My reason for getting out of bed every morning to write books, create courses, and produce videos centers around that very question and how your answer to that question directly impacts your jazz playing and the satisfaction you enjoy playing your instrument.
I love jazz because it showcases the expression of the individual. Sure, we play in groups and communicate with each other as we play, and at its finest, the group is the sum of the individual members creating something special from the mix of each of their unique artistic souls. Think steaming delicious stew.
But I am asking the question, ‘who are you?’ in the context of improvisation-your real-time expression of your individual musical self told through your instrument while playing with others.
This question is important because when you improvise, who is this musical personality that is amplified through your instrument?
- Is it a faint echo of your favorite player?
- Is it the stitching together of licks you’ve worked hard to memorize?
- Is it your best guess as to the playing that will be acceptable to your audience and bandmates?
- Is it a muddled remnant of your musical personality scrubbed through the filter of self-doubt or cynicism?
- Is it the collection of notes you’ve always played because they’re comfy and safe?
I’m not discounting the almost irresistible pull we all feel from artistic and cultural norms. A powerful consensus exists as to what jazz should sound like and what YOU should sound like. From time to time a few giants escape those norms set by the players before them, and by doing so, set a completely new standard of how jazz ‘should’ sound. Now we follow them.
But you need not be the musical genius of Bird, Miles, Trane, Ornette, Bill Evans, etc. in order to improvise a musical statement that reflects YOU.
Without simply copying them, there is something we can all learn from the great masters. They were driven to pursue what they heard inside, and I’m encouraging you to do the same. But only you know exactly what that sounds like. So, back to my question, Who are you? Musically?
Not that easy is it?
No. It takes lots of dedicated practice and playing in order to build the technical proficiency that will enable YOUR musical voice to flow through your instrument (your particular machine).
But as I wrote here, for many players, lack of technical proficiency is not the problem. These days, more than ever, young players can fly all over their axe.
We spend so much time and energy learning to play our machine (instrument), when it comes to improvising, we instinctively think first of instrument fingerings, scales, and licks built from muscle memory instead of what we, as musicians, hear and feel inside.
The next time you are practicing on your own, improvising over recorded tracks, get yourself into the mindset of being on stage. You’re in front of an audience and a group of your fellow players.
Next, play over a rhythm track of a tune you know well. Here’s why it’s best to do this alone. I want you to improvise, and the moment a thought bubbles up about the mechanics of your playing STOP and write down that thought.
The thoughts to be aware of are things like, What scale should I play here? or I never play in B major very well. or I should play fast here. or What can I play coming up that will sound impressive?
After you make a quick note of a thought, jump back into playing. Stop and make another quick note once the next thought comes up.
You probably won’t need to do this for very long before you’ll discover how much of this non-musical mechanical thinking is distracting you from hearing musical YOU. Just being clear and aware of that distraction is the point of this exercise.
You can listen. Deeply listen.
Put your focus on the rhythm track and on listening to your playing as if you were listening to someone else without judgment. Just listen to this person. Next, apply this same focused attention and listening when you perform with others and in front of an audience.
Well, I’m the devil on your other shoulder telling you that there are no wrong notes as long as you’re listening to the voice inside and playing with conviction and intention within a certain context.
You CAN play a string of wrong notes, however, the moment you calculate the placement of, say, ‘that cool pattern starting on D in G minor’.
It’s the compromise inherent within calculating what to play next as opposed to listening, reacting, and emoting.
What is getting in the way of your authentic improvisation? It’s the mistake of thinking that your instrument is creating the music when it’s actually your mind that should be steering the ship.
This is where I borrow a page from Kenny Werner. He calls this being present and he’s right to advocate for that state of mind. Because at a certain level of instrumental proficiency, it’s a key to genius improvisation.
But it’s just one ingredient, and I don’t think being present means having an empty mind. You’re still paying attention to something. I’m advocating for paying attention to that musical voice inside fueled by thought, personality, and emotion. Not to the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ notes you played or fear playing!
Here’s a thought on the pre-occupation you might have with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes. As I mentioned above there are no wrong notes. But I have to add, ‘within a certain context’.
Here’s an exercise for changing your perception of wrong notes while building your skill in creating good context.
While improvising with a rhythm track, tell yourself that you will deliberately try to play a wrong note. An obvious wrong note, not those that you hide in shame. Play one and listen to it. How does it sound? What feels ‘wrong’ about it and what feels right to play after it?
My experience with encouraging wrong notes this way is that it transforms them from being wrong to being just another color. But, again, they must be deliberate and played within a certain musical context.
As an example, listen to Cecil Taylor. Which of those notes are ‘wrong’?
You’ll get at least two benefits from doing this strange exercise:
- You’ll start to worry less about ‘wrong’ notes and actually have more fun playing, and
- You’ll get more skilled at creating musical context around different musical colors.
You really can play any of the 12 notes (and micro pitches in between them) over any harmony. You just need to create the right musical context. So the important skill here is to broaden your hearing and reacting to musical context.
So be brave and if you play B natural over a G minor 7th (HONK!), don’t panic. Just listen to where that could lead and follow that thread.
By asking yourself the musical question, Who am I? I want to get you thinking about the foundation of your jazz playing. Improvisation doesn’t simply jump out of your instrument. It arises from your view of the world and your emotions, which are amplified through your instrument.
The more you manufacture your performed solos using someone else’s musical identity along with pre-constructed licks and patterns, the further away your playing becomes from YOU.
The more thinking you do about the next note and the note after that, the less authentic and (I believe) the less satisfying your playing becomes.
The ideal I’m wishing for you is a musical flow that is emoted from instrumental skill combined with clarity of your personal musical identity. (Who you are.
Mike: there are a lot of good ideas here regarding my ability to improvise. I will keep them in mind as I practice and play along with things like Aebersold I books, or when playing with other musicians
I participated in your classes/sessions last summer and enjoyed all of the interviews with musicians like Ron Carter, David Liebman, etc.
Great commentary… wish i could take private lessons with you.
You could take a lesson with me over Zoom. Reach out to me if you’d like to set that up.
Great article Mike with some challenging questions. “Wrong” notes do something different for me, that I would like you to address. When I’m playing something I hear in my head but play different notes than I heard or intended, (e.g. I played a 5th but I was hearing a 4th, because my relative pitch is off a bit) I lose the fragile sound track in my head and it starts instantly reassembling or attempting to off of the new/wrong note.
So wrong notes some times make me wince, sometime remind me to play the phrase again and get the right interval the 2nd time around, but often or not, it breaks up the schema in my head, I lose my track and have to create something different and overall I lose a bit of lyricism or idea or story thread to the solo.
Another great article. I am going to try the intentional wrong note approach next time I am able to sit down and play and I foresee a gut wrenching moment the first time, but i can appreciate the results you have mentioned. Thanks Michael, I always appreciate your ingenious words, your articles always spawn new thoughts after reading. Have a great one!
Hey Mike, great tips for unleashing the music we all hear inside. Thanks for continuing to be the devil on our other shoulder 😈
Mike, I really like the way you can easily speak about these topics. Thanks for these sharings!!
Mike: Love your insight and I’m glad I enrolled in your deep listening course. When I hear the jazz and rock Gods hit those chord tones at the right time and I hear them develop their solos so clearly, interestingly, and concisely – I know where I’d like to be. I played by ear for years; some days were great others, I didn’t know if my axe had any of the correct notes. Now, I’m in a jazz duo with an accomplished trumpet player (me, tenor sax) playing over iRealPro tracks, etc. Him, not a need for sheet music. Me, I can handle blues and some songs – but fearful of botching a melody w/o the sheet music. On the improv – I hear where what I want to be, but I don’t quite get there – and my eye is tracking the lead sheet for the “right” chords. I’ll go back through your advice and see where I can make some adjustments. Thank you so much!!!
Thanks for the comment, Neil. Your mention of tracking the lead sheet for the ‘right’ chords is the topic of an article I’ve just published that provides an interesting exercise that may give you an alternate perspective on focusing on the chords on the printed page: https://musicsavvy.com/staring-at-chords-helps-you-improvise-better/.