The biggest improvement you can make playing your musical instrument

A good friend and my most enthusiastic guinea pig for my books’ strange ideas and exercises came to the studio yesterday to do some trombone recording.

Like most players, he’s not used to recording in my particular environment. A strange and sensitive mic, transparent monitoring through headphones, and unforgiving playback can make for an uncomfortable experience. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at putting people at ease and getting the best out of them.

My friend wanted to record some improvisation over one of my published rhythm tracks. He’d been practicing it for a while and was now ready to immortalize it. We did a few takes and I made suggestions about relaxing, playing more at ease (softer), and lighter articulation. He took all of this direction extremely well and really started to settle down and play some good stuff.

I then asked him if there was a difference between what is coming out of his trombone and the music living in his head. He quickly admitted that there was. I started the background track and asked him to sing what he hear. Like most people, he was self conscious about singing, but went with it. What he sang was indeed more musical and more free than his trombone improvisation.

Making sure that he heard what I heard–and he said he did–I then suggested that we record another track and this time, “focus on the music inside your head and don’t worry about pitch, time, fast, slow, or any other distracting qualifier.”

That next take was brilliant. Longer and more expressive notes, more complete musical ideas, and great form through the entire three minutes.

What is the lesson learned?

Most players including my friend, lead with their horn. In other words, they play notes, often giving primacy to pitch, range, how they think they “should” sound and other distractions. The problem with this approach is that the trombone or any other instrument is just a machine, and the machine itself has no music inside of it. Leading with the production of notes will rarely create meaningful music from improvisation or reading an etude to playing your part in an orchestra.

We often don’t think of that because the “machine” is complicated and takes concentration just to play technically well, so we start our performance by producing notes.

What my friend changed that allowed him to play beautiful music was that he lead in that last recording with his musical mind and put the technical demands of the instrument aside. The musical phrases within his mind were allowed to travel more easily through his trombone.

I’m adding this post as the final page to my new book Rhythm Savvy. It could easily be added to Jazz Ear Savvy since the premise of that book focuses on strengthening the mind/instrument connection. Rhythm Savvy, however, is filled with exercises audio tracks that encourage what Ran Blake calls the Primacy of Ear. The only difference between the role of the ear in my two books is that one challenges you to hear the harmonies and melody, and the other to hear the rhythms and form.

Leading with the horn and the inevitable result of rote licks, patterns, and scales is the opposite of leading with your musical mind. The next time you are practicing your improvisation a cappella, over Aebersold tracks, or over my rhythm tracks, stop and imagine or sing what you hear in your musical mind. Then ask yourself if you hear a difference and if so, what that difference is. Be honest and clear. After a bit of singing and introspection, return to the horn, hit record, and focus on the music you hear and don’t fret about the mechanics of the horn. I bet that like my friend, in the playback you’ll hear a big difference in your performance.

1 Comment

  1. Walter George on June 17, 2018 at 10:55 am


    Thank you for this article. Of particular interest is how you were able to help your friend transition from playing notes to playing music.
    It just so happens that yesterday I was listening to this podcast interview with Jamie Aebersold who described how he got started playing sax, teaching music, writing the playalong books and running the music camps. At the camps, he said he always did one exercise where he would play a fairly complicated piece on the piano and invite a student to come up and sing an accompaniment. He said they generally did very well at this. He would then ask them – could you do this on your instrument? Universally, they would say no. He would ask why and they might say something like I don’t know what notes to play. Jamie said this exercise proves that everyone can improvise. The reason they can’t do this on their instrument is ” they don’t have their instrument under control”.

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