Master this discipline and be a much better improviser

  • A flautist (aka flute player) I’ve been working with wrote me recently that she is excited to notice that her “ear to instrument reaction time” is improving. She is habitually working on a few exercises such as the Brahms Lullaby in 12 keys and Jazz Patterns for Ear and seeing some delightful results.

This article is not to talk about my method for connecting mind/ear to instrument as much as it is about habit that will produce results for you. The key to the flautist’s success is in the word, “habitually”.

A book I highly recommend is James Clear’s Atomic Habits. “Atomic” because from the habitual practice of tiny things (atoms) comes big results.

The word, “habitual” is the key and the point I wish to share with you. Think back to when you were learning to walk or learning to talk. What, you can’t remember that?! Okay, then think about witnessing that in toddlers you may be living with or close to.

These young children are constantly making vocal sounds and stumbling around. They get themselves up, take a step or two and fall. They get up and do it all over again. They never give up on walking, thinking to themselves in some vague way, “This is too hard and I’ll never figure it out. Maybe I’ll try it in another few days when no one is looking and see what happens.”

They don’t do that because, thankfully, they haven’t yet discovered self-doubt and the fear of failure. Up they get and down they go, blathering indiscernible sounds along the way. Over and over. Nature has ingrained in us at that early stage of life that you build the required brain connections by regular unrelenting doing.

Musical improvisation is an incredibly complex skill. It requires technical proficiency on your instrument and the ability to reproduce on your instrument the musical impulses within your mind’s ear. It is not something that a toddler with their fearless resilience and drive for repetition can start working on. It is a collection of complex coordinated skills we start to learn later in life when self-doubt and impatience can start taking root in our personality.

There’s just no getting around it. You must regularly practice the core skills in order to become proficient at improvisation. But the good new is, you will start to see progress if you practice the right things on a regular basis. Some of those things are:

  • Recording and listening back to yourself improvising in order to objectively assess your current skill–what you do well and not so well.
  • Listening to masters in order to build a model in your ear for excellence
  • Practicing mind/instrument connection exercises such as the Brahms and Jazz Patterns for Ear.
  • Singing a note or short phrase and then playing it on your instrument
  • Playing songs you know well in keys other than the standard one. Christmas carols and children’s songs work particularly well for this. Happy Birthday, anyone?
  • Transcribing solos within your technical facility and then playing them back with the original recording and then with a live rhythm section or recorded backing track. Record that and listen back.
  • Going to local jam sessions and calling tunes you are working on.

Those half dozen are a good starting point, but if you wish to materially improve your improvisation, you must do a portion of those on a daily basis. No need to spend five hours every day unless you are a music student and practicing is your number one priority.

But for those with lives that involve more than music, just a bit each day will show results. Remember the book I mentioned above, Atomic Habits? Tiny things done over the long term produce huge results.

I sometimes worry that my method of mind/instrument connection will be abandoned by many because the results are not short-term. You can learn a scale in an afternoon but as you may already have discovered, its role in musical improvisation is limited. Sure, you can play the scale up and down over certain chords and get some short-term satisfaction that you are playing a bunch of “right” notes, but are you developing the spontaneous musical composition skill we call jazz improvisation?

My other occasional worry is that players may give up because my method is not easy. It’s simple, but not easy. It can be frustrating and perhaps humiliating to stumble over playing Happy Birthday fluidly by ear in B or F#. Playing the major third down patterns in Jazz Patterns for Ear can be hard if you don’t yet clearly hear the sound of the major third down interval. Our fight or flight impulses may convince us to quit. It feels safer and less risky.

I like to tell people that as soon as I develop the overnight method for jazz improvisation mastery, I’ll be living on a private island somewhere in the south Pacific. I’ll fly you in by helicopter to my yacht and we’ll do a lesson.

Until then, you’ll have to do the things I listed above on a regular basis. Practice Jazz Patterns for Ear just 10 minutes a day. Sing a note and play it on your instrument for two minutes each day. Sing a random note and use that as the starting note for playing Jingle Bells for three minutes a day. You now have a 15 minute daily routine that will definitely build your improvisation skills. Do you have 15 minutes a day to become a better improviser?

What do I mean by better? You will start to hear that you are reaching for notes in your solos that are outside of your previous comfort zone or muscle memory. You’ll hear that you are learning tunes faster because of your greater range of hearing. And you will feel slightly more comfortable jumping into a solo than you were in the past.

What’s your alternative? You could just play through Jamie Aebersold or other rhythm tracks every once in a while and wonder why improvisation continues to feel like an impossible dark art.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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This is just a fake book example for the type of website I can build for you. Just trying to use a little humor here!