklee), which are held accountable because they stand out more to the ear, and therefore have more influence on the harmony of the moment.  This subject is worthy of much more discussion and investigation (and comes up briefly under the subject of Avoid Tones in the following paragraph), but is more than I wanted to cover in this post.  For now, just make sure you listen to the sound of these Hit Points, in relationship to the accompanying chord.

Trying these ideas, the student was off to a good start, but what happens when you encounter a new chord, with its own supporting scale(s), before you have completed the scale and rhythm that you started with?  Since this scenario is very common when improvising over a tune, we have to develop the mastery and freedom that allow our improvised lines to continually and logically unfold from the linear perspective, all the while honoring the underlying harmonic structure.  Our lines can then be determined more by our creative choices, not by our limitations…like not being able to spontaneously switch to a new scale (and then possibly playing inappropriate notes), or having to curtail the execution of our idea.  Examples A and B show a C7 chord that lasts for two measures, but the actual Blues tune had an F7 in the second measure.  This was an easy fix (seen above in Example C), only having to change the final E in example A to an Eb…the lowered 7th of the F7 chord.  Just for fun, we also changed the F natural in the first measure to an F#, drawing from the C Mixolydian #4 scale (some folks call this scale in that first measure the C Lydian Dominant), which removes the scale’s Avoid Tone (F), that falls on a heavy downbeat and weakly conflicts with the E of the C7 chord.  Besides, the F# (Gb) is much more hip.  Example D has the same solution to a much longer lasting Avoid Tone (this time over the F7), and replaces that Bb with a B natural.

To illustrate other examples of Rhythmic Scales, we then tried a different tune, Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” and used the song’s opening rhythm (shown in Example E below, in the Bb trumpet’s key), right where it occurs in the tune’s chord progression.  What better source of rhythmic motifs, than from the tune you will be improvising over!  You can see that by starting the applied diatonic scale on the low D, it fits perfectly with the chords.  Some students have trouble playing the 16th note triplets correctly, in which case it is a good idea to have them leave out the second two 16th notes at first (in this case, the B and C in the brackets), until the rhythmic placement of surrounding A and D can be played and felt correctly.  At that point, bring back the deleted notes, playing them evenly within their rhythmic space, without disturbing the rhythmic placement of their adjacent neighbors.  During the more challenging passages, you must also listen carefully to keep the sound full and consistent on every note.

Rhythmic Scales- Blog 2Example F above shows the same rhythm, starting on a different note of the diatonic scale, and over the Amin7 (the key’s IImin7 chord).  Although that particular chord never lasts for more than two beats in the song, like I mentioned before, it’s still good ear training to hear all of the inversions of every applied scale in a tune through its entire octave, and to be able to go either up or down from every starting point using the rhythmic pattern of the moment.  Example E could be played over an Amin7 chord, and Example F could be played over a GMaj7.  However, always be aware of the sound relationship between every scale note (not just the Hit Points) and its accompanying chord (see the post, “A Casting Call for All Notes”).  Once you are finally playing in the context of a tune’s harmonic progression, change the scale notes accordingly, to fit the chord of the moment.  Having said all of that, switching the chords in Examples E and F as I just described would not warrant any change in the accompanying scale.

Example G below transposes the scale again within the key, but right after the longest note of the phrase, it leaps an octave and changes direction.  Predetermined variations like this can be tried after you are comfortable and consistent with running the scale in only one direction.  Example G is just one way of modifying the pattern, but still gives players a chance to drum out the same rhythm with the fingers (on valves, keys or a keyboard), and just gradually introduces a little more complexity.  Example H is just another example of how to create a variation, obviously just returning to the pattern’s original starting note after the first held note, and then changing direction once again after the last held note.  Example I just changes the direction of the original rhythmic pattern.  The important thing to remember when trying any variation, is to still keep the priorities of the swinging and singing line, with no mistakes.  Remember, How you are practicing becomes a permanent part of your playing!

Rhythmic Scales- Blog 3Example J below, from “Bolivia” already has Example H’s variation built into it (and is the tune’s actual melody), plus you can see the pattern moving up diatonically in the next two measures.  As you feel more facile with your thinking, you could also try moving up or down chromatically, or around the Circle of 4ths or 5ths (either chromatically or diatonically).  However, these are not “licks” you will try and regurgitate into your solo when you return to improvising.  Instead, you are internalizing the rhythmic language, consistently getting a great sound on your instrument, better familiarizing yourself with a lot of scales in new ways, and feeling the length of longer phrases.

Rhythmic Scales- Blog 4Example K, seen above, shows a way of incorporating arpeggios into this approach to practicing, borrowing the rhythm from “Straight No Chaser,” which seemed to work well with chords moving up a Perfect 4th.  All of these patterns are just a beginning, for the Jazz repertoire is full of wonderful rhythms that you can incorporate into your playing.  You can also try rhythms that you hear in the solos of great improvisers…anything that you would like to make a part of what will eventually become your own unique way of speaking the language.

Other Practice Guidelines and Suggestions:

  • Have the fingerings and rhythm figured out before you actually play the scale, so once you begin playing, there is no hesitation with the time or the air.  If you play a wind instrument, don’t blow at first.  Instead, just practice the pattern by fingering the keys or valves, listening to hear only one “click” per note, no matter how many keys are being pressed or lifted at the same time (except obviously, when there is no required change in fingerings…but in that case, still feel the rhythm of that silence).  This coordinates all of the fingers into a very concise rhythm, one which is then felt much more clearly, and in turn internalized and imprinted much more deeply.  Then, with your instrument held very close to your embouchure (but not close enough to make a sound), add the air and tonguing, coordinating them exactly with the fingers, while listening for a relaxed, overarching flow to the sound and feel of the airstream.  Brass players should make sure the embouchure retains its proper formation, and that the head and horn angles, and mouthpiece placement (as close as it is) are all correct.
  • Practice with a metronome, keeping the bar lines intact whenever you have to loop a section that needs more work.  A great alternative is to put the metronome’s clicks on beats 2 and 4, which mimics jazz’s backbeat (and the drummer’s basic closed high hat pattern).  Sometimes that is the strongest and most consistent rhythm you will hear in a playing context, so it is a good idea to be able to orient yourself to it whenever the first downbeat is not played or heard clearly.
  • Never sacrifice the time, or your sound in order to play the right notes…instead, to increase your note accuracy, slow the tempo down or do “Add-Ons” (refer to the link “Using Add-Ons to Learn a Challenging Passage of Music“).  Build good habits by establishing the correct priorities.
  • When you are ready to begin improvising, start by using a rhythmic scale pattern over the chord progression’s first two measures as a “launching pad,” and then improvise an answer to that idea over the next two measures, keeping the same virtues of time, sound and flow in your improvisation.  Then continue on to another two bar “launching pad,” and then alternate back to another improvised, two measure phrase.  This will help carryover your new skills into the context of soloing, and give you a way of comparing how well these new, higher standards are holding up when you improvise.  Always play phrases that last for a minimum of two bars, even if they contain only one or two notes (where the last note is held for the duration of the phrase, much like “Add-Ons”), all the while feeling the internalized beat.  For horn players, this helps to insure that the “swing of the air” (your inhale and exhale) is always relaxed, with a natural follow through.  This is what gives you the supported, “singing” sound we want, and helps to make sure that your sound is always leading somewhere …that you are always “telling a story” when you play.  Also see the post “Breathing is Like a Bowling Swing.”
  • In place of a metronome, you can try creating an accompanying loop with any apps you may have, that would allow you to hear the chord progression in time (or a smaller segment of it), or even just the roots of the chords.
  • Record yourself, in order  to help you listen more critically.  The better you sound, the more the rhythmic scale will transcend the exercise, and become music.
  • Write a solo over a tune’s chord progression, using no more than four rhythmic motifs (bonus points for using rhythmic motifs from the song, if they are suited to this approach), and by using any of the variations (adapting the scale to the chord of the moment, transposing, using a direction change etc.), but nothing shorter than a two bar phrase.  Then play your solo, critique it, and then write another…playing and critiquing it as well.  Eventually, this creative act will become more spontaneous, and the carryover to your improvising will be even more noticeable.

There is a lot of work described here, so don’t attempt to try all of these ideas right away.  Gradually add complexity, but only after you have had genuine success with the easier exercises.  Remember that the quality of your efforts is much more important than the quantity of material you can cover in any given amount of time.  Prioritize your time and your sound (and its free flowing, supportive air), and then the accuracy of every scale.  Again, practice makes permanent, so be careful of the kind of habits you are forming!

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