Here is a sequence of exercises to help you master a key building block of jazz improvisation: approach notes. You can auto-load the exercises into Random Roots or use them on their own.

Background: What are Approach Notes?

Target Notes

When we improvise jazz music, some of the notes we play are harmonically important notes we can call target notes or landing notes. These are usually chord tones of the underlying harmony, and they tend to land in rhythmically important places—downbeats, rather than upbeats of a measure.

Approach Notes

Often, a target note is preceded by one or more nearby notes that we call approach notes. Approach notes are of less intrinsic interest and importance than target notes. They are meaningful because of the tension they produce and how that tension resolves when the target is reached.

Choosing approach notes is more a basic skill than an art—it just requires familiarity with the idiom… and practice. Ideally once we’ve decided on the target notes and the shape of our musical phrases, the approach notes just roll off our fingers with little if any thought.

These exercises will help you achieve that.

The Exercises

Here are the exercises, as a four-page pdf file for you to download:

PDF file

A Few Points to Keep in Mind

Every Key

Each exercise is shown only in the key of C, and is meant to be played in all keys. You’ll need a way of drilling yourself in every key. The Random Roots app is a perfect companion, or you can use another method such as this pdf sheet, or even flash cards.

Don’t read while you practice

Don’t look at the exercise sheet while you’re practicing. Instead, first look at your exercise and internalize it. Then put down the sheet and play the exercise in each key.

Handling difficulty

Please don’t write out these exercises in different keys. If an exercise is too difficult for you to learn in all 12 keys without reading, it’s not the right exercise for you to be working on yet. Start with the first four exercises—the approaches to the root. Then go to approaches to other scale degrees: major third, fifth, etc. Every time you come to a new exercise, feel free to begin in just a few keys (see below for more about that tip and others). If you have trouble, say, with the approaches to the fifth of every key, it probably means you don’t know your fifths well enough, so practice just the fifth of each key first without any approach notes at all. Once those are easy and automatic, then add the approaches.

Approach any target

The goal of these exercises is to develop and automate your ability to choose and execute approach notes. It is not to tell you which target notes to approach, which is much more complex and subtle. The exercises progress as follows:
  1. Target single notes, starting with the root… progressing to other simple scale degrees such as the major and minor third and the perfect fifth.
  2. Target the notes of ascending and descending major arpeggios. This is not so much in order for you to use these arpeggios-with-approaches in your playing (though you’re welcome to) but rather that it gives you practice targeting a series of notes with approaches in quick succession. It’s important that you be able to hear the notes you target before you play them, and major triads are easy to hear. When you’ve mastered those you’ll have a terrific foundation and ought to find you can approach arbitrary targets quite well. But by all means create additional arpeggio exercises for yourself, using minor & dominant chord arpeggios instead of major, and arpeggiating upper chord extensions—the possibilities are endless!
  3. The last group of exercises are idiomatic phrases that make use of the skills you’ve been practicing.

Execution: Ghosting

A few words about executing the phrases when you play them. The execution will vary depending on your instrument, but on most instruments you’ll want to be familiar with ghosting. Ghosting is a technique of de-emphasizing certain notes that fall on upbeats (not beats 1, 2, 3, 4 but the eighth note beats between them) so as to make the downbeat notes that follow them “pop”. Standard jazz phrasing emphasizes upbeats; ghosting provides exceptions, creating rhythmic variety.

On some instruments such as piano, it is achieved simply by sounding a note with less force. On wind instruments there are more options, and they let the player affect other qualities of the note as well. (On the saxophone, for instance, you can play ghosted notes with your tongue actually touching the reed lightly; in results in (1) a darker sound, (2) a decrease in volume that’s more sudden than you can achieve via breath alone, and (3) a useful accentuation of the following note when you remove your tongue.) If you have questions about how to ghost, ask your teacher about the details; we’ll discuss when to ghost.

In a nutshell: we will only ghost upbeats—never downbeats, and only in the middle of a phrase. Most often, a note we ghost will be lower than the notes that surround it, though sometimes it may be in the midst of an ascending line. Here’s a step-by-step guide to deciding whether to ghost a note:

  1. Is it on a downbeat? → Do not ghost
  2. Does it follow a rest? → Do not ghost
  3. Does it last longer than an eighth note? → Do not ghost
  4. Is the followed by a lower note? → Do not ghost
    Otherwise → Probably ghost 
For these approach note exercises, here are notes that you’ll likely want to ghost:
Exercise number(s) — Suggested notes to ghost (e.g. “2” = 2nd note, etc.)

A10, A17, A22 — 2

B1, B3, B4 — 2
B10, B11, B12 — 3
B17, B19 — 2
B18 — 4
B20, B21, B22 — 4

C1 — 2, 4, 6
C5 — 3, 6, 9
C7 — 4, 8, 12
C8 — 2, 6, 8, 10
C9 — 2, 4, 6, 10
C10, C11 — 2, 6, 10

D1 — 2, 4
D3 — 2, 8, 12
D4 — 2, 4, 8, 12, 16
D5 — 4, 8, 12, 16…
D6 — 2, 6, 10, 14…
D7 — 2, 6, 10
D8 — 4
D9 — 8, 10, 16
D10 — 6, 8, 14, 16, 18

Feel free to mark these notes on the PDF file. Often ghosted notes are indicated by parentheses surrounding the note head. I didn’t mark them here because you’ll eventually want to learn to ghost the appropriate notes automatically as you read a phrase, without any indication.

Practicing with Random Roots

I’ve discussed elsewhere why it’s so beneficial to practice through the keys in random order. For the exercises on the last page you may decide instead to practice through the keys chromatically, or in the circle of fifths. But for the shorter exercises it’s essential to randomize the keys. The Random Roots app for iPhone & iPad is great for that—plus, it’ll play the roots along with you and keep track of your keys and tempos for each exercise.

Auto-loading these exercises

Once you’ve installed the app (it’s free to download it and try), you can easily upload all these approach note exercises into the app with a click. If you’re reading this on your iOS device, just click here. Or, if you’ve printed out the exercise sheets, you can just point your device’s camera at the QR code on the sheet; a button will appear for you to press at the top of the camera window for you to auto-import the exercises.

Tips for using Random Roots

  • Don’t binge on one exercise. It’s most efficient for you to work on a number of exercises and to practice each a little every day. Perhaps 30 repetitions of each—a bit more for the short ones, fewer for the longer ones. Counterintuitively, the best use of your time is to stop before you spend much time in the enjoyable “flow” state—and work on something else instead. You’ll be able to resume at a quicker tempo the next day.
  • Start in fewer than 12 keys when you start work on a new exercise that’s challenging, you may want to begin with just a few keys and add a few more each day. There are several ways to select the keys you want; an easy one is to tap the gray button at the bottom-left of the Practice screen that shows the number of keys. Remember, whenever you pull up an exercise you were working on, Random Roots rem
  • Take your time. You may want to start in “rubato” mode rather than in tempo. Simply tap “READY” on the practice screen to show the first key, and each time you’re ready for a new key just tap the current key on the screen. If you have a bluetooth foot pedal, it’ll let you advance hands-free! Once you’ve “primed the pump” in all twelve keys and made some headway, then practice slowly in tempo.
  • Prioritize your keys. When there’s a key that’s giving you trouble, you can tell Random Roots to show it to you more often. If you see a big F# on the screen and want more F#’s, just hold your finger on the F# and swipe up. You can do the same on the F# button in the key selection view (tapping the gray button at the bottom left of the practice screen). Random Roots will know to show you more F#’s for that exercise only. Conversely, if you find a key easy, swipe down and it will remember to show you fewer of those. Life’s too short to be spending as much time practicing things you know as the things that need work! 🙂
  • Use the favorites feature to track the exercises you’re currently working on. In the exercises tab, to make an exercise a favorite, just swipe left over it and press the . Every day, go to your Favorites tab to practice all your current exercises; each time you play one, it will move to the bottom of the list so you can choose the next one from the top.
  • Hear before you play. A crucial part of the process is audiating what you play—that is, hearing it in your head just before you play it. All the exercises are set up so that you can hear the new key before you play anything in that key. Based on the sound of the new key, imagine the sound you’re about to play and make sure it agrees with what comes our of your instrument. That simple act will greatly accelerate your progress toward being able to put the ideas you’re practicing to musical use when you need them!
  • And stay up to date. If you’re using an old version of the app, you’re probably missing out on important features and improvements. Make sure your app is the current version. You can always update it for free in the App Store.

More about Approaches & Enclosures

I’ve written a blog post about some of the concepts behind approaches (diatonic, chromatic, enclosures, delayed resolutions, etc.) that sheds some more light on these exercises—have a look at if you like!

Have fun! Let me know how it goes, ok? (You can drop a line here.)

best wishes,

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