Your mind plays jazz, not your instrument

This is a recurring theme to my writing, interview questions, books, and courses.

As Hal Galper famously (to me at least) once said pointing to his head, “THIS is the real instrument we play.”

He meant that improvisation comes from your musical mind, not from your instrument. I see evidence of this constently from myself and from others.

I’m recording a new lesson for my online course, Improvisation Savvy and in it, I demonstrate a three-minute warm-up for the ear. Sounds strange, right?

We all know how to warm up on our instrument, especially us brass players, but if the real instrument we play, as Hal reminds us, is our musical mind, shouldn’t we warm that up and get it to optimal performance?

Within the lesson I’m video recording, at one point toward the end as the final warm-up step, I suggest simply improvising a melody that spontaneously comes to mind. No licks and none of the usual stuff that pops out of muscle memory that pops out of all of us when playing. It’s a natural part of improvisation.

Yes, everyone including Miles, Trane, Dexter, and Sonny Rollins have licks that emerge from certain points of their improvisation. Especially when playing faster.

But this part of my lesson was strictly focused on playing something fresh absent of all licks and familiar note patterns. This is an exercise, not a demand for every performance.

For me, the pressure of picking up my trombone in the middle of this ‘live’ video lesson and improvising something fresh and free of licks as a model for all to see is challenging.

A few days ago while I was rehearsing the lesson on camera, going through it all, I would pick up my trombone to demonstrate a lick-free improvised line. Without warming up physically on the horn and therefore, without warming up my musical ear, the lines were boring, predictable, and unusable as a model.

During my normal practice time, I always go through the things I talk about in the ear warm-up lesson.

Coming off the mountain practice and back into the studio, my ability to play fresh interesting lines was back. As I say in the lesson, I had better connected my musical mind to my instrument for optimal jazz performance (although I highly recommend this for any player in any style of music).

Practicing this way has become so habitual that I don’t normally think of it but I’m thrilled to document this improvisation ‘hack’ within a video lesson.

And I’m thrilled to see firsthand the dramatic benefit it provides to improvising.

Well, up I go to warm up for the final recording of this important lesson within Improvisation Savvy.

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