• A Beginners Guide to Playing “Outside”

    This article is a guest post from Sean Winter

    The purpose of this article is to introduce the concept of playing outside of the given key centre of a song. Usually when we start out improvising we learn the scales related to whichever key we are playing in. Then the scales related to the specific chords in the song. The term “playing outside was popularized during the swing era when some players were starting to venture away from the confines of what was written on the page. During this time the roots of bebop were starting to form and the shift out of the swing era was under way.

    Playing “outside” is not limited to bebop or any jazz for that matter. Modern masters of the saxophone such as Maceo Parker, Jeff Coffin or Joshua Redman have made great use of playing “outside” in Funk and Soul Music.

    I want to discuss a few ways that the improviser can start incorporate “out” notes into their playing.

    It’s important to realize that when we start to move away from the key centre that Intention is often more important than the notes themselves. That if you don’t know the theory behind what you are playing you are more likely to sound like you don’t know what you are doing and are just playing random notes.

    Along with Intention is the understanding of “Tension” and “Resolution”. Tension could easily be described as when you ARE playing outside of the key and Resolution being when you come back to the original key. This is a very simple and easy to grasp way of looking at it. The longer you are playing outside of the key the more tension is created until you resolve back into the original key.

    I’m going to discuss 3 devices that I think are a good starting point for playing outside of the key centre. Although there are many ways to do this we are going to discuss just these 3 for the beginner.

    1) PATTERNS:

    Patterns are a sequence of notes given a numerical value based on the degrees of the scale.

    C D E F G A B
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7

    This Numbering system applies to all 12 keys. Shorter patterns (2,3,4 notes) are often called “motifs”.

    A common pattern in bebop is 1-2-3-5. In C the first note being C, the Second being D, the third E and the fifth G.

    This pattern can be used in many different ways. It can be applied to the given chord changes of a song to play inside and “Run the changes”. Or it can be used by the improviser in the context of playing outside.

    The pattern would be put through a sequence at the liberty of the improviser depending on the situation to achieve those “Outside” sounds. These sequences being based on different intervals. Half Step, Whole Step, Minor thirds, Major Thirds, Fourths, Tritone etc

    Arguably the Half step motion creates the most tension right away. Applying the above pattern in this way would look like:

    C-D-E-G C#-D#-E#-G# D-E-F#-A Eb-F-G-Bb E-F#-G#-B and so on through the 12 keys.
    1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5

    In fourths this would look like

    C-D-E-G F-G-A-C Bb-C-D-F Eb-F-G-Bb Ab-Bb-C-Eb
    1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5 1 2 3 5

    There are many books with many other interesting patterns that you can check out. Jerry Coker’s Patterns for Jazz is pretty much considered to standard literature on this topic. If you are intrigued by this I suggest you go pick up a copy of his book.


    Side stepping is a different but similar approach to Patterns. It is similar in the sense that you are stepping into a different key but different because a pattern is not necessarily applied.

    A good way of thinking about this is to consider when you just improvise over a major scale using just the notes from that scale or “Diatonically”. Side Stepping involves improvising in the one key and then switching to improvising Diatonically in a different key. This creates tension. Often the resolution is created by switching back to playing in the original key but the improviser can switch through multiple keys before resolving back to the original if they so choose.

    Most commonly this technique is applied to soloing a half step away but can be run through any of the intervals at the improvisers discretion.

    I should point out that many improvisers do not only play diatonically when Side Stepping. That when they are in the different key they are able to apply all the same alterations and patterns they would in the original key. The term diatonic is only being used to aid in the simple nature of what Side Stepping is all about.

    A great example of this would be on the Live Maceo Parker recording “Shake Everything You’ve Got” where Maceo is playing along just with the drummer and goes through all of the keys in Half step motion before returning to the original key at which point the whole band comes back in. This is a well known and well used trick that got a lot of popularity in the early R/B days.

    Other great Side Steppers are Kenny Garrett, Alex Han, Jeff Coffin, Joshua Redman, Michael Brecker and too many others to list. Check those players out for starters.


    This isn’t a phrase that is really tossed around. It is a well known and well used trick for playing outside that gets very immediate and noticeable results and is likely the simplest of the 3 to get playing “Outside”

    The chord tones of whichever chords you are playing over are considered the strongest notes for improvising in key. It stands to reason that playing any of these notes a half step away would create some tension.

    Two ways of doing this would be;

    i) Simply to play one of the chord tones and then move to the note a half step away (up or down) and then back again.

    For example if playing in the Key of F: Playing an F and then an F# and then back to an F would create a very obvious way of playing outside of the key. Also the same could be done for any of the chord tones 1-3-5-7-9. Playing on the fifth ( C ) you would Play C-C#-C.

    ii) Still playing the chord tones but altering some or all of them by a half step.

    Here is a quick exercise for doing this.

    Play a Broken F7 Chord (F-A-C-Eb)

    Now play a Broken F#dim7 Chord (F#-A-C-Eb)

    Now play a Broken Faug7 Chord (F-A-C#-Eb)

    Notice how the second and third chords are only 1 note being changed by a half step.

    Experiment with all the keys and alter each of the chord tones (up and down) by a half step. This is a great way to get familiar with different chords and to hear the difference in the sound created by making chromatic tension in the chord tones.

    In closing I want to say that this is a fairly broad topic. Many players are doing great work with playing outside the changes. These tips are meant to serve as a basis for beginning to play outside and that anyone interested in this topic should please feel free to check out any of the other great resources available.

    Happy Playing!


    Sean WinterWRITTEN BY – Sean Winter, Saxophonist

    Sean Winter is a tenor saxophonist from Victoria, British Columbia. He is currently studying to better himself as a musician as well as playing gigs around town with Blues bands, Soul and Reggae bands. He also leads his own Fusion trio called Weapons of Mass Groove. Check out his bio on Teen Jazz.

    February 17, 2013 • Lessons • Views: 3939

  • Check Out Learn Jazz Standards

    We recently tripped across a fantastic website that provides musicians with a “one-stop shop” for learning various jazz standards and jazz tunes. They feature everything from Song for my Father to ‘Round Midnight and they also spotlight various contemporary albums.

    Each entry features a brief summary of the song – when it was written, who wrote it and notable recordings, preferred recordings of the work, charts in C, Bb and Eb, youtube videos featuring the song and a playalong. Each post is extremely thorough and provides you with all the tools you need to learn new repertoire.

    Check out Learn Jazz Standards.

    January 11, 2013 • Lessons • Views: 1857

  • 5 Easy Steps to Beginning Improvisation

    1. Learn the melody of a tune. Really learn it. Listen to recordings and be able to play the melody the way it was meant to be played. Be able to play the melody from memory.

    2. Make it your own. Develop your own interpretation of the melody – how you would like it to be played – without modifying the changes.

    3. Be able to create a bass line to the changes. If you need help, go back to your recordings and transcribe what the bass player is playing.

    4. Outline the chord changes. Use scales and patterns like 1235, 1353, 12345678, 1357, 7531, 13579, etc. Try variations and combinations from measure to measure to challenge yourself.

    5. Begin improvising. Start be improvising with the melody notes and the patterns you have practiced, then begin exploring other possibilities and ideas you would like to try. If you are still having trouble coming up with ideas for solos, listen to recordings of the songs you are learning and transcribe the solo that the performer plays.

    And when you’re ready to take it to the next level

    August 30, 2012 • Lessons • Views: 1532

  • College Auditions and Applications for Musicians

    When senior year in high school rolls around, you usually have a good idea of what you want to do after school. Having already been through this process myself, I feel that it would be beneficial to share it with other people who may be going through the stress of the same process.

    The most important thing about college applications and auditions is that you should do everything as early and soon as possible.

    Submit your applications and audition materials the first possible day, the sooner you apply, the more likely there is to be money you can receive as a scholarship. It is the same with auditions. Sign up for the earliest auditions; schools usually hand out money as things happen, so there is more in the beginning than there is at the end. If you audition the last day, there is a 99% chance that there will not be any scholarship money left and maybe not even space in the program because they already filled all the slots.

    As far as preparation for the audition, auditions are in the spring, giving you plenty of time to prepare. Unless a student is auditioning at elite music schools, there is a lot of flexibility about what level a student entering a university should be at. No matter what level, however, students are required to know their major and minor scales the whole range of the instrument, etudes, and a solo piece from the standard solo repertoire. The auditions are usually classical auditions, however, more and more schools offer jazz auditions, or let you play one jazz tune with an Aebersold or tracks during your classical audition. At a jazz auditions, the students are asked to play their scales, blues in concert F, Bb or C, and another piece of their choice. Some schools also ask for rhythm changes.

    Each program is unique, and accepts only a limited number of students. Around the time of the auditions, schools post their audition requirements on their websites, and you should strictly adhere to their guidelines.

    Sometimes students worry about how long they have been playing their instrument, but as long as you work hard to prepare for your auditions, the colleges will usually take you into consideration and you should do fine. They look at your potential as much as they consider where you’re at ability-wise at the time of your audition.

    There are several things that you should take into consideration when looking for schools to apply to:

    1) Major: What do you want to study? Just music? Jazz? Classical? Composition? Look for schools with strong programs in what you wish to do.
    2) Location: Do you want to go far from home, or stay close?
    3) Cost: What can you afford? Some schools look to have a diversity of students economically and geographically and are willing to hand out scholarships accordingly.

    It also helps to do scholarship auditions, maintain a high GPA, and score well on your SATs and ACTs. It doesn’t hurt to take both of the tests. Also, diversify yourself – don’t just do music, participate in a wide variety of activities – this will help you a lot.

    Some really good music schools: Eastman School of Music, Boston School of Music, Berklee School of Music, USC.

    Each school is unique in which style of music they stress – some it is classical, big band, or small ensemble jazz. You should apply to the school that best fits what you are interested in. If you plan on becoming a music major, whether to teach or perform, you are going to be playing a lot. So, your schedule will be filled with music classes. To prevent going to school for more than four or five years, I recommend taking academic GE (general education) classes during the summer.

    If you do not want to be a music major, but want to continue studying music in college, a lot of schools do not require that you audition for the music program, but only the individual groups, whereas music majors are required to do both auditions. Music majors are also required to do recitals either every semester or year. If schools offer lessons, music majors study an hour a week, whereas non-music majors are only required to study half an hour every week.

    As a music major in your freshman and sophomore year, most of you classes will be theory, history, etc., and you don’t really start performance classes until your junior year with the exception of concert bands. If you do well at your auditions, however, they will make an exception and admit you into some of the other groups.

    I hope that this information has helped you with your college process, or has at least answered a few of your questions.

    If you have any further questions, I would be happy to answer them. As far as my college career, I recently graduated from Cal State University Long Beach as a Woodwind Performance major with a minor in Business: Marketing. I’ve also earned my Master’s Degree in Music (emphasis on ethnomusicology) from Queen’s University Belfast. I applied to USC, University of Miami, UCI, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton, and Berklee School of Music. For my Master’s, I applied to Indiana, UCLA, UNT and QUB.

    August 30, 2012 • Lessons, Music and Career Advice • Views: 2032

  • Ensemble Playing Tips

    Some quick tips to help improve your ensemble playing:

    1. Tune without vibrato

    2. In music, especially classical, it is very important to have more “bottom” (bass instruments) to the sound, so make sure that the lower instruments are audible

    3. Listen to the other musicians in the ensemble and try to match dynamics, intonation, vibrato, phrasing, articulation, time and balance

    4. Listen to your principle players and play slightly softer than the person a chair over you

    5. If there are discrepancies interpreting the music, ask the conductor how to interpret that part of the music and play it the way they tell you. A good conductor will have done research on the piece you are performing and will know the proper way to interpret the music.

    6. When you are in a group with strings – you have to think about what a string player can and cannot do, then play with that in mind

    7. Get out of the way of the melody – that should be the loudest and most clear part of music

    8. Play light articulations to blend with the rest of the players.

    9. Find a recording of the piece you are playing and listen to it.

    10. And last, but most importantly – ensemble playing is about listening – so use your ears.

    August 30, 2012 • Lessons • Views: 1510

  • Music Festival Preparation

    Festivals offer a wide variety of resources to the young musician if they are willing to take advantage of what is available to them. The most obvious thing about festivals is the opportunity to network with all the other students who are performing. The hundreds of other kids walking around are great to make connections with and begin establishing yourself with other future musicians. It also provides you with other young musicians to listen to – to find out the different levels of musicianship and where you place with your peers as far as ability.

    If you’ve been watching the other groups, you already have an easy way to make introductions. Take a moment to note the positive things that stood out to you about various performers and take the time to introduce yourself and let them know what you appreciated about their performance.

    Most festivals also offer clinics which are usually very beneficial and I recommend taking advantage of these opportunities. You never know when you might run across someone who will inspire you, motivate you, or even help you.

    Another thing about festivals is that they give you more experience performing. It never hurts to get out on stage in front of people to play. The judges also can be very helpful because they tell you what you can improve on and what you do well. It helps you grow aware of areas you need to work on that you might not have known about before. If there are additional categories that you can participate in, be sure to enter (only if you’ll be prepared, of course).

    As far as preparing for a festival, it is important that you have good programming (good pieces of music) – you usually pick three pieces, one should be a ballad, and your set should be under 30 minutes.

    To prepare on an individual level – prepare your part of the music, and if you have a solo, work on the changes, or the written solo – whichever you play. When you do solo, play with confidence and with a full sound. Make sure your body language is also confident.

    To prepare with your group, make sure you rehearse your pieces regularly. Strive to have good intonation and to play together with good time and a good “pocket.” You will most likely do festivals with your school, but there are some out there that you can form your own groups and participate in. Festivals are a really great experience for the student musician particularly because they are designed as an educational experience for the students participating.

    August 30, 2012 • Lessons, Music and Career Advice • Views: 1701

  • Getting the Most out of Jam Sessions

    The importance of jam sessions to your education as a musician can not be emphasized enough! It is vital to attend, have gone to, held one of your own, thought about going to, etc. a jam session. Sit-ins or jam sessions truly give you a taste of what working professionally as a musician entails, they are essential to the development of your skills as a working musician.

    If you do not know what a jam session is:

    A jam session, in short, is pretty much karaoke night for jazz musicians. You go in to the club or where ever it is being held, sign your name on a list, and wait for your name to be called to go up and play. Once your name is called, you go up on the stage, call the tune you want to play (make sure it is a standard or the band won’t know it), and play. Very often, they call up groups of people to play, so you may have to negotiate a song with the group of people you are playing with.

    Here are a few things that you can do to make your jam session experience more enjoyable:
    1. You can bring copies of the song you want to play in the case that the band doesn’t know it (although they are more likely to ask you to play something other the musicians already know.
    2. Be flexible – things might not go as planned.
    3. Use your ears – once again, things might not go as planned, and;
    4. Pay attention to everyone else who is playing.

    The most important aspect of a jam session is (1) getting experience, but you also benefit by (2) getting out there to gain exposure and (3) starting to network. The more you play, the more people see you, and in result, the more people remember you. Then, when the band needs the instrument that you play, guess who they will call…

    Which brings me back to networking. There are a few things you should keep in mind when meeting other musicians and people in the music industry.

    You should buy or make your own business cards. It helps if there is a photo of you on the card, your name, your instrument(s), your phone number, and your email. When you go to a jam session, hand them out to everyone there who doesn’t already have one (or lost the one you already gave them). For every ten you hand out, you might get one call, so be persistent and keep handing them out.

    If you can, make a demo, even if it is just you playing with an Aebersold, and hand that out too. Make sure you put a lot of effort into your demo. It should be a good representation of your skill as a performer.

    How to get the full jam session experience:

    Learn new songs and play different ones every time you go to a jam session. Memorize them. Building up your repertoire really helps. Jam sessions are much better than practicing with an Aebersold, plus you have an audience so you are improving your stage skills. But, please please PLEASE practice the songs first before you get to the jam session or you might not get invited back up to play again (yes, hosts will do that).

    If you are a more advanced player, go and sit in on songs you don’t already know. Make sure to ask what key the song is in first, and use your ears. Sometimes people really don’t know what key the song is in, and they will tell you the wrong key. So, play a few notes off the microphone first to check before you start playing where everyone can hear. If you play something wrong, make sure you know you made a mistake so you don’t continue doing it. Do not be a stage hog or take really long solos – everyone hates when someone does this. Also, do not try to out-play other people. Those listening see right through what you are doing and will think you are impolite when you try to show someone up. Everyone there is doing the best that they can, and you should be respectful of that.

    Back to watching all the other performers; #4 on the list of making jam sessions more enjoyable. You can learn something from everyone. Let me say that again, YOU CAN LEARN SOMETHING FROM EVERYONE. Even if you can play circles around another performer there, you can learn from them, even if it is what not to play. Ask someone to teach you a cool lick that they played, or ask someone for a chart to a song they played that you like, or maybe imitate the way someone stands on stage. You can even learn what not to do. For example, that this lick doesn’t work over that chord, or it looked really lame when this person did that, so you know what not to do. Bring a notebook and write down all the stuff that you learned (I suggest not using names or waiting until after, you know, just in case).

    If you can’t find any jam sessions in your area, start one. Invite some of your friends over to jam at your house. If you guys sound good, your neighbors might even enjoy the free concert. If you aren’t working professionally, jam sessions are an important part of getting there. Even if you are working as a professional musician, you should always be humble enough to go to a jam session. If you have students or friends, bring them to the jam session, even if it is just to watch you play. My band and friends and I still go to jam sessions all the time. Sometimes we go just to watch the other musicians, and sometimes we go to play. But it has been an important part of shaping us as musicians, so we continue to make it a part of what we do. If you haven’t started going to jam sessions, I highly encourage you to do so.

    Of course, keep in mind that there is an etiquette unique to jam sessions that you should be aware of.

    August 30, 2012 • Lessons, Music and Career Advice • Views: 2580

  • Saxophone Playing Tips and Practice Suggestions

    Articulation and Style

    • When playing jazz, think of swung 8th notes as a triplet subdivision.
    • Accent downbeats (not heavily, but enough to help with the time and feel). With difficult passages, this will help you maintain a steady pulse.
    • Tongue with the middle of your tongue, not the very tip.


    • Always touch the pearls on your keys with your fingertips; don’t let your fingers “fly” around.
    • Sit with proper posture (no slouching, crossed legs, or leaning back).
    • Take full breaths and control your air from your diaphragm not your chest.
    • Practice everyday (even if it is only for 15 minutes).


    • Blow Strong, constant, fast, full air.

    Embouchure and Mouth

    • Keep a firm embouchure and open your throat when you play (for jazz).
    • Think in terms of voicing the notes. Sing a high note and pay attention to the shape of your throat and mouth.
    • Sing a low note and do the same. Try to recreate those positions when you play low and high notes on your instrument.

    Saxophone Care

    • At least clean the inside of your saxophone after use if you don’t feel like cleaning the entire instrument.
    • Don’t leave reeds on your mouthpiece (it ruins your reeds and your mouthpiece).
    • Dry your neck and mouthpiece out after use. Wipe down the outside of your instrument, that is, unless you want the lacquer to wear.
    • Take your horn in to be checked by a professional repair person every six months.


    • Get too soft if used for too long.
    • You can soak your reeds in mouthwash to clean them after use.
    • Try rotating two or three reeds at a time to give them a longer life. It also ensures you always have a backup reed that’s already been broken in just in case.

    Music Listening

    • Listen to music as often as possible and to as many different performers as possible.
    • Steal ideas from everyone – it is how you build your music vocabulary (I am not endorsing copyright infringement).
    • Transcribe solos – technology now allows you to slow down songs so they are easier to learn. Take advantage of it!


    • Practice with a metronome. Time is a continuum – you can’t change it, stop it, or catch up to it – so don’t try. Just keep it.

    Practice Habits

    • Practice as often as possible.
    • Practice things you can’t do, not things you can do.
    • Practice scales – major, minor, pentatonic, blues, and chromatic (for beginners), whole tone, diminished, and augmented (for high school and college). Learn them one octave first, then play them full range and all 12 keys.
    • Practice with a metronome.
    • Practice arpeggios.
    • Learn etudes – they help your sight reading, technique, and musicality.

    Improving Your Sound

    • Mouthpiece exercises – try to create a consistent tone with just your mouthpiece. Soprano pitch is C for classical, Bb for jazz, alto pitch is A for classical and F# for jazz, tenor pitch is G for classical and E for jazz, bari pitch is D for classical and Bb for jazz.
    • Long tones – always play with a tuner and practice all ranges (low, high, middle).
    • Vibrato – done by moving your tongue as if saying “ya-ya”. Be careful not to overuse vibrato.
    • Overtones – are good for developing flexibility, voicing, intonation, and altissimo.

    For the More Advanced Player

    • Altissimo – initially practice this with long tones, then work it into scales, melodies and your soloing.
    • Scooping – this can be done with your jaw or fingers.
    • Ghosting Notes – this is when you put your tongue on the reed, but the note still speaks.
    • Learn music theory. Take a class or read a book.
    • Experiment with composition.

    Suggested Repertoire

    Want to learn more about the music business? Check out our popular FREE eBook – Advice for Young Musicians: From Established Music Professionals.

    August 30, 2012 • Lessons, Music and Career Advice • Views: 3326