Improvising more deliberately on your instrument?

I met a bunch of great students today at Glendale Community College. Enthusiastic, hungry to learn, open to new thoughts…

Dave Schmidt, The director of the school’s jazz program, invited me to talk to his improvisation class. One hour seems like ten seconds when you are unraveling the mysteries of playing jazz. So naturally I left thinking about a question I could have asked and discussed.

As the students played and then I played, there’s an important difference that I think goes to the heart of improvisation chops. In class today, the question for the students is, what is the difference between my soloing over a harmony and yours.

Forget the superficial stuff like technique and tune knowledge.

The most important difference is that the music coming out of my trombone bell is a closer reflection to what my mind’s ear is hearing. In contrast, their improvisation is not lead as much by their mind’s ear, but instead by their instrument.

I think in part it comes from the need to practice running scales and patterns. Scales and patterns are necessary for strengthening a certain type of technical proficiency. Their downside, however, can be to ingrain a focus on playing notes rather than music. Look Ma, I can play flurries of notes. I’m improvising! Now, the reason I’m so clear on this is because I went through it, and if I’m not focused, I fall back on it. Letting the notes of the horn lead.

If you’re going to practice scales and patterns (and you should), consider them in their proper place. And spend more time developing your ear by playing melodies over changes and various harmonies. I remember Bill Watrous telling me many years ago that the bulk of his practicing was spent improvising the prettiest melodies he could blow on the trombone.

Practice playing famous melodies without accompaniment, and do so in random keys. Happy Birthday starting on your horn’s lowest note, Star Spangled Banner starting on Db, your favorite blues head a half step up. Doing this well is what I call getting musically closer to your axe.

Evaluate yourself on how effortlessly the song comes out of your horn. Are you having to concentrate and hunt for notes or do your fingers know where to go? Each of us can easily  find tunes with which we’ll fail at this, so start with the simplest song you know (I like to recommend Happy Birthday) and randomly play the first note on different pitches and see where you get stumped. Likely that’s a key you normally find difficult. I like to use standards and classical exercises I know best like Bach Cello Suites or Rochut.

When you play closer to what your inner musician hears, your improvisation will become more musical and more satisfying and therefore more deliberate.

P.S. The best book I’ve read on this topic is Ran Blake’s Primacy of the Ear.

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