In a world craving instant gratification and immediate results, players learning the craft of jazz live a somewhat frustrated existence. Results are slow to come. Spoiler alert: improvisation is hard.
I watched a video today that I hadn’t seen in a while, and it reminded me that in the hands of a good teacher, instant results can occasionally occur.
The video was one of Hal Galper’s classroom videos in which he’s talking to a group of young students. Called “The Illusion of an Instrument”, Hal explains that the real instrument is the one between your ears. That piece of brass, wood, or ivory at the tips of your fingers is simply its amplifier.
Hal asks the room for a volunteer. One brave girl is invited up to the piano. Hal asks, do you have any licks you’re working on? Apparently, she has one and Hal asks her to play it. She plays the lick but kind of miffs it. With a camera going and Hal giving her instructions, she’s justifiably nervous.
Hal then asks her to imagine the lick as if she were screaming it. The idea is for her (and all of us) to first hear the musical intention loud and clear in your head.
She takes a moment to imagine that and then plays the lick perfectly with a nice swing and confidence. Hal got her to play the instrument that lies between her two ears. The piano was secondary.
She would have experienced a completely different result if he had asked her to focus on the keys she must play, and to make sure she hit everyone of them with perfect accuracy. Her playing would have been stilted and uninspired which is what happens every time we lead with our instrument.
I think it’s especially the case with trombone. The instrument itself is hard enough to play, and to start with the instrument makes things so much harder. Moving the slide doesn’t much help. I could make the case that at least putting your fingers down on a keyboard makes a nice tone. That’s a start.
So what is your focus when you standing up and play jazz? It’s the sound in your head of the next phrase you’re about to play. Focus on that sound and your trombone, or any instrument, just might go where you hear. You’ll have to practice this, especially if you’re used to relying on manufacturing notes on your instrument hoping that they’ll find their way into a good improvisation for you.
Try this: Pretend you’ve got a loud megaphone wired into your brain. Hear a short lick through that megaphone. Now play it and listen to the clarity and confidence of your playing.
THAT is instant gratification at work in improvisation. It’s rare but with the right intention it can happen for you.