The four stages of learning applied to jazz improvisation

Explanations of behaviors abound with quadrants. My favorite, of which many others are based on is the 1. Expressive, 2. Amiable, 3. Analytical, 4. Driver quadrant. We all have dominant parts of our personality that fall into these quadrants, usually more than one.

The quadrant I want to explore here is the one that describes the four stages of learning. Unlike the quadrant I mentioned above which at some early point in your life is determined and fixed, the four stages of learning is fluid, assuming you continue to elevate your skills. The skill I’ll use as an example of these qudrants is jazz improvisation.

Here are the four quadrants for developing a skill, starting in the lower left and working your way clockwise:


1. Unconscious Incompetence

Except for musical geniuses, we all start in the lower left in the area called Unconscious Incompetence.

in the very beginning, you picked up an instrument with no idea how to play it. You didn’t know what you didn’t know.

With improvisation, you don’t know what notes go with which chords. This can be especially hard if you have not yet gained sufficient proficiency on your instrument. Improvisation feels completely beyond your comprehension because playing the instrument itself is hard and you have very little knowledge of what is required of a skilled jazz player.

At this stage, it is important to find a teacher or at least a method for improvisation that will provide you with a solid foundation. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you are susceptible to ingraining bad habits and creating a foundation that may limit your ultimate proficiency.

2. Conscious Incompetence

At this stage, you become aware of what you don’t know and of some of the skills you lack. You’re conscious of the difference between a skilled improviser and a novice. You don’t necessarily know how to implement the things you hear from others but you hear more of what you lack.

You are listening to great jazz players and are transcribing solos and analyzing them. You are identifying why certain notes sound the way they do over a particular chord and what these skilled musicians are playing.

Your knowledge at this point isn’t enough for you to replicate the proficiency of the skilled improvisers but you grasp some of what they are doing that you’re not. Your practicing is becoming more fruitful since you know better what you should be working on.

3. Conscious Competence

At this stage, you are playing jazz with a certain proficiency. You have gained the knowledge sufficient to know what to play over chords, but it requires constant thinking and preparation.

In order to move to the next and final stage of unconscious competence, you must internalize improvisation through repetition. Think of the skills you no longer need to think about that originally required learning like walking or riding a bike or driving or any one of a thousand things you do without the slightest thought.

Your brain makes connections when you do new things. When you repeat those things, your brain reinforces those connections and after enough repetition builds a shield around those neural pathways in order to protect them.

Your brain is hardwired to be efficient. It would terribly inefficient to have to learn a skill over and over again. In fact we wouldn’t survive. That’s where the expression “It’s like riding a bike” comes from. Once we learn the difficult balancing act, it never leaves us.

4. Unconscious Competence

You’ve now arrived at that wonderful place where improvising feels like singing through your instrument. You are no longer consciously thinking about the notes and the chords as you play. Your instrument is being guided by your internal musician trained through the thousands of hours of practice.

This doesn’t mean, however, that your analytical brain no longer has a role within your jazz playing. There will always be new tunes to learn and choices to untangle when you compose and perhaps new musical areas you find yourself exploring.

But you have reached the point of being able to express yourself playing jazz over familiar changes by focusing on your feelings or thoughts rather than specific notes, scales, or memorized patterns.

Further thoughts…

Improvising is much more complicated than skills like walking, riding a bike, or driving. I would call those skills, “set and forget it”.

I think there are levels of Unconscious Competence in playing jazz. For example, I can immerse myself completely in playing over the blues, standards, or other tune I know well but I slip back into Conscious Competence when playing a tune I don’t know well. I’ll have to think about the changes, the form, the keys, etc.

When I talk of “knowing a tune”, I am referring to having done the preparation that allows me to sing a solo through my trombone without left-brain analysis or aiming at chords for the sake of playing the “right” notes.

Now, a master of jazz like Chick or Herbie can slip into Unconscious Competence with brand new music very quickly. Their range of competence is so deep and broad that trillions of neural connections are already in place so that “new” tunes don’t really require any significantly new skills on their part.

It’s like asking you to ride a new type of bike – something bigger than you’re used to or a high-tech racing bike. At first, it’s a little odd, but you’ll quickly be flying along because your basic bike riding balancing competence is already at a high level compared to the small additional abilities required by this different kind of bike.

Key takeaways:

  • Be mindful of which stage you find yourself so that you are keenly aware of how to move beyond. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are further along the process than you are.
  • Repetition and practice are fundamental requirements for moving along the process. Watch an infant learn to walk. Up and down over and over again until they become unconsciously competent.
  • There’s always a role for the left analytical thinking side of your brain when studying and preparing music. Your objective is to shut that down when the time comes to sing an improvised solo through your instrument.

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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!