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Focus Session: Triplets

Jazzed Magazine • Focus SessionOctober 2013 • November 8, 2013

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Yielding Maximum Potential from Basic Concepts

by Dr. Damani Phillips

As educators, we pride ourselves on imparting as many new skills and techniques as we responsibly can to our students during the time that they are under our tutelage. Though quantity of information is an important part of our mission, that pedagogical approach can often result in overlooking an important consideration – that of helping our students squeeze the maximum amount of variety and effectiveness from the skills/knowledge that they already possess. 

The exercises included in this article came about as a result of this teaching philosophy, which strives to give both teacher and student a means of building upon simple, rudimentary concepts in ways that help them unlock refreshing new options. The careful manipulation of something as simple as a triplet can be used to significantly expand the creative palette of the emerging (and even the established) improviser in a way that is completely relevant to trends in modern improvisation. Here’s my method for introducing my students to the hidden potential of this rhythmic device:

Basic Rules

  1. With the exception of appropriate treatment of eighth notes (swung or straight), notes should not be “stylized” and the prescribed rhythm of focus should not be altered in any way (with exception of making space to breathe). Also, all notes should be slurred together unless indicated differently below. Removing these expressive aspects from the exercise allows the student to focus exclusively on the sound and feel of the rhythm being used, making quality note choices, and proper application of articulation (when necessary).
  2. In the beginning, note choices should be primarily diatonic, with only the occasional use of chromatic passing tones or leading tones. This forces the students to consider both rhythm and harmonic/melodic content as equally important. Once rhythmic mastery and harmonic accuracy are demonstrated, this rule can be relaxed.
  3. Avoid the use of digital patterns. Many popular patterns will work well in this context, but this concept works best when applied to lines that are based in linear melody.
  4. Avoid repeated notes.

The Process

If you haven’t already tried this with your students, steps 1 and 2 are a great way to get them thinking about connecting chord changes in a new way. I suggest that the exercises below be applied over a slower standard tune (120 b.p.m. or less) that you and/or your students are already very familiar with. This will allow students to focus their mental energy on the rhythmic challenges of the exercise with diminished concern for potential issues in grappling with the harmonic progression of the tune. Only after achieving complete comfort in applying these exercises at slower tempi should they be attempted over faster tunes. I have chosen a simple major ii7-V7-I as the backdrop for the examples given here.

Step 1: First, establish a baseline comfort with the rules listed above (and your chosen tune) by working to generate a line of flowing quarter notes over your chosen chord progression. Chromatic approach tones are permitted, but should be kept to a minimum as you acclimate yourself to this process:


If playing running quarter notes initially proves to be difficult for your students, it is also acceptable to start with half notes as your first step in the process and gradually work towards quarter notes.

Step 2: Once comfort in developing a consistent and harmonically accurate quarter note line is demonstrated, move on to constructing the same type of line in running eighth notes. Remember, no deviation from the eighth note rhythm or stylizing of notes (scoops, bends, articulations, etc.) is permitted.


Step 3: Once you have a comfortable grasp of those rhythms that we would expect to see/hear in simple meter, move on to quarter note triplets. As is customary in the use of this rhythm, begin by phrasing the triplets in groups of threes. Take care in avoiding the natural inclination to place a heavy accent on the first note of each triplet group. You want to preserve the linear integrity of the line’s construction, and heavy accenting of these notes will make each of the phrased groups feel more like segmented pieces of a line that are pasted together than one long linear phrase. Use this step in the process to help your students truly acclimate themselves to the sound and feel of the quarter note triplet. Playing 6 over 4 can initially be awkward for some, so work to help your student find a balance between the use of their mathematical, aural, and tactile sensibilities in developing a comfortable relationship with this rhythm.


Step 4: Once comfortable with phrasing in groups of 3’s, move on to phrasing the quarter note triplets in groups of 2’s. Light accenting of the first note of each group should be applied to bring out the 3 over 4 polyrhythm created by the phrasing used, and should be executed with the use of legato tonguing (“du,” not “tu” or “ta”).


Step 5: Now, extend the phrasing of the triplets to groups of 4, which generates metrical dissonance that carries over the bar line in mm. 1 and 3, but resolves itself every 2 measures. Again, light accenting of the first note of each group is necessary to bring out the implied 3 over 8 polyrhythm generated by this phrasing pattern.


Step 6: Once comfort is demonstrated in phrasing the triplets in the fixed numbers outlined above, explore the possibilities afforded to the improviser when phrasing the triplets in random groups of twos, threes, or fours. In an effort to counter the randomness of the pattern used, the use of a slightly heavier accent is acceptable as a means of giving each grouping clearer aural definition. This approach has the potential to generate an infinite number of possible phrased triplet combinations that both stay within and run across the barline, representing a significant expansion of options for the improviser. In this step, the selection of triplet phrase groupings itself becomes a part of the improviser’s creative process. Here is an example of the application of this concept:


Further Consideration:

The approach to manipulating the quarter note triplet discussed in this article can be applied to the phrasing of both half note and eighth note triplets, depending on factors such as song tempo, the performer’s technical ability and the rhythmic sensibilities of the improviser. The examples provided here are only the first phase in the exploration of the potential of the triplet. The introduction of rests in strategic places further broadens the palette of options available to the improviser. Here’s a sneak peek at one effective option that this approach can generate:


While the procedure discussed here may seem somewhat formulaic, the real value of this approach is found in taking this concept a step further by bending the rules outlined above. While the literal application of the exercises outlined here should generate a host of new ideas for the improviser to work with, the true “hipness” of this concept is unleashed in learning to seamlessly shift between triplet-based ideas and those based in the quarters and eighths that one would expect to see/hear in simple meter. If you choose to explore this concept further, a new world of possibilities awaits the inquisitive improviser.


Dr. Damani Phillips currently serves as assistant professor of Jazz Studies and African-American Studies at the University of Iowa, where he teaches applied jazz saxophone, directs jazz combos, and teaches courses in African-American music, jazz history, theory, and improvisation. An active performer, pedagogue, and composer, Phillips has taught and performed throughout the United States, England, and Japan. He has previously served on the faculty of Grinnell College, Oakland University (Rochester, Mich.), and Macomb Community College (Macomb, Mich.), and is actively sought as a guest artist, clinician, and adjudicator.

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