Lessons By Jody Espina

In this article I’d like to put out a few ideas that are aimed at making your practice session more fun. Beginners, intermediate and advanced players should be able to find something that they can use here, but this article is dedicated to the many adult amateur musicians out there.

I’ve come to know many of these saxophone and clarinet players through e-mails and phone conversations as customers of JodyJazz mouthpieces. I have a great deal of respect for the adult player who has a serious career and a family and still finds time to practice, and play in a community band, big band, at church or the occasional gig. I’d say that the number one problem facing these players as well as all musicians is finding time to practice. So here are some ideas on how to have fun while improving your playing with that precious little practice time.

  1. RELAX

    You’ve worked hard all day. We want your practice time to be the best part of your day. You’re playing for fun, right? So let’s start off with a breathing routine that will relax you and get you ready for the next step.

    You should be in a standing position for this exercise. Take a deep, full breath, and then exhale. While exhaling, release all of the tension in your body. Take another deep breath and let your shoulders drop while you exhale. Take another breath and release the tension in your neck. With each exhalation concentrate on a part of your body and and just let go of the tension. After eight to ten nice deep breaths and full exhales you should feel ready and open for the next part of your session.


    Coltrones is a word that I invented after working with my students on Coltrane Ballads. Coltrones are long tones inspired by Coltrane’s sound. David Gross, a fine saxophone teacher in New York City, was the first person to turn me onto playing with recordings of John Coltrane ballads for use mainly as tone studies. I took it a step further with Coltrones.

    Your first long tone of the day will be modeled after Coltrane’s first long tone on Soul Eyes. (See “Soul Eyes Notes” below for information on purchasing this CD, but if you don’t own this CD any Coltrane ballad will do. Just follow the directions on how to play Coltrones.) Play the CD pausing after the fourth note of Soul Eyes, which is a D concert. Then play that note on your horn and try and get as close as you can to Coltrane’s Sound.

    Use one of those nice deep breaths to get the full support you’ll need to try and match his sound. Listen again to the fourth note of the CD, then pause it and try and match it. Think about what you have to change about your breath support, your embouchure and your oral cavity to more closely match Coltrane’s sound. Experiment. Most of my students don’t play strong enough at first. Don’t be afraid to play slightly louder than you think you should, to match the bigness of the tone. After trying to match the fourth note many times you can move on to the second long note of Soul Eyes which is a B concert.

    After your work with Coltrones you might as well try and play some of Soul Eyes with Trane. I recommend using the transcription only as a guide. Use your ear to tell you exactly what Coltrane is doing as far as articulation, attack, vibrato and every other nuance. Don’t worry about becoming a Coltrane clone unless you plan on doing this type of work only with Trane’s music. You should also do Hawktones, Webtones, Birdtones, etc. We’re just trying to expand your tonal palette so that ultimately your sound comes through and you have the ability to shade it in any way that you want to.

    Soul Eyes Notes: Soul Eyes was recorded April 11, 1962 and was originally released on the album titled “Coltrane” on Impulse. It’s still available on that album and also on several compilations. In an interesting side note, Coltrane once said in reference to this recording and it’s more calm nature as compared to My Favorite Things and some of the things that he’d been doing, “I did a foolish thing, I got dissatisfied with my mouthpiece and I had some work done on this thing, and instead of making it better, it ruined it. It really discouraged me a little bit, because there were certain aspects of playing – that certain fast thing that I was reaching for – that I couldn’t get because I had damaged this thing…” I just thought that it’s interesting to know that the great master, John Coltrane, went through the same mouthpiece problems that so many of us have dealt with. Once you’ve got the transcription of Soul Eyes under your belt, a nice way to have some fun with it would be to play it with the Jamey Abersold playalong CD, Ballads, Vol. 32.


    One of the great things about being an adult amateur with a serious day job is that you probably have some disposable income that you can spend on your hobby. I say go ahead and spend it; have fun and buy what you want. You deserve it.

    For this part of your workout I’m recommending that you buy a Personal Keyboard such as a Casio, Yamaha or Radio Shack keyboard. One of my students recently bought one of these from Radio Shack on sale for under $200 and it sounds fantastic. It has 100 different grooves and all kinds of sounds plus a fingered chord function which comes in very handy.

    Here’s my suggestion on how to use the keyboard. Pick a rhythm such as swing, funk, disco or whatever, then select a tempo, push start and the rhythm begins. With the fingered chord function selected, hit the lowest note on the keyboard. Now you should have a whole band laying down a groove for you. This is your key for the week. It’s likely that the lowest note is a C concert so you’ll be in the key D major if you play a B flat instrument and you’ll be be in A major if you play an E flat instrument. Every day for a week, or longer if you feel that you need it, you can jam in this key to all kind of different grooves and tempos. Have fun improvising while you master this key.

    To make sure that you have the basic technique to get around in each key play the following scales and arpeggios. Don’t forget to use different articulations when you practice the scales. Standard Jazz articulation is slurring the upbeat to the downbeat when playing eighth notes. I included a couple of articulations, but you should make up your own and mix it up. The tongue is very important in any style of music that you might play.

Click Image to Print in PDF Format


    This is my book recommendation for this article. “Master Lesson For Creative Musician” (Formerly Sax/Flute Lessons With The Greats) by Bruce Mishkit. I think this is one of the best Book/CD combos out there, since you actually get a lesson with Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Liebman, Lenny Pickett, Joe Lovano, Ernie Watts and Hubert Laws. Each teacher gives the lesson that they would give when someone comes to them for the first time.

Since I had studied with Dave Liebman I was able to tell that his lesson consisted of the same things that he gave me in the first couple of lessons. So just for that it’s more than worth the price. Ernie Watts gives some great patterns to practice, it’s very inspiring to hear Ernie play these patterns so beautifully and flawlessly. Joe Lovano gives some great, practical ideas about improvisation.

Each teacher actually talks to you as if you were there taking a lesson. Lenny Pickett gives some good advice on Altissimo notes and has a very interesting Etude with fingerings included. There is only one flute lesson and I don’t recommend buying the book just for that, but for sax players this book can’t be beat. I would say that this book would be best utilized by intermediate to advanced players but could be an inspiration to beginners as well.

So there you have a few ideas to liven up the practice routine. Since I’m writing these articles for the people who use Sax On The Web, I look forward to hearing your ideas for future articles. Feel free to e-mail me with your questions or ideas.

My last article for Sax on the Web, was dedicated to the adult amateur saxophonist. Thanks to all of you who wrote me with such positive feedback. This article is dedicated to any saxophonist who is interested in improvising. Beginners will find some helpful ideas here about how to construct an interesting solo. Advanced players will probably know everything in this article, but sometimes being reminded of good ideas can freshen up our playing.

We all know that an improvising jazz musician is telling a musical story… The same conventions that apply to a good novel also apply to a good jazz solo. You need an interesting premise (motif), or opening chapter. There should be character development (development of motif) as well as an interesting or satisfying conclusion. Other elements of a real page turner of a book or a captivating solo are conflict and resolution or tension and release. The intensity of a good book or a solo will have peaks and valleys. In music these exciting and calm moments can be achieved through the use of dynamics, space/rests, speed/length of notes, and the range of pitch (low/high notes).

The first three tips in this article are so simple and common sense that you may think that you don’t need to pay much attention to them. I believe that the players who diligently practice the first three tips will be rewarded for their efforts with more applause from the audience at the end of their solos and more respect from their fellow musicians.

Ideas 4-6, fall under the tricks and licks category. These may take more time and practice before you’ll be able to use them in a solo, but the way a chef uses spices to give food flavor, these tricks can liven up your soloing.

Important note: These tricks and licks will not make you a better player. If used effectively, they may make you a more interesting or entertaining player. Fancy tricks and licks can’t replace replace solid fundamentals like good tone, intonation, time/swing feel, phrasing and good technique. Therefore, my recommendation is to stay with your normal practice routine and add one of these tricks at a time.


    Play less notes and put space in between your ideas. This may seem like a cheap trick but it’s not. This simple and easy to do suggestion will immediately make you sound better. Almost all of us including me would have more success with our solos if we would economize on notes and give the listener time to digest our ideas. A great way to practice this is to imagine that you’re trading one or two bar riffs with an imaginary player. Play something then leave the space while you imagine what the other player would play. Don’t worry about there being dead space. Most rhythm sections will jump all over those spaces and before you know it you’ll be in a real dialogue with the rhythm section. John Coltrane asked Miles Davis’s advice on how to end a solo because Trane was having difficulty finding a place to end. Miles answered in his raspy whisper, “Take the horn out your mouth.” Space is the place – Take the horn out your mouth.


    Another simple but very effective trick is to play a high note for about as long as you can hold it. Used at the right moment in your solo, this is almost guaranteed to get the crowd on your side. The shape of a solo is important. Jamey Abersold explains this very well in Volume 1. of his play along series. For example, you can start a solo in the low or medium range of the horn and as you develop your ideas, start to play higher and higher and perhaps faster and more notes, building to a well timed very long high note.


    What’s worth playing once is probably worth playing at least four times. Using exact repetitions or slight variations allows your listener to follow your train of thought better. In other words, when you play a nice lick, don’t just abandon that little gold nugget. Let us see/hear it again. Turn it around for us, so that we can get a good look/listen. Go back and listen to some of your favorite improvisers and see if there are any cases of motif and development, which usually contains a healthy dose of repetition.

    Stop Right There!
    The tips mentioned so far are enough to change your playing dramatically. On your next solo, try and do these four simple things. Or better yet, record yourself playing a solo with a play-along or a live band. Don’t use any of my ideas. Just play as you normally would. Then record yourself while you consciously use the four ides below.

    1. Play less notes.
    2. Put space in between your ideas.
    3. Repeat and make variations on the good ideas.
    4. Build to a climax with a long high note.

    Now try and listen to both recordings as an impartial listener would. Which one is more interesting?

  4. GROWL

    Ben Webster, Earl Bostic, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, Clarence Clemens, Boots Randolph, Gato Barbieri, and King Curtis are just a few of the great players who have used the growl to great effect. Growling conveys intensity and soul. It seems impossible to play without conviction while growling. I don’t think that I’m the best growler in the world so I wanted to get an experts advice. I asked my good friend Steve Goodson of Saxgourmet.com, if he would elucidate us on how he teaches someone to growl. Steve is an expert on most things regarding the saxophone whether it be playing, teaching or the mechanics of the horn. I think that as a player Steve would describe himself as a honker and a wailer, a rock and roller, and a growler, which makes him very qualified to give us this lesson. Let me say this before we go to Steve’s advice: In order to make the growl effect, the player has to actually produce a pitch or growl with his or her voice while simultaneously playing notes on the saxophone. The note from the sax and the sound from the voice mix combine to make the growl.

    Steve Goodson on Growling: “When I teach growling, I give the student a lesson in physiology: at the junction of the mouth and the windpipe (where the bend is), there’s lots of stuff that tends to vibrate: the soft palate, the uvula, and a bunch of other tissue that I can’t name. This stuff will all get into a sympathetic vibration if the player produces the growl too high up in the throat. The result will be an uneven growl and a potential blockage of the air stream. I have the student listen to me by placing their ear very close to my throat so they can see where I am producing the growl. Of course the most common problem with beginners is that they use too much of the growl effect. I have the student play long tones and learn to gradually introduce the growl into the note, and then to gradually reduce it. This gives them a broader palette of sounds to use. It is not uncommon for the beginner to experience some irritation in the throat while learning this technique. I suggest a gargle with Jack Daniels.” (Authors note: The Jack Daniels falls under the category of definitely don’t try this at home. By the way, when I listened to Steve’s throat he was growling at a low B concert. J.E.)


    The resulting sound of the flutter tongue is somewhat similar to the growl so that if you can’t do one, hopefully you can do the other. To hear what the flutter should sound like, play your horn with the bell facing directly into an electric fan. That’s the sound. If you’re unable to get the flutter I guess you could bring a powerful fan to the gig and blow into it. (Authors note: Unlike the growl, I’m very good at the flutter tongue.)

    Step 1. Roll your R’s the way you would if you were saying a word in Spanish which begins with R. To do this, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth right where the ridge is. To find the ridge start with the tip of your tongue where your teeth and the roof of your mouth meet. Keeping the tongue against the roof go away from the teeth until you feel the ridge that leads back to the soft pallet. Lightly place the tip of the tongue at the edge of this ridge and get some air moving out of your mouth until the tongue starts rolling. Then, do that while you’re blowing the sax. If you don’t succeed right away, try to remember what it was like learning to whistle. It may have taken quite a while, but you kept trying and you kept having different people demonstrate it to you. Keep trying!

    For some reason I like to use the flutter tongue in conjunction with the harmonic minor scale, getting a snake charmer kind of sound. For example: Let’s say you’re playing over an F# minor Funk groove, (your key) and normally you would play a Dorian Scale. That’s like an F# major scale with the 3rd and the 7th note flatted by a 1/2 step. You can usually fit in the Harmonic Minor Scale over the same minor funk* groove place for the “snake charmer” type of sound and with the flutter tongue, it can be funny and effective. The Harmonic Minor Scale is like a major scale with the 3rd and 6th degree flatted by a half step. Goof around and have fun with this one, but like all tricks, don’t overuse it. (* I use the term funk very loosely. It could be almost any minor one key groove.)


    This lick is taken from Cannonball’s solo on Love for Sale, from the CD, Somethin’ Else – Cannonball Adderly (Blue Note BST 81595). The All Music Guide calls this CD, (which also features Miles Davis on it) “Absolutely essential”. For the transcription I recommend getting this excellent book of transcribed solos: The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, compiled and edited by Tim Price (Hal Leonard HL006763244). Besides the little lick that I’m pointing out here, pay special attention to the articulations in this solo. Tim did a great job including this extremely important aspect of Cannonball’s sound. Bear in mind that it’s difficult for most mere mortals to play as fast and clean as the great Mr. Adderly. Don’t be discouraged. Play the lines as slow as you need to, but do the articulations. Articulations or the lack of articulations are one of the main reasons why many inexperienced improvisers just don’t sound as popping as the Jazz greats. Before I get to the lick and while I’m on the subject of articulation, let me say this: Saxophonists – please don’t only transcribe and copy other sax players. Trumpet and trombone players are usually better at articulation then we are. Listen to some Freddie Hubbard and Frank Rosolino and copy some of their articulations. Now you’re popping.

    Well, without further ado, here’s the lick: It occurs in the 19th bar of Cannonball’s third chorus. These trills on high B, C, and C# are achieved with the right hand index finger. In the same way that you play your side Bb, put your index finger up to the top key of those three side keys. By the way, keep your thumb under the thumb rest where it’s supposed to be. You will play the high B and let it sound before you start the trill. Most people who try this for the first time do not trill fast enough and that’s why it doesn’t sound right. Trill as fast as you can and like everything else; if you need to, by all means start practicing it slowly. For alto players, this lick works great over the Blues in Bb concert. For tenor players, the same lick will work nicely over an F concert Blues.


    Practice at home, perform on the gig. To be a good improviser you have to practice new ideas and techniques before they can sound and feel natural. But, I believe at the gig you should play from your heart. Play what you’re hearing at that moment. There’s nothing worse than hearing a saxophonist practice on the gig. To me it’s insulting to the audience and the other musicians in the band, and it doesn’t show you in your best light. There’s room for debate on this issue and there is definitely something to be said for stretching, taking chances and trying things that you’ve never done before. These are all responsibilities that an artist has. But I also believe that as an artist, you have a responsibility to the audience to show them what’s in you heart, not only what’s in your head. I personally try and play every solo like it might be the last one that I ever get to play. If I know that it’s my last chance to play, I want to go out giving one hundred percent and playing notes that I will literally die for. That may be a melodramatic thought, but I think that everything in life should be approached with that sincerity and intensity.

    I hope this article helps make us all more interesting soloists.


    Practice with intensity, Play with intensity,

Improvising on Chord Changes
Step by Step
By Jody Espina

Part I – The Basics

1. Learn the melody to the song.

The notes and rhythms of the melody can and should be one of your prime sources for inspiration and clues on how to play the tune.

 2. Arpeggiate the chords of the song.

Play up to the 9th and back down – slowly at first as you try and hear the chords. Accompany yourself on a keyboard if you can.  Then arpeggiate the chords in time as 8th notes up to the 9th.

Arpeggiate means play the notes of the chord one at a time in ascending and descending order. 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1

3. Learn the chord scales.

This means learn the scales that best go over the chords. Often there is more than one choice as to which scales can work but pick the most inside sounding one first and learn that one. Try the scales out over a play-along or better yet when you are accompanying yourself on keyboard. Ask for help when you are not sure which scale to use.  Play the scales slowly at first and then eventually in time as 8th notes going up to the 9th.

4. Now improvise over the song.

There is a lot you can already do in improvising with your knowledge and (mastery? I hope) of the melody, chords and scales. Go for it and don’t worry if it doesn’t sound great yet. Getting you to sound great comes in the next steps but you really need to work out on steps 1-4 first before you can get to the real deal.

Part II – The Language and Rhythm of Jazz

Speak the language of the country you are in. We have words in English but if we speak those English words in Japan no one can understand us and we sound very strange and uninteresting to them.

Your notes are like those words and just because you are playing the so-called “right” notes that doesn’t make them interesting or even in the right language.

Improvising, like all aspects of playing music is a lifelong pursuit so these next steps will never get old.  For the rest of these steps I will be talking specifically about improvising in the Jazz Idiom but all steps should be transferable to literally any style of music.

Paraphrasing the Greats

Learn short motifs of two to 4 bars from recordings or your favorite players. Slowly over many repetitions change them little by little. Your first iteration may sound virtually like the original and the second, just ever so slightly altered and then each iteration gets more different than the last.

Make sure that you learn and are able to reproduce all aspects of the original motif exactly. Articulation, timing and nuances such as tone, vibrato, pitch bending and embellishments are all extremely important to get you speaking in the language of Jazz.

Don’t forget to paraphrase the melody which is too often overlooked as improvisational fodder.

Example 1

Miles Davis beginning phrases in Kind of Blue. His solo is beautifully constructed – it sounds so good but it is amazingly simple and logical. This would be a great place to start learning how to paraphrase.

Here’s my suggestion:  learn the 1st 4 notes of his solo, which is his first motif. Let’s not go to the next notes yet which are an elaboration of his first phrase.

Play the 4 note first phrase over and over until you are sounding as much like Miles as you can. The timing on this phrase is one of the most important things here. Once you have found the pocket of the timing, play some different notes using the exact same rhythm. Pick different notes from the chord and scale that you have already practiced over this tune. Maybe change only one note at first and keep playing and slightly changing notes – keep going back to the original to make sure you haven’t lost the feel of the original idea.

Now take the whole 1st 8 bars of Mile’s solo and work on that. You should be transcribing this yourself. You can totally do it – especially if you have done steps 1-4 because all the notes are already under your fingers.

Isn’t this a beautiful and simple 1st phrase? I wish I had thought of it. But I didn’t but I won’t let that stop me from taking inspiration from it like all great artists have done throughout history. We imitate only so we can learn and add to our toolbox of techniques and ideas and then we can express our own thoughts while speaking in the right language.

More Paraphrasing the Greats

Please take a look at an article I wrote for DownBeat Magazine called paraphrasing the greats. In the article I use some phrases from Charlie Parker on Billie’s Bounce and I write out my examples of paraphrasing changing just a very little bit with each iteration.  You will find this article at JodyJazz.com under Resources, in the Free Online Lessons Section.

Part III – Back to basics

There is a lot of cool stuff that can be done with so called basics. Remember, we are assuming that you have mastered steps 1-4 of the basics, and have learned some real Jazz phrasing.

Here are a bunch of ideas based on the chords and scales of the song that you are working on.

Always practice as slow as you need to to be able to play in time (slowly) and then eventually progress to 8th notes, triplets and possibly 16ths.

  1. Ascend and descend on the Scale by thirds. Which would sound like this: Ascending 1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6 5 7 6 8 7 9 – Descending 8 6 7 5 6 4 5 3 4 2 3 1 2 7 1
  2. Three note arpeggios on the scales.

1 3 5 2 4 6 3 5 7

Note: There is a reason that I haven’t written these out in music notation form. I want your brain to start thinking about the degrees of the chords and scales and I want you to have to figure out these things for yourself.  Also I’d like you to realize how much of the music we listen to is based on small patterns. The ear likes to listen to things that it can recognize, and it can pick up patterns very quickly. Eventually you may want to not use many patterns in your solos but to get there I believe you have to be able to make melodies like Mozart, Paul Desmond, Ben Webster and Lester Young first. And many of those melodies are pattern based.

Some resources to purchase:

In The Funk Zone With George Garzone – DVD

George Garzone – Tradin With The Greats – CD

Kenny Werner – Tradin’ With The Greats – CD

Jamey Abersold – Vol 54 Maiden Voyage– Track II,

Jamey Abersold – Vol 50 Magic of Miles Davis

Jamey Abersold Vol 24 – Major and Minor

Tunes to get  – John Coltrane – Impressions, Coltrane’s solo starts at 00:27

MyCoy Tyner -Impressions, Michael Brecker’s Impressions solo starts at 2:47 (Michael Brecker won a Grammy for best Instrumental Jazz Solo – for this solo).

Miles Davis – So What, from Kind of Blue – Look at 2:50 and 1:37 and see how they are alike

look at 2:27 for an interesting idea to paraphrase

Play along with the real recording – You can also improvise over the piano starting at 7:06