Advice for Student Musicians

For the past several years, I’ve had the honor of performing in “Christine’s Christmas,” an annual benefit concert that has raised more than $300,000 for children’s charities. I love this mega-gig because it stretches my musicality to the max. In addition to a big choir, guest vocalists, and string orchestra, the lineup includes a number of principle soloists: founder Mark King on piano, a cellist, two drummers, a trumpet player and yours truly on bass, synthesizers, and piano. (I also coach the arranging and play a bit of violin in the orchestra.)

Read and Improvise
All of the above mentioned principle musicians for this event are expected to both read music and improvise. Did you get that?  Read and improvise.  One moment we are playing written parts as precisely as possible and the next, we are improvising our own paths through the chord changes.

Why does the director insist on this kind of diversity in his hires?
1. Reading music enables a level of complexity in the arrangements that is not possible when exclusively playing by ear.
2. Improvisations are exciting and fun for the audience.

Audience Response
What is it about an improvising musician really digging in that lights up listeners? When a player looks away from the music stand, listeners sense that the music that follows will be more from the heart, more spontaneous, and more risky. If things go well (no guarantee) and the creative juices are flowing, a feedback loop can open up between the performer and audience, each lifting the other up.  It’s an incredible electric feeling that’s hard to describe.  Suffice it to say that as a musician, once you experience your improvisation catalyzing an entire concert hall into one big shared emotion, you’d rather make music than eat.

Accompaniment Enables Improvisation
A secret that audiences don’t always understand is that the heights obtained by an improviser at the top of his/her game can only be reached if fellow musicians provide a well-structured scaffolding below. For example, in Christine’s Christmas, the string section generates a smooth  bed of sound that supports the more jagged rhythms of the soloists. It takes good musicianship and a sensitive director to tease out ensemble skills such as intonation, vibrato, tone color, blending, etc.  So I tip my hat to those musicians who play the incredibly important accompanying parts.

However, (yes, there’s always a but), it must be stated that the musicians who are capable of both accompanying (reading) and soloing (improvising) seem to have the most fun. Why?  Because accompanying is simultaneously a satisfying art and an act of giving.  And improvising is an all-involving vortex that calls on every past musical training, experience, or inspiration a musician has ever had. It’s real, it’s in the moment, and the audience knows it.  They’re both fun.

Do Both:
teetertotter3Why limit yourself to one or the other?  If you are an ambitious music student, seek excellence in both reading and improvising. It’s no longer an either/or situation.  Ever since Wynton Marsalis won Grammy awards for classical and jazz recordings in the same year, the skills of reading and improvising have become more and more of an expectation of in-demand musicians. So find a teacher who can train both your eye and your ear.  And if no teacher exists in your world, take reading-based lessons from a traditional reader and ear-based lessons from an improvising teacher.

Here’s another tip or maybe it’s just my pet peeve.  Please engage when you are playing music.  Did you know audiences don’t just listen?  They also watch – it’s part of why they attend live concerts. Just as listeners can sense when a performer is reaching for musical highs, they can also tell when a musician has forgotten to care about what they are doing.   So when the music you are playing seems boring, or there are too many measures of rests in your part, or you have a headache, or you are irritated because they misspelled your name in the program… engage anyway.  You want the audience to connect with your playing? Don’t look like you’d rather be home watching television:

Let your face and body reflect your enthusiasm for this amazing art form.  Your hard work and dedication have paid off.  You  are up on stage playing music for a real audience!  You are living the dream!  If you’re happy and you know it, then let your listeners see how your face will surely show it!  

Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey!





P.S. – It’s never too late to learn to improvise or read music.  I’ve taught many adults to do both.


Understand-Chord-Symbols31Understanding chord symbols is essential knowledge for improvisers.  This 20-page PDF booklet provides a straightforward explanation of the principles, common practices, and variations in contemporary pop/jazz chord nomenclature. Use it as a reference for teaching or interpreting popular arrangements, lead sheets and chord charts. Large diagrams are designed for easy reading on a tablet or printout. Includes license authorizing you to print as many copies as required for you and/or your current students’ use. – See more at:

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