The secret ingredient to mastering improvisation

I’m almost ready to publish my new book called Jazz Ear Savvy. The book is a deep dive into what I believe is the most fundamental skill of any really good improvisor: the connection between the musical mind, or “ear” AND the instrument.

I bet that your mind can and frequently does conjure up musical ideas as you listen to jazz. Perhaps in the privacy of your shower, you can scat some nice melodies. Take a moment and just think about how a good jazz solo sounds.

Let me ask you this: can you play on your instrument what you’re hearing in your mind?

Listen to this drone of C major.


Can you hear in your mind’s ear music that could be improvised over it? Now play over it with your instrument. What is the difference?

For me, the difference is the mechanical beast on my face. Somehow I’ve got to make a tube get longer and shorter coinciding with subtle movements of my mouth as I create a buzzing in a metal cup controlled by the tip of my tongue. Yikes! It’s a wonder we get anything at all out of that setup.

But we do.

For those who play jazz, however, there’s an added degree of difficulty. It’s called improvisation. Again, the question is, how do we reflect on our instrument that which we hear in our mind? And that’s not entirely accurate, because at least for me, I’m not simply repeating what I hear as if I’m manifesting some sort of echo. Ideally, the instrument is an extension of one’s musical mind. Think of it as a direct hookup to the musically creative mind.

How do we get more and more directly connected to our musical mind? That is the theme of Jazz Ear Savvy.

In the beginning of the book, I ask the reader to play Happy Birthday. Now play it in another key. And another. And eventually all 12. Try that. What do you experience? Are all keys equally doable? Are you finding yourself hunting for notes? In the hunt, do you lose the melody in that particular key?

I choose Happy Birthday because if any melody is cemented in your mind, it is that. Because you hear it so clearly, you have the best chance of reflecting it out your horn. And by playing it in various keys, you are likely to eventually stumble. Why do you stumble? Because the mechanics of the horn interfere with the smooth flow of the song.

Now the question is how to you overcome the mechanics of the horn. I don’t think it comes from scales or jazz patterns. Those will certainly build your technique and ability to play runs of notes, but is that improvisation?

The central idea of Jazz Ear Savvy is to provide you with the opportunity to focus your mind on musical melodies in a way that better facilitates your instrument becoming an extension of your musical mind. So that you strengthen the connection between mind and instrument. So that you get closer and closer to that direct hookup mentioned earlier.

Here are beginnings of a few very well-known melodies. I won’t tell you what they are. I want you to hear them rather than think about them. Turn away from the music as soon as you can.

How far through the rest of each song can you play? What other keys can you play them in? How easy is it for the melody to flow through your instrument without thinking or worse yet, searching for notes? Now this is not a test to determine your musical worth. It’s simply a tool allowing you evaluate how close a connection exists for you between your musical mind and your instrument. More importantly, it’s a tool to build that connection.

45 pages and nearly 20 sound files within Jazz Ear Savvy will give you a valuable tool to help you more quickly become an improvisor beyond your expectations.

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