Right or left brain improviser: which are you?

If you are familiar with my books on improvisation, you know that I teach the means to project your inner musician through your instrument–trombone or any other. For me, improvisation is the spontaneous composition of original musical imagination. My method for improvisation, therefore, is light on scales, patterns and theory and heavy on the ear.

But I recognize another type of improvisation. The distinction I’ll make toward it against my own style is characterized by the hemispheres of the brain. Imagining melodies, rhythms, and the emotion of a solo as I described above is largely a right brain activity. Remember that the right side of the brain is dedicated to creativity, imagination, and intuitiveness. Let’s call it right brain improvisation.

So then what is left brain improvisation?

The left side of the brain is dedicated to logic, reasoning, and math, to name a few. How do those attributes relate to improvisation? There is an entirely legitimate means of improvising that relies on a foundation of scales, patterns, learned licks, memorization of chords, and the adherence to snippets of other musician’s phrases.

This subject is not a pure either-or choice, however. Improvisation, no matter how devoid of memorized patterns or phrases, contains elements of muscle memory. Even Bird, Coltrane, and Miles had reoccurring patterns within their playing. The interesting question to me is, which side do you lean toward and what are you doing to reach your ideal? What do you practice with that resonates with your improvisational ideal?

For some, the ideal is to fill their improvisation with flurries of notes that start and end in all the right (safe?) places. Their practicing consists of running interesting patterns through each key, playing scales throughout the full range of their horn, and memorizing and conforming their favorite licks into a variety of harmonic progressions.

I honestly am not denigrating this style of playing because it makes for impressive technical displays that conform to the chord changes. Stringing together patterns and scales creates a stylistic adherence to the job at hand. It sounds “right” to the listener partly because beside being musical, it’s logical.

What I’m referring to as more right-brain improvisation is a style given more to chance.

This type of improviser may or may not know what she will play next. It’s a bit of a leap into the melodic and rhythmic unknown. Speaking for myself, mistaken direction and dead ends are always around the next corner. I feel compelled to again reiterate that I’m not claiming one is objectively better than the other. I find it to be an interesting choice.

The difference between what I’m referring to as left versus right brain improvisation very much directs how one practices. Someone looking to be shown the right notes to play in a given musical context won’t get the answers he wants within my books and teaching methods that implore the reader to frequently look away from the book and its written notes. On the other hand, someone wishing to build their intuitive compositional ear will find the scale and pattern books too mechanical to help her project her free and inner musician through her instrument.

I think it’s important for each of us learning improvisation to know which side of the brain we obtain the most comfort and satisfaction. We each must find the tools that will best help us accomplish the musical ideals we hold dear for ourselves. Practicing with the wrong tools will leave you frustrated and performing at less than your full potential.

To which side of the brain do you lean?

1 Comment

  1. Rodney Brim on January 31, 2019 at 8:09 pm

    I’m definitely right brained or intuitive when approaching soloing, but regularly working on the left brain side of musical competency as well. When playing from the right side it feels relatively effortless (often more immediately enjoyable), while the left side feels like work, but I need both sides functioning to be my best.

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