Memorization and jazz improvisation

I received an email this morning from a classical pianist eager to improve her jazz skills.

Her question involves memorization, which she considers her ‘weakest area’. She asked, “How do I train my brain to play without music?”

I’m turning my answer into a post because this is such a common question. She is certainly not alone in her quest to play by ear and without the printed page in front of her.

Let me first define ‘memorization’. Memorization is different in classical music than jazz. In classical music, the performer memorizes every note along with the dynamics and nuance within the piece. Memorization of that scale is remarkable when you consider a Beethoven Sonata or a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

But jazz is spontaneous composition. It’s a real-time expression of one’s emotional state. Yes, we memorize the melody of the tune along with the form and fundamental harmony, but those memorized aspects are secondary to the improvisation that forms the core of a jazz performance.

To improvise fluently over the harmony and form of a tune requires a deep internalization of those elements. It’s memorization, but it’s more than that.

Take the tune Softly As In a Morning Sunrise. To improvise over the tune, first memorize the notes in the melody, the 32 bars of chords, and the form. That’s the foundation.

But to express your emotions using the tune, you’ll need to make those changes and form part of your core. Hear those chords ringing in your ear flowing through the A-A-B-A form like you hear your own voice in your mind’s ear. Hear the bridge in your imagination as distinct from the A sections. Hear the sound of the minor II-V-I as clearly as you hear the melody notes.

How do you get to the point of having all of that internalized? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start by playing the tune without the music, and play it without thinking about chord names.
  • Write out the lead sheet by memory with melody and chords.
  • Drill only the first A section until you become bored with playing it. Then do the same with the bridge. Repetition without internal dialog about the chords or form.
  • Play the melody starting on a note other than the standard concert C. If you catch yourself calculating the melody in your mind, stop. Just listen to the sound of the notes and turn off your internal dialog
  • Play the chords in a key other than the standard one, again without calculating each successive chord. If you can’t do that, you still don’t know the tune well enough.
  • Go to a jam session and call Softly as in a Morning Sunrise. Take chances with your solo. Don’t think. Express yourself. Take one more chorus than you normally would play. Stretch yourself.

After all that, you will know the tune! Can you see how much further you went from simple memorization of notes? THIS is how you build your skill in improvising jazz.

It’s not about being a better memorizer. It’s about ingraining a tune so deeply within yourself that it becomes simply a vessel for self-expression. Great jazz players don’t think in terms of a ‘tune’. They’ve evolved well past that. The tune is simply a form within which they emote their musical self.

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