Focusing on What Matters, with Jeff Schneider

Today we’re joined by Jeff Schneider, award-winning composer and music educator whose YouTube videos for saxophone and piano, online courses, and blog and email lessons are helping musicians around the world to wrap their head around everything from equipment to technique to music theory and listening skills.

In this conversation we cover a ton of interesting topics, including sight-reading, improvisation, what makes for effective practicing, and the entrepreneurial requirements of being a professional musician today. Jeff shares:

  • How many hours a day he practiced growing up, one activity that was central, and the one thing he thinks is essential to practice effectively
  • One resource he’s found really useful to help him balance his creativity with the desire to make a living as a musician
  • And several punchy tips on improvisation, sight reading, jazz and rhythm.

We know you’ll enjoy this one and it’ll inspire you to check out Jeff’s website and sign up for his email list – and don’t miss the unforgettable name that email list has, we talk about it towards the end of the interview.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Jeff. Thanks for joining us today.

Jeff: Thanks so much, Christopher. Great to be here.

Christopher: I have a sense of who you are as a musician these days from your fantastic YouTube channel, but I don’t know all that much about your backstory. I’d love to know what was your early music education like. How did you get started and become the saxophonist and pianist and educator that you are today?

Jeff: Well, if we go to the very beginning, my family’s a very musical family. Both my parents played classical piano and my sister’s into musical theater. My brother plays classical piano and guitar. I was sort of the one that was like very interested in just learning how to play by ear, so I didn’t have that traditional sort of grow up with the piano, doing classical lessons. I never really took to that. Just kind of figuring out how to play movie themes on the piano. We’d watch a movie as a family and then I’d go over to the piano and figure out how to play that by ear. My dad taught me about basic chords and inversions and how to make that work.

From the very beginning, I was really interested, “Okay, how do I get my ear stronger.” Whereas a lot of kids they grew up just running through scales and playing classical pieces. I think there’s a lot of merit to that as well, but that wasn’t really my early background. Going on from there, I started playing saxophone in middle school, which is a little bit later than some of the other kids. I think most of the students were starting in fourth grade, but I was in seventh grade. It was fun. I was again kind of just messing around, noodling, figuring out how to play things by ear.
Then in high school is when I really started to get obsessed with practicing and playing music. From there on out, it was just like really my obsessions. That’s all I wanted to do was make music all the time.

Christopher: That’s really interesting. I don’t think there are many high schools students who would say they were obsessed with practicing. That sounds unusual. Tell us where the attitude came from.

Jeff: Well, you know, it was a combination of … There were some musicians that were older than me in school that I really looked up to. Actually there’s this moment where I read this interview. It was with Charlie Parker and I think Paul Desmond was conducting the interview. In it, Charlie Parker talks about how he practiced for like 15 hours a day for three years, and I just thought that was ridiculous, but I was like wow. That kind of made something click in my head and that was if I just work hard enough, I’ll be able to get to that level. I started putting in as many hours as I could.

There was like a summer I remember distinctly after I think freshman year in high school or sophomore year in high school and I practiced like eight hours a day all summer. It was clear when I came back to school the following semester, there was such an improvement in my playing. It was just a real affirmation that the practicing paid off and that the hard work paid off.

Christopher: I have a couple of questions there. I guess the first is whether you have any observations on the environment you’d grown up in or your school’s attitude to music that let you be so positive about the idea of practicing so much, you know? I’m sure there’s a personality aspect to it, but I know there’s also a lot of music education where the practicing is so dull and the payoff’s so intangible that people really struggle. Like even if they’re excited to get to the end goal, there’s very few who actually follow through and do a lot of practice at that age.

Jeff: Yeah. After teaching for a long time too, I’ve kind of gotten to see both sides of the coin there of how some students are just so engaged in getting better and have the drive to sit through the more boring exercises because they know that on the other end of that they’re going to see some real results. Whereas there’s plenty of kids out there who just don’t want to go through the hard times to get to the good times, which is understandable. That’s sort of human nature. A lot of it, like you said, I think is personality, but everything just kind of excited me.

I was just so into it at the time and still am for that mater, but at a young age I was so into that, like I said, I was able to kind of push through exercises that would make some people go crazy. I’m sure it made my parents go crazy when I was practicing all hours of the night. But to me, it was just like so much fun and awesome. I do think it’s a personality thing, but there are also … Like you were kind of alluding to, the school system that I was in, music was very much supported. We had a good music program in my high school. My band director gave me a lot of opportunity and encouraged me. I think that does have a lot to do with it as well, and my parents of course.
The same kind of thing, very supportive. They would let me practice when I wanted to, which oftentimes was in the middle of the night. I had the right environment to put that kind of work into it.

Christopher: Terrific. You touched a couple of times there on the second thing I wanted to ask you about in that which was what that practicing looked like. You made that reference there to boring exercises and endless drills and maybe we could just take that sum of where you were practicing eight hours a day. If you can cross your mind back, what did that look like and how did you know how to spend eight hours or did you know how to spend eight hours fruitfully?

Jeff: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think boring is in the eyes of the beholder, right? Something’s are going to be exciting to some people and others will find it boring. I had this distinct memory of taking this Charlie Parker licks because I had just gotten the Omnibook, the transcriptions of many of Charlie Parker’s solos. I would take lines in the Omnibook and just transpose them into all 12 keys. Just little Bebop licks. I would force myself to see how fast I could do it. Like go from one key to the next and do it up to tempo. Those were the types of exercises that I practiced, a lot of transposition.

That was just something that I heard from random people at like a music store. I had a great teacher in my sophomore year of high school. Will Vincent is this alto saxophonist. Amazing player and a fantastic teacher. He would tell me to do things in other keys as well. I just took whatever I could find and transposed it and that made a big difference.

Christopher: Got you. That’s really interesting. I think it fills in a little bit because I think you talked to people who kind of taught themselves by ear and you talked to people in the jazz world who are like, “Of course, you should play everything at all 12 keys,” but somewhere along the line you need to wrap your head around what that means. Particularly I think if you are more an ear player than a sheet music player, that’s not always easy to do. It’s interesting to hear that was a big part of your practice there.

Jeff: Yeah. That was probably one of the things that got my understanding of scales and chords. That theory knowledge, that’s what got it together because as I said, I was sort of coming up as an ear player. The act of transposing forces you to really know your scales well, to really know your chords well. I think what it also does is it helps you internalize on an oral level whatever it is you’re working on. Because whenever you hear something so many times in different keys, I think it helps you internalize whatever it is that you’re playing. It does come out both on sort of a left brain and a right brain side.

Christopher: It sounds like sax was your main focus at that point. Were you still playing some piano?

Jeff: I was always playing piano. Just kind of messing around. I would compose on the piano. I was also playing guitar quite a bit. I had the sort of Stevie Ray Vaughan blues phase a little bit before I started really getting into saxophone. Genre wise I was spread a little bit out there, but yeah. By that time when I was doing the epic saxophone practicing sessions, it was definitely primarily sax at that point.

Christopher: Got you. You clearly had some inspiration about the kind of music you wanted to play or the kind of musician you wanted to be. During that period, were there any kind of rewards or kind of results of your labor that kind of kept you motivated? Because for our listeners, motivation is often a big thing. It’s one thing to get really psyched about learning a new skill and put in a week or two, but to keep you going over time, often having some kind of outlet or some kind of event or some kind of sub goal can really help keep you passionate.

I was just wondering, for you, was it like, “Okay, now I’m going to work for 10 years and become a professional,” or were you kind of seeing some payoff from all of that hard work along the way?

Jeff: I definitely noticed results in terms of how the practicing was paying off, but at the same time, I would play concerts at school and just be so self-critical that I would want to quit. I was really self-critical at the same time. Actually what motivated me the most was getting the opportunity to play with other people, especially people who were close to my age. Because if I was playing with somebody who was around my age whose playing I really thought was great, that would push me to want to get my playing better because you can kind of see what’s possible.

It’s like if you hear a great player who’s 30 years older than you, yeah, that’s fun to listen to, but at the same time it’s like, “Oh yeah. That guy’s or gal’s 30 years older me. It makes a lot of sense that they can play like that.” Whereas if you go to hear someone or play with somebody who’s closer to your age, you know where I’m going with this, and they actually have those skills that you want, you’re like, “Wow. I really got to get it together here because I could be doing more.” That was real big motivation for me.

Going to like music camps during the summer and regional, whatever they call them, like all state, all that kind of stuff, local competitions. That sort of thing.

Christopher: Cool. Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do after high school and if so, was that what panned out?

Jeff: Yeah. I think by the time I started doing those epic practice sessions, I was convinced that I was going to just go to music school and music conservatory and just become a professional musician. My parents were amazingly supportive with that, even though I’m sure they were sort of scared quite a bit. I have a very obsessive personality and they were … I don’t even know what the word is. I just had my son. I don’t know if I would send him to music school. They agreed to have me go and it all worked out. I love what I do now. I get to be a professional musician, whatever that means. It all worked out.

Christopher: Nice. You say, “Be a professional musician, whatever that means.” It’s something that’s come up a few times on the podcast that whatever realm of music you’re in, it’s not a clearcut job description, right?

Jeff: Exactly. Exactly.

Christopher: It’s very few musicians who just do one thing to support themselves through music. I’d love if you could share a little bit about what that journey has looked like for you and how you’ve approached becoming a professional musician from the point of okay, now I’m a good player. How do you then get to the point where you’re like, “Great. I’m paying my bills. This is my living. I am a musician.”

Jeff: Yeah. Well, I’m glad you pointed that out. I intentionally wanted to try to keep that open-ended in terms of not defining what it is to be a professional musician. Because as you said, the word journey, that’s so key. In my case and I think just about everybody’s case, rarely is there a point where things are static and you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over again in this field. My job and my way of making a living has been constantly evolving over time. I’ve taught little kids. I’ve taught older people. I’ve taught beginners and more advanced players. I’ve composed for commercials and advertising and television.

It’s been such a wide variety of work that I’ve sort of shifted in and out of. It’s been a journey. I think one of the I guess secrets there is just to keep your eyes open and keep thinking about ways of evolving. If you get too comfortable, it’s really possible. This happened recently with the job market. I don’t know how recently, but right where a lot of people started losing their jobs because everything was changing so much. I guess what I’m trying to say is the model of getting a gig and then having it for 40 to 60 years or whatever and then retiring is just not the way it is anymore.

Especially if you’re going to be a musician where you’re essentially an entrepreneur and a business owner, in order to do that successfully, you need to think like an entrepreneur and a business owner and not just like, “Oh, I got to go get a job.” That’s not the way to be successful.

Christopher: Interesting. I want to circle back and talk in a moment about the mindset of an entrepreneur and what you’ve learned on that side, but if you don’t mind first, one thing that I think is really notable about you and the career you have built for yourself is creativity is still at the heart of it. I think a lot of people go the educational route and they maybe extremely good teachers, but they lose that opportunity to perform or compose or arrange or create in their own musical life. I’d love if you could talk a little bit about how you’ve approached… I guess what you want your creative output to look like and how you factor that into this need to also pay the bills in some way, shape or form.

Jeff: That’s another great question. It really resonates with me because I can always tell when I feel like my creative output is not great enough in terms of like quantity with the amount of creativity I’m putting forth. For instance, on my YouTube channel last year, I started this series called Loop of the Day. It was just a way of forcing myself to actually make music as opposed to just teach people how to make it. It was a nice way of combining the educational aspects of this is how this chord works or this chord progression, but doing it in the context of me actually making something. I got to get the best of both worlds there.

I’m creating, but I’m also teaching. Doing and teaching, right? I have a keen sense of awareness as to when I need to be more creative and when I’ve sort of become too stale for my own liking.

Christopher: I don’t want to go too far down the kind of business side of things, but we had an interview recently with Elisa Janson Jones of the Music Ed Mentor Podcast. One really interesting element that came out of that conversation was how valuable the entrepreneurial skillset can be to any musician. You touched on it yourself there where if you want to make a living with music, you are essentially saying I’m starting a business, even if that’s not how culturally we’re raised to think about it. I’d love to hear any resources or lessons or attitudes or philosophies you’ve kind of incorporated to help you adopt that business persona, as well as I am a creative musician.

Jeff: I think the number one thing for me was at some point I realized, “Okay, if I’m going to think of this as running a business, then I have to look at how other businesses are run.”

So what I started thinking about was how do businesses run? You have a CEO. You have the CFO, the CMO. I’ll do it one more time. What I started thinking about was how are businesses run. You have the chief executive officer. You have the chief marketing officer. You have the head of sales. You have a creative director. All these different positions. If you’re running your own business, you have to basically fill those different chairs. That’s how I approached it. I decided okay, I got to learn a little bit about marketing. I got to learn a little bit about sales. I already had the creative officer sort of role figured out because that’s what my education was.

It was how to be creative in music, but those other positions, learning how to handle your finances. Yes at some point you can hire people to do this, but if you’re a one man show, you need to at least have a little bit of knowhow to get by and to be successful.

Christopher: Is there any clash between you playing the role of chief marketing officer and you playing the role of chief creative officer? There’s really varied opinions out there about whether this is the best or the worst time to try and succeed in music in terms of finding listeners and making a living with it. How do you think about that in getting your music out there and getting paid for it versus I’ll make the music I want to make?

Jeff: Well, one thing that I read a while back that stuck with me for a long time is this article that was referred to me from Tim Ferriss. It’s this guy Kevin Kelly wrote this article called “1,000 True Fans.” In a nutshell, he talks about how if you can get 1,000 true fans, like 1,000 super fans who are willing to actually spend money on you, whether it’d be let’s say a hundred bucks a month or a year, right? If you got a thousand fans who are spending $100 a year on you, whether that be for courses or for music that you’re making or for merchandise, whatever it is, then you’re making $100,000 by the end of the year, which is a respectable living.

More than respectable. I guess the point there is if you can get a thousand true fans, then you’re good to go. Now maybe 20 years ago this would be very difficult to do for a lot of people when the record companies are controlling the industry and so forth, but now you have so much independence. You can put music out on the internet, wow, where you have three billion people online and you have access to them. At some point, I was like really discouraged because a lot of people at, like I said, these camps that I was going to or in music school, you hear a lot of discouraging things like it’s really difficult to make a living in music.

Nobody likes jazz anymore. When you think about the fact that there three billion people online and you only have to get a thousand of them to support you, the odds are in your favor. If you know how to leverage things like the internet, which I pretty much grew up with, it’s very possible to make a living doing anything really. I mean even something as obscure as high level jazz theory, it’s possible to do that because of the access you have to the whole world.

Christopher: Terrific. I wonder if you could give an example or two of where that’s influenced you in terms of projects or decisions you’ve made? When has that idea of a thousand true fans helped you make a decision?

Jeff: I think it helped me make decisions about not needing to pander to what I think is going to be like a popular way of thinking or a popular sound. It can be really easy to try to people please and make stuff only for the reason that you think other people might like it. When you realize that there are so many people out there who … If you like something and if you do it well, somebody else is going to like it too. If you do enough work when it comes to getting your music out there, doing some promoting, learning a little bit about marketing and sales, you’re going to find a thousand people out there who like what you do.

It might not happen overnight, but it can certainly happen. There’s a lot to be said for staying true to what you like and what you feel is good and the kind of art that you want to make or whatever it is that you want to do even if it’s super, super unique. Oftentimes it’s the unique stuff that goes the furthest. That concept of niching down where you really get specific and that way maybe there’s going to be a lot of people out there who hate it, but if you try to … What is the expression? If you try to please everybody, you’re not going to please anybody. I think the same thing goes for music and for most things in life really.

Christopher: We’ve talked a bit about creativity there. I know that some of our listeners who are songwriters or composers or starting a band, that will have really resonated with them, and they’ll really have appreciated your perspective. At the same time, I know there are some listeners who don’t consider themselves creative. One thing we often talk about here on the show is how improvisation is not an out of reach skill only for the expert jazz musicians for example. You as a jazz specialist yourself and a sax player have a ton of experience with improvisation, and I’ve particularly enjoyed some of your YouTube videos talking about how to approach improvisation.

I’d love if we could talk a little bit about creativity in that context and maybe some of the more practical side of being creative in music.

Jeff: Absolutely.

Christopher: So I’ll begin by asking just the simple question of how do you think about improvisation in music? You can answer that as a teacher or as a musician or as both.

Jeff: Yeah. I’ll answer as both. The way I think about improvisation is basically just like any language where when you speak, you don’t have an exact idea of what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. You just start talking and you say something that kind of gets at what you mean hopefully. Improvisation is the same thing. You have an idea in your head. Because you’ve practiced speaking so much previously to continue the analogy, you’re able to communicate what it is you want to say musically. To get a little bit less esoteric there and talk about this is a more practical way, let’s say you learn…

I’ll continue the analogy here with language because I do think it’s helpful. Let’s say you learn a bunch of vocabulary words and the metaphor there is vocabulary words means like a lick let’s say. You learn a bunch of licks and you start to integrate the language of music into your subconscious mind by maybe you’re doing transcriptions, so you’re transcribing these licks. Maybe you’re doing transposition exercises like I was discussing before where you’re really internalizing these licks. After a while, just like when you learn a new vocabulary word, you force yourself to use it in a sentence. You force yourself to write it down and use it in your writing, in your everyday speech.

When you do that with you musical ideas, when you do that with licks, you force yourself to use them in a solo. You force yourself to use them in a composition. Eventually those lines that you practiced so much in so many different keys, in so many different contexts, even if you’ve been forcing it, eventually those ideas come out organically. That is when improvisation really starts to feel effortless and that you’re just speaking like I’m speaking right now where I don’t have to think about every single word and every single grammar rule or whatever. It’s just coming out naturally. The same is possible for improvisation.

It takes a lot of time. A lot of the struggles and the challenges arise because well, when we learned language, when we learned to speak our native language, it was at a very young age when we just kind of soak up the information and we don’t need to think about grammar or spelling or anything like that. We just kind of learned to speak by figuring it out. When most people learn to improvise, it’s later on in life when they don’t have that same neuroplasticity or whatever you want to call it. You do need to really spend a little bit more learning how to improvise.

Just like when you’re learning any language, any second language, you need to … They say the best way to learn a language is to put yourself in the country of where that language is spoken and that’s because that immersion is so effective. If you immerse yourself in music, if you’re always practicing, if you’re always transposing, if you’re always listening and transcribing and playing with other people, the music will start to come out of you organically. That’s an amazing feeling when you just suddenly have musical ideas kind of come to the surface out of nowhere it seems, and then you’re able to play them because you have that connection with your instrument.

I’ll say one more thing. Improvisation is just composition, but you do it spontaneously. Just like to improve your speaking, you can practice writing. To improve your improvisation, you can practice composing. Spontaneous composition is also a very I think useful way of thinking about improvisation.

Christopher: Terrific. That was a really well-put explanation. I wonder if I could ask you a bit more on something you touched on there, which is kind of you’re internalizing all of this vocab and now it’s in you in some sense. When the time comes to improvise, you bring it out. Can you shed any light on what for you or what you think should be the mental process for making that happen? Like is it an ear thing? Is it a music theory intellectual thing? Is it pure instinct? What does that look like once you’ve internalized this vocab?

Jeff: Ideally it’s an ear thing. However, in order for it to become an ear thing, sometimes we need to rely on theory to help us get there. When I was talking before about transposing exercises and how that helps internalize something in your ear, that’s kind of what I’m talking about now where if you use theory to help you get there, eventually it’s going to make whatever it is you’re practicing, it’s going to make its way into your ear. Another thing you can do to help that process along is by actually singing. Even if you’re not a singer, if you’re just an instrumentalist, by singing, you also help internalize musical ideas in your ear.

You also make it clear when you’re not actually hearing something accurately. Because it’s easy enough to put your fingers down on the piano or on the guitar or press keys on a saxophone and just kind of blow air and the notes come out, but it’s a lot like … I was thinking about this yesterday actually talking about how if you were to … Sure. You can say words that you don’t understand and people are going to know you don’t really understand them. It’s a similar thing. If you just push down your fingers and hope that it sounds good, maybe it might work if you’re lucky some of the time, but most of the time it’s going to sound like you’re BS-ing.

Just like if you were to go to France, speak with a French accent, but just speak a lot of gibberish in a French accent, it’s not going to make any sense to anybody. The same is true for music. In order to really understand whether or not you are hearing something clearly, if you can sing it accurately, if you can sing each note very accurately, get the center of the pitch, then you can really confirm, “Okay, I do have this idea and I can execute it clearly and accurately.” If you cannot do that, then you need to slow down. You need to make sure you can sing your ideas, and then you’ll have a much better chance at having those ideas pop up organically.

There’s a really excellent video with Bill Evans. It’s on YouTube. You can just search for like Bill Evans lesson or something like that. It’s an interview where he’s sitting down at the piano and he’s being asked these questions. He does this demonstration of how if you approximate your improvisation, it’s very clear that you’re just basically BS-ing and it’s not anything of substance. Then you play much more simple, but it’s much more clear and substantial and the difference is clear. He probably talks about the same idea in a much more eloquent and succinct way than I just did, so I highly recommend checking out the Bill Evans video that’s out there.

Christopher: Nice. We will put a link to that in the show notes. I love, love, love that you recommended singing like that. It’s such a powerful thing and I 100% agree that if you can’t sing it, you haven’t really understood it by ear. I’d almost wrap up the interview here just to make sure we sent everyone away to think carefully about that. If anyone is thinking, “Oh, but I can’t sing,” we’ll have links in the show notes to past episodes where we’ve gone deep on that and shown you some ways you can get going with singing and singing in tune. I won’t wrap up the interview though because Jeff, there were a couple more things I wanted to pick your brains on.

One was this fantastic blog post you wrote, which we’ll link to in the show notes, called “7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Playing Music.” I won’t put you on the spot and ask you to read the full seven, but there were a few that jumped out of me. We can refer people to the full blog post for more, but I wonder if you could just speak to a few of these. One was that time matters more than pitches.

Jeff: Yes. I saw this video with the bassist Victor Wooten. It was an instructional DVD. He does this little example, this demonstration, where he plays every wrong note. It was almost random in terms of the pitches, but he plays with such good rhythm and feel and phrasing that it sounds amazing. If anybody’s heard Victor Wooten, you know he’s got an amazing feel and amazing phrasing and great rhythm. That really kind of drove the point home that if you have good time and good phrasing and good rhythm, you can get away with playing wrong notes.

Unfortunately, especially the way music and jazz and improvisation is taught in a lot of places, the emphasis is placed on the notes, the pitches, the scales, the arpeggios, all that harmonic analysis. That stuff is important. Don’t get me wrong. However, you can play all the right notes you want. If your time and your phrasing and your feel and your rhythm suck, it’s going to sound bad. It doesn’t go both ways. You can play the wrong notes with the good time and the good feel and the good phrasing and get away with it. It’s going to sound pretty good, but you can’t go the other way.

You can’t expect to play all the right scales and arpeggios and have bad time and phrasing and expect it to sound good. It doesn’t work that way. I think of playing music or improvisation or whatever in terms of a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, the biggest section, that’s where the time and the phrasing and the rhythm are. Then above that later on in the pyramid is where I put those pitches and the scales and the arpeggios and all that.

Christopher: Such a powerful point. Yeah. That’s something we emphasize in our approach to improvisation at Musical U, but you’re 100% right that when someone’s learning to improvise, they go so quickly to, “Oh, what scale should I use, or what do I play over this chord?” If you’re playing whole notes every bar, no one’s going to be listening. As you say, if you play the single pitch but an awesome groove, you’re going to catch people’s attention. The second one was anticipate the chord changes. What do you mean by that?

Jeff: I learned about anticipating chord changes from one of my teachers in music school Jerry Bergonzi, this tenor saxophonist. Amazing educator. Amazing player. What he had me do was anticipate chord changes. Basically let’s say you’re playing a blues in B flat. You have a B flat 7 for four bars and then you have the E flat 7. The idea is to start playing a line that would fit on E flat 7 before the E flat 7 hits. This has a really cool musical effect where there’s a little bit of tension, and then once the harmony catches up, everything kind of resolves and it sounds really good because you have that tension and release.

But another effect I found is that when you are thinking ahead, not just for a musical advantage, but you’re also preparing your mind to be able to execute the chord accurately and appropriately. Even if you don’t start musically anticipating the chord, you’ll have an idea, “Okay, I know this chord’s coming up. It’s not going to catch me off guard when it does hit, so that when E flat 7, to use that blues example, comes up, I’ll be ready for it and I won’t be caught off guard.” That’s sort of the crux of the issue. Especially when you’re playing a fast tune with difficult changes, by the time the next chord comes up, it’s already gone and you lost your chance to nail it.

By anticipating the chord changes, by thinking ahead, you’re going to be better able to execute and be able to navigate those changes in a way that is musical and effective.

Christopher: Super cool. I love that for a few reasons. The first is that I think it’s one of those really simple concepts that can actually really kind of give you a little leap forwards in how good your improv sounds. I think it’s also because it kind of blends those two worlds of rhythm and pitch and creates a looser feel of what should I play over this chord. You’re still thinking that through, but you’re not feeling like, “And now it’s this chord, I’ll just do these notes, and now it’s this chord, I’ll just do these notes.” I think it gives you one step more sophisticated and appreciation of the melody-harmony interplay, but it’s such an easy thing for people to try out.

If you’re used to playing over the chord changes, just try stretching that boundary a little like Jeff recommends.

Jeff: Sorry to cut you off, but you are making me think like one other benefit of doing that anticipation is especially on tunes where the changes are a little bit unusual, maybe like a jazz tune like Moment’s Notice or Stable Mates where you have two fives that are moving chromatically. Where if you do, like you were saying, play in a very vertical fashion where you’re playing, “Okay. I’m playing on this key and this two five here, and I’m switching abruptly to this key and this two five,” there’s nothing connecting. It’s very vertical as opposed to horizontal.

When you anticipate chord changes, it doesn’t sound so abrupt when you go to the next chord change. It’s like voice leaning in a way. it’s like there’s some common tones between within the two chords. Even if they’re not technically notes that would work on the previous chord, by forcing it, it does connect the two harmonic areas in a way that makes it feel really natural when you go from one key to the next. If you have difficult changes, try anticipating those chord changes so that it feels much more horizontal as opposed to just vertical.

Christopher: Awesome. The third one that jumped out of me that I couldn’t not ask about because it’s such a great heading was secrets of sight reading. That’s a hot topic for a lot of our listeners who maybe struggle with traditional notation or feel like they just can’t get fast enough. What would be your recommendations there?

Jeff: There’s a lot that goes into a good sight reading. I didn’t learn these lessons or a lot of them I just kind of figured them out out of some trial and error, but sight reading is always a real challenge especially for me. What I think helps quite a bit are a few things. One, again, the time is going to be more important than the notes. Get into the habit of if you make a mistake, don’t just stop and restart that measure or go back to the beginning. Because in a real life situation, if you’re sight reading a tune or a chart with a band and you make a mistake, they’re not going to stop for you if you make a mistake. You have to keep going.

You want to get into the habit of not losing the time. A nice exercise to help you get into the habit of this is playing a measure and then resting a measure. Playing a measure and then resting a measure. This will get you in the habit of letting the time go forward regardless of whether you’re playing or not. It keeps your eyes moving along the page. Because if you make that mistake and your eyes are suddenly locked on where you made the mistake, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting back to where everyone else is. You want to get in the habit of keeping that forward momentum. The other thing …

Christopher: Sorry to interrupt, but just to clarify, you’re talking about playing a bar and then letting the music continue as it were, but you’re maybe imagining in your head before you come back in?

Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Christopher: Got you.

Jeff: You can sing it in your head where you’re resting or you can just let the time go by. It’s just to get into the habit of not feeling like you need to be getting every single note right. Because in fact, the time and keeping the time going is more important than nailing every single note.

Christopher: Right. The beat moves on with or without you.

Jeff: Exactly. Yeah. Well said. Another thing that is really effective when it comes to sight reading is chunking information. This concept of chunking is pretty popular in how to learn. It’s the concept of taking little bits of information and combining them into larger chunks so that your brain has a little bit more free space to process things. For instance, if you have a G, a B, a D and an F in succession, rather than seeing four different notes, four different pieces of information, you can say, “Okay. Look, it’s G-B-D-F. That’s a G7 arpeggio.” Suddenly your brain is able to chunk four pieces of information into one and that’s just going to free up your mind space to look at the next phrase.

What I do oftentimes is if I’m handed a new piece of sheet music is I’ll just take a look through. If I can find any patterns right off the bat, any sort of arpeggios or scales, maybe I’ll circle them just to kind of remind myself, “Okay. This here is an arpeggio for this chord or this here is a scale.” This is where knowing theory can be really helpful because the more scales you can recognize, like if you see oh, it’s a pentatonic scale or oh, it’s an augmented scale or a diminished scale, like if you can put those labels on it, that’s going to really help you organize the information in a way where it’s chunked together and it’s not just going to be a million notes on the page.

Last but not least, just practicing like anything else. You have to be familiar with just like those arpeggios that I was talking about. Rhythms. You see the same rhythms come up again and again. The more you practice sight reading, the more you’re going to recognize those rhythms. It does take time. It’s difficult, but I hope that those tips are helpful in some way.

Christopher: Yeah, fantastic.

Jeff: They are for me at least. They did help me.

Christopher: Fantastic advice on sight reading. You mentioned practicing. I’d love if we may to wrap up by talking again about practicing and in particular, you have a piece of advice in an article on your blog about how to practice effectively that I just thought was so important for people to factor in. I wonder if you could share with us what is the secret to practicing effectively?

Jeff: One of the best ways to approach practicing is to think of it like … I like to think of a balance beam. You have a gymnast on a balance beam. If they fall off the balance beam, everyone knows. It’s very, very clear. Where am I going with this? Well, I like to create exercises for myself and for my students where it’s very, very clear when they fall off the balance beam. The reason for that is I want them to know when they’ve made a mistake.

Instead of falling into the trap of just kind of noodling around, sort of aimlessly playing, maybe they’re working on an exercise, but then they kind of get distracted and they start going onto something else, if you have focus to the point where you’re able to realize when your attention has wandered or to go back to my balance beam analogy, to the point where you fall off the balance beam.

Focus is the most important thing, right? If you lose focus on an exercise that you’re working on, you’re not going to be making the most out of your time. One thing you can do to improve focus is thinking about practicing like meditation where basically with meditation in a nutshell, you are focusing on your breath. As soon as you realize your focus wonders away from your breath, you bring your focus back to your breath. It’s as simple as that. It’s like you realize you’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about, so you bring your attention back to where you’re supposed to be thinking.

It doesn’t have to be anything more complicated than that. You don’t have to bring emotion into it. You don’t have to like beat yourself up over the fact that you started thinking about what you want for lunch later in the day. It’s just, “Okay. I got distracted. Now I’m coming back.” But if you don’t realize that you got distracted, you’re never going to be able to bring yourself back. That’s why the practice of meditation is actually really useful for practicing music. Because if you’re able to become aware of the fact that you’re thinking about lunch, then you can stop thinking about lunch and start thinking about your exercise that you’re supposed to be working on.

Now what I was talking before about the exercises and the balance beam and all that, I’m trying to think of an example here. Let’s say you’re doing something with a metronome. You’re practicing something with the metronome. You have the metronome on beats two and four. It’s like one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. You’re working on this time exercise let’s say. It’s kind of tricky. Sometimes you might mess up and now the metronome suddenly shifted to beats one and three. You flip the beat in your head so now it’s one, two, three, four.
What happens is the metronome let’s you know, “Oh, I’ve done something. I flipped the beat. I’ve fallen off the balance beam. Now I could get back on it and practice this exercise and try to do it correctly next time.” If you don’t have that awareness of the fact that you have either made a mistake or your mind has wondered off, then you’re basically wasting a lot of time. It’s basically like spinning your wheels. To wrap that up, stay focused on what you’re working on. Be aware of whether or not you’re focused or not. If you realized that you’ve lost focus, no big deal.

Just bring your focus back to what you’re supposed to be working on and get on with practicing. That’s all there is to it there.

Christopher: Awesome advice. That is something that can make such a transformational difference in the results people get I think. I’m sure a lot of our listeners are in the situation, I have been myself, where you set aside the time for music practice, but if you really stopped and looked at how you are spending that time, it’s more like just playing around than practicing. I think you’re absolutely right that focus is such a critical part of that and setting yourself up in a way that you can really answer the question, was I focused or not?

Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Christopher: I’m sure for anyone listening it’s clear at this point how much wisdom and insight is packed into Jeff’s head and how generous he is with it. I wanted to point you to something in particular on his website that you must go check out. Jeff, could you tell us what are Musical Truth Nuggets?

Jeff: Well, Musical Truth Nuggets are just a fun name for basically my newsletter in which I include some videos that I’ve made, blog posts that I’ve written. It’s just an easy way to get notified when I come out with new material and new teaching so that it gets delivered directly to your inbox and you don’t have to worry about searching it out. That can be found on my website. There’s a sign up form right on the homepage of Those are the weekly Musical Truth Nuggets that I try share with people.

Christopher: Nice. Well, it’s more than just myself on the team who has been enjoying those Musical Truth Nuggets for a while now. I would definitely recommend going to and signing up. Could you give people an idea of what else they’ll find on your website and your YouTube channel?

Jeff: Yeah. My YouTube channel, I talk a lot about the stuff that we talked about today. Fortunately, I’m able to edit myself a bit more so I don’t come off as long-winded. The YouTube videos, as I said, cover a lot of different musical concepts and topics. I try to get involved with different visual representations of those concepts and topics so it can be very clear and easy to understand. Also on my website I have some courses, some guides that supplement and support the YouTube videos. For instance, I have this chord scale chart.

I call it “The Last Chord Scale Chart You’ll Ever Need” because it has everything, and its laid out in such a way where it’s super easy to understand. It’s the kind of thing that I wish that I had when I was learning different scales and modes and arpeggios and all that kind of stuff. I have some piano voicing that I call “Sick Voicings Volume One.” Volume two is coming out soon. In that I include really hip voicings for piano that are amazing for jazz and for gospel and neo-soul and R&B. Again those are laid out in such a way that’s kind of unique. It will help you when it comes to composing and reharmonizing. It’s all the voicings that I love to use in my own playing.

Christopher: Fantastic. I hope Jeff is going to forgive me for saying something rude, which is that these courses on his website are massively under priced for the value you get.

Jeff: They probably are.

Christopher: If you’re imagining spending a ton of money here, do check out his website. See if any of those courses appeal and then pick up a few because they are going to give you more Musical Truth Nuggets and more insights and wisdom like Jeff’s been kind enough to share today. All that remains is to say a big thank you, Jeff. That’s been such a pleasure talking through these topics with you, and I really encourage everyone to check out your website, your YouTube channel, and learn more.

Jeff: Thank you so much, Christopher. It’s been a pleasure talking with you as well.

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The post Focusing on What Matters, with Jeff Schneider appeared first on Musical U.