How to work a lick

So you can’t get that lick or turnaround out of your head. You wonder how anyone can just come up with something that cool –  just like that! – in the middle of a solo. You realize it’s time to do something about it.

Let’s say you want to work on a little fragment of John Coltrane’s solo in Giant Steps. Obviously, getting used to hearing it in your head is the first step. No point in doing it unless your ear can be sure you’re doing it right.


The next part is finding a way to practice it in all keys. Luckily this little passage chains up in semitones very naturally. I’ve written out 4 iterations just to give you the idea.

Now the important part is what happens next. Your practice needs to be targeted. What is your aim here? Do you want your Inner Ear to be able to recall this pattern when prompted by a certain chord sequence? Is it speed or dexterity that you’re after? Or do you just want to improve your sight reading?

Let’s just say you want to practice reading it in all keys. First you write it out in all 12 keys, or if you have software you select one measure,  hit repeat and then transpose up +1. You then select those 2 measures, hit repeat and transpose +2. And so on up in powers of 2.

Depending on your level as a sight reader, you will notice as you go through the exercise, your playing muscles begin to predict the next move independently of where your eyes go, and you might even find you can carry on playing despite having lost your place on the page. (This used to happen to me a lot when playing viola parts by the likes of Wagner!)

And at this point the schools of thought diverge.

Indeed, classical etudes and exercises often contain traps for the unwary to make sure you are playing from the score and NOT playing what you (O ignorant loser!) think ought to be there. Your teacher is looking over your shoulder for your own good.

But you, my best beloved, want to be able to play like singing in the shower, and want your music to answer to your intention. It actually helps to be a poor reader in this exercise, because what you will end up doing is playing the moves:

{-4 +5 +4 -9 +3 +3 +4 -2 -3 -2 -2 +4} 

…which when you add it all up comes to +1 meaning you go up a semitone at each iteration. Note that the numbers are not necessarily how you visualize it. That would depend a lot on your instrument. But numbers are the simplest way to notate what you are hearing since I can’t be there to sing in your ear.

This is actually a great warm-up exercise to play in first position on a violin or viola as it develops your melodic reflexes much better than endless scales do. You can then work it on just 2 strings going up the fingerboard to develop finger-led position shifting, a way to break free of the whole hand-position system you were taught… 

…or not taught if you were lucky.

Apart from the enormous economies in paper, practicing with MOVES develops your melodic reflexes. Which translated means, you will learn to play whatever your Inner Ear suggests without having to stop to think.


MOVES notation is a stripped-down way of breaking down the type of exercise that great improvisers use to keep in shape. I know what they do because I have had them in the room next to mine in countless hotels.

I don’t claim that these guys use this kind of notation. MOVES is just a right brain hack to describe what goes on in your left brain.

And did I mention it is tweetable?

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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