In the late 90s when I traveled from Copenhagen to The Hague to follow masterclasses with Barry Harris at the Royal conservatory I didn’t realize that I was going on a trip that would really change the rest of my life.
Going to that masterclass would change a lot about how I thought about music, and the trip would also make me move to another country to really go deep into the study of Jazz at the conservatory there. Of course, when you are in the middle of it you can’t know that while it is happening but it is fun to see how that works.
Barry Harris was of course an iconic Jazz teacher having taught everyone from Paul Chambers to John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery, and his very complete approach to teaching Jazz has taught 1000s of people.
Some of the things I learned going to those masterclasses really changed a lot about how I was studying music and quite a few of those things are not what is mostly discussed when we talk about his teaching. That mostly stays with notes, scales, and chords. Those things are important of course, but if you take a step back and look at some of the overarching principles of how the lessons work then there are other things that are as important, and actually also relevant beyond Jazz as a style.
Practice Technique On Songs
Song with exercise moving around it (maybe sheet music showing arrows or analysis moving a phrase from one chord to the next)
A few bars with triplet arpeggios fading into licks (Often an exercise will naturally evolve into a lick just taking it through a song.)
The Masterclasses at the conservatory would often start with learning a song, so Barry would use a scale exercise to teach you the chord progression, even if most people usually knew the song already.
It would usually be starting with a basic scale exercise, just to make the chords clear and help you have a starting place for the lines that would be created later. Then it would gradually evolve bit by bit into a complete solo where you would learn some great vocabulary and melodic techniques along the way.
The advantage of linking scale practice to actual music is HUGE. Whatever you practice as an exercise is a lot closer to becoming a flexible part of your vocabulary if you immediately work on it on a song. Often an exercise will naturally evolve into a lick just taking it through a song.
Another way that this is also incredibly effective is in terms of taking a piece of vocabulary and then really exploring how to get the most out of it, and a lot of Barry Harris exercises and systems were really made to be able to do that easily, something that is not mentioned so often. When you move an exercise around a chord progression like that then you need skills for making it make sense on different chord types and really know what works and what doesn’t work on a chord.
And of course, Barry would keep it exciting by pushing the tempo up, sometimes even putting money on whether anyone could play it, oddly he never seemed to lose.
Write Licks And Write Solos
Strangely enough, the next exercise is pretty global. Most of the masterclasses I went to from Barry were centered around him teaching a song and writing a solo on that song.
In that way a masterclass would teach you:
- The Song and The Chord Progressions
- Vocabulary And How To Construct Lines
- How To Deal With Smaller Progressions within the songs, something you can take to other songs
And that exercise is exactly what I think you should work on: Composing vocabulary on songs. For me, this was very useful for learning vocabulary and making it a flexible part of my playing, and using this as an exercise can easily be a big part of how you develop your vocabulary and explore how you can add new material to your solos.
Another place where writing material is useful is when you are dealing with a spot in a song that is difficult. Slowing it down and constructing lines, figuring out what really works, what fits together, and how to make it playable is the best way to go, and clearly also how Barry works his way through songs.
Write licks for the difficult part of the song:
Of course, you are probably not going to be able to write solos that are as good as what Barry seemed to produce in pretty much every class, but that doesn’t mean that composing lines won’t teach you something and help you get further, even if it is only by making you wonder why something doesn’t work.
- The Song and The Chord Progressions
- Vocabulary And Constructing Lines
- How To Deal With Smaller Progressions within the songs
Turn Vocabulary Into Exercises
What all of these exercises have in common and what is one of the strongest aspects of this is that everything is about connecting every single note you practice to the solo you want to play and the songs you want to learn.
And actually, that is something that very often gets lost in planning practice and creating exercises.
It is not enough to play the exercises, you also need to link them to your repertoire and your vocabulary because you need to think about whether the exercises improve your playing.
For me, the shining example of this was the exercise of playing diatonic arpeggios with leading notes that I learned the first time I went to the Hague for the masterclasses, but there are a lot more examples in there. I covered a few of these in this video on scale exercises that are already Jazz licks, there is a link to that in the description.
Making your own exercises is a great way for you to develop your vocabulary and get better at constructing lines.
Very often these types of exercises are really just combinations of two or more exercises, for example, you can practice using Barry’s chromatic scale exercise:
and maybe you want to also work on being more flexible with your triads so you combine that with this exercise:
Together you get lines like this:
And that can be put to use like this:
This connection between what you want to play and the exercises you make for yourself is useful for being efficient, but it is also a lot more motivating and fun to work on things that you actually use in your playing.
If you want to explore some more examples of how you can work on this and see how Barry teaches that in one of his classes then check out this video where I show you how to construct scale exercises that are already Jazz vocabulary and actually use one of his examples as well.
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