Practicing Tunes and Forms

Practising Tunes
This is a common sense approach to internalising songs and forms, based on approaches to practice employed by Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins (apparently!) and many other players. Significantly, this approach emphasises the use of melody.


  • A thorough understanding and awareness of the harmonic and structural detail within the form.
  • Awareness and utilisation of the fundamental properties of improvisation – information/content and use.
  • Principles:

  • Always reduce learning objectives to bite-size bits.
  • Know the form (absolute) then embellish and manipulate (process).
  • Drill the skill – then manipulate

  • Approach all improvising as manipulation of melody.
  • Always learn by ear.
  • Practice very slowly.
  • Be aware of cognitive overload – work with a manageable amount of information and reinforce until it becomes automatic.
  • How and where you practice affects the outcome – so apply the skills learnt in practice to realistic situations:
    1. practice routine
    2. play-along context,
    3. practice with friends
    4. rehearsal/play-through.
    5. Always approach “exercises” with commitment and feeling.
    • Memorise/transcribe examples (solos) that model your objectives.
    • Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce.

    First things first… The song.

    The first time we hear music we hear the tune and feel the beat, so as improvisers we must begin with these most tangible and audible parts of the form.
    Tip: Lennie Tristano advised that we improvise with total commitment and expression. Make the melody a convincing statement, without embellishment.

    Step 1 Memorise and improvise with the melody.
    1.1 Know the tune first – don’t skimp on this stage… then, improvise with the melody – melody notes alone. The discipline of focussing exclusively on the melody notes causes you to develop powers of concentration
    1.2 Manipulate – stretch the rhythm of the melody – accelerate, delay, alter the rhythm.
    1.3 Embellish the melody, a) Rhythmically – repeat notes, b) melodically – sing neighbour notes
    Tip: Learn the lyric, then sing the song with the lyric and simply manipulate the rhythm.

    Step 2 Memorise the “root movement”.

    2.1 Learn the root movement as a melody

    2.2 Improvise rhythmically with roots only (as in 1.2)
    2.3 Embellish the roots with neighbour notes (as in 1.3 above).
    Tip: Think of the root movement as a tune!

    Step 3 Improvise with – roots and 3rds.
    3.1 Learn the roots and 3rds as a melody
    3.2 Improvise rhythmically with roots and 3rds only (as in 1.2)
    3.3 Embellish the roots and 3rds with neighbour notes (as in 1.3 above).

    Step 4 Improvise with roots, 3rds and 5ths (triadic improvisation).
    4.1 Learn triads as a melody
    4.2 Improvise rhythmically with triads only (as in 1.2)
    4.3 Embellish triads with neighbour notes (as in 1.3 above).
    Tip: “Enclose” the first note of each phrase.

    Step 5 Improvise with roots, 3rds and 5ths and 7ths – thechord tones”.
    5.1 Learn triads as a melody
    5.2 Improvise rhythmically with triads only (as in 1.2)
    5.3 Embellish triads with neighbour notes (as in 1.3 above).
    Tip: You don’t have to sing/play all notes in the triad. Don’t attempt more than you can manage!

    Step 6 Establish resolutions with “guide-tones” (advanced).
    6.1 Learn guide-tone lines as melodies.
    6.2 Improvise rhythmically with guide-tone lines.
    6.3 Embellish guide-tone lines with neighbour notes (as in 1.3 above).
    6.4 Embellish guide-tone lines with chord tones.
    Tip: Target the guide tone at the beginning and end of each bar – “make the join.”

    Step 7 “Join the dots”. Chord-tone improvisation again, this time joined-up with parent scales. Maintain the “chord frame” by emphasising/featuring the chord tones.
    Tip: Be sure to start and end each phrase on a chord-tone (1,3,5,7).

    Step 8 Comprehensive guide-tone improvisation.
    8.1 Charting 3rds and 7ths
    8.2 Locate 5th and 9ths, 9ths and 13ths.
    8.3 Chromaticise guide tone lines: 5 – 9 – 5 becomes b5 – b9 – 5

    Step 9 Improvise in the general spirit of the work above.
    Tip: Have a short break then return to the song. Improvise with the “echo” of the exercises you practiced earlier – sensing instead of thinking.


    7 thoughts on “Practicing Tunes and Forms

    1. Could you possibly make this article into a PDF download …
      …Like the repertoire piece you wrote.
      You have a really valuable site here, and I’d
      like to thank you for sharing your ideas.


    2. Thanks for this awesome article Simon. For some reason, I had always thought of the guide tone method as one for beginners. From your article, I’m obviously wrong. I’m only on my 3rd year of jazz and am learning ATTYA using the guide tone method.
      Do you think that at your top level, the guide tone method may restrict your free thinking at times ?

    3. Hi Amelia,
      Thank you for your message – I am really pleased that this is helpful and delighted that you thought to write.

      Your question is very good and points to a widely held concern about rigorous practice. Indeed, this method and any method can inhibit our “flow” if practiced in isolation. That is why it is important to devise an approach to practice that is balanced, combining attention to product (information/language etc) and process (the improvising). Hal Crook’s book “How To improvise” is excellent re process. Many players employ this method, but generally alongside other activities. Balance is the key, and of course, our process will always be enhanced by listening and going to high quality, inspiring gigs.

      You could also have a look at my hand-out “On Practicing” which can assist in developing a productive approach to practice. Of course, discuss this with your friends and teachers. Click here…

      Very best of luck with your studies… check out Dale Barlow, a truly great Australian sax player (and old friend when he was in London).


    4. An organic, organised and creative approach to internalising tunes.
      I feel like this takes some of the fundamentals we might have already learned through jazz education,
      and refreshes them and helps us to find our own ways of exploring the music. I always wondered what
      to do ‘next’, this gives us just that.
      Thanks Simon!

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