Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 34 seconds


Jamey AebersoldPassion has had a long run with motivational speakers and it's hard to have escaped "the-find-your-passion" message. Passion is a good thing. It breeds ideas and people and without it we would have a lot less of either. But I come not to praise or bury passion. It's very helpful. But it's not the base that anyone can build upon.

Passion without competence is the village idiot. We all know people in our lives who are very passionate, but don't have a clue about what they are doing because they lack skills to reach their goals. Passion is a differentiator when those involved have competence. Passion gives us the extra juice to solve problems.

However, you must have skills and that means learning the language of your field of endeavor. In my college days, I took a summer of private lessons from Jamey Aebersold, a New Albany, Ind.-native who could have played with any major jazz group, but chose to stay close to his family's business. He developed into the foremost jazz educator in America (after I was gone).

Lessons had major chunks devoted to learning scales, and a variety of patterns involving scales, ascending and descending on my trombone. The goal was to be equally fluid in playing these scales and patterns in all 12 major and 12 relative minor keys (the kind most of us get in K-12 music), along with other minor scales and all modes (scales most of you don't need to know about). Oh yes, toss in arpeggios (going up and down chords) in all keys. That sounds like a lot of fun, right? (By the way, the same is true of my voice lessons, which for 28 years have started out with 10 to 15 minutes of exercises).

This is learning to speak a particular language, the language of jazz. Because once these patterns are automatic, the creative part of the mind can weave them into longer and longer improvisational performances. If you run out of ideas, they provide a fall back. When I face a problem in musical performance (largely vocal now), I think, "Trust your technique."

You might say, it takes passion to stick to this and I would agree, to a point. But there many amateur musicians who are very passionate about music. No matter how much passion they have, they lack the skills to excel. Their passionate emotions often make them simply sloppy.

Learning skills until they are applied automatically, almost unconsciously, is a key to being able to utilize passion. Paradoxically, it is that disciplined approach to learning that produces greater creativity than does undisciplined eruption of thought.

Go to Aebersold's site at and you can find his way still includes memorizing songs, another really un-passionate thing. And while I haven't seen him in decades, I notice his volume "Jazz, Anyone Can Improvise" has a CD volume, “Learn to Improvise in Every Key, Major and Minor."

I think his lessons would be very familiar to me after all these years. As one of his site's notes say, "Pick a different key each day/week/practice."

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