Abandoning the safety of the well-worn muscle memory of musical you

That was a comment by an attendee at my live webinar this week held for subscribers of my course Improvisation Savvy.

He is NOT alone in having been taught that improvisation is some sort of clever manipulation of letters and numbers memorialized on a piece of paper. Unfortunately, he’s much more alone in that he’s honest and aware enough to have a breakthrough in understanding what he REALLY should be doing when he plays jazz guitar.

Richie Beirach and I happen to be writing something new on this very topic. I’m thrilled with what we are creating since it dives another level deeper into this skill called jazz improvisation.

Early in the piece, Richie wrote:

Masters do not think about the changes when they’re playing. Do you think Herbie Hancock is thinking about Stella By Starlight chords like E minor 7 flat 5 for bar, then A seven altered for a another bar, C Minor 7 and then F7? Do you think he’s actually thinking of that? No.

Do I think about the chords going by? No. Does Dave Leibman, or Randy Brecker or John Scofield? No.

How can I not feel so chained to the changes? I’m always worried about the chords. I feel like I’m constricted by the chords. I want to be creative. I want to play like Herbie and be fresh and have new ideas, but I can’t even get through a chorus of Stella By Starlight without worrying about the chords and if I’m making mistakes along the way.

It’s because we learned those changes like we know our name. If I woke you up at three in the morning, and I said hey, what’s your name, you’d say your name without thinking. You know your name as a reflex.

You must do the same with the tunes you play. They must be in your blood or in your DNA as a reflex.

Be warned, however, that playing with nothing more than your emotions to guide your note choices is very risky. You might play a wrong note! (Check out my encouragement of playing wrong notes in my latest blog post.)

You might also find yourself outside your comfort zone if you venture to musically express something deeper within you. Can you abandon the safety of the well-worn muscle memory of musical you?

Try this:

The next time you stand up to improvise, instead of the neverending evaluating, judging, condemning, comparing, manufacturing, fearing, pretending, regretting, and hoping – concentrate on just one thing.

What is that one thing? It’s a feeling. It’s your feeling in that moment.

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