Except for only the last couple hundred years–a sliver of time for us– human existence on earth has been hard. Very hard. Over 200,000 years, our brains have evolved to protect us from the dangers of being eaten by animals, surviving harsh weather, and attacks from warring factions.
In order to survive, our brains have become very good at conserving energy. In fact, research shows that energy conservation is a primary function of our brains. “Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival, as it allowed us to be more efficient in searching for food and shelter, competing for sexual partners, and avoiding predators”, said Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC’s Brain Behavior Lab at the University of British Columbia.
Given that an essential function of the brain is to conserve energy, it makes sense that our brains are constantly striving to identify the simplest way to do things. The simplest way isn’t laziness, it’s biology.
Why your brain must conserve energy
Imagine how difficult life would be if every time we walked, we needed to concentrate on where our feet landed, which leg to move when, and how to balance on two legs. Now, imagine that complexity of thought on activities like typing on a keyboard, driving a car, using an iPhone, or even changing a light bulb. We’d drown in a sea of unimaginable complexity. Human life would cease to exist.
“Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival, as it allowed us to be more efficient in searching for food and shelter, competing for sexual partners, and avoiding predators.” sides
What does this have to do with jazz improvisation? A lot actually.
Improvisation is hard. Besides the difficult physical act of playing, you must be intensely focused on the musicians around you and keenly aware of the complex sounds surrounding you. Improvisation requires you to integrate your playing into a specific musical form, all the while spontaneously composing an interplay of melodies within a logical structure.
The coordination of all that is hardly light work for your brain. It’s amazing that we are able to do it at all, but we are and many at a very high level.
The benefit of giving your brain what it wants
Is there a way to more quickly and effectively develop the skill of improvising by adhering to the nature of how our brain optimally functions? Yes, there is.
A while back I wrote a post entitled, Right or Left Brain Improviser: Which are you? Keep in mind that the right hemisphere of your brain is the creative emotional side and the left is the logical fact-based side.
I made the distinction in the post that left brain improvisers primarily draw upon the scales and patterns that they have practiced over and over until they have become automatic. Right brain improvisers draw upon less tangible factors like what feels like the thing to play at that moment. I don’t think anyone is either left or right. We are all a mixture. It’s a matter of degree. Which is your dominant tendency?
For a dominantly left brain improviser, the brain conserves energy by learning the jazz vocabulary of scales, patterns, and licks. And the player doesn’t just learn them, but from years of repetition, they build connections in their brain that “hard wires” their fingers, mouth, arm, etc. to automatically go where they are “programmed”. You need an E minor scale: no problem. The brain serves it up for you. The brain loves habits because that is a primary method of conserving energy. You can play fast runs of eighth notes, all while you stand, breath, and think.
I am a more right brain player, but I still depend on memorized scales and licks to add continuity to my improvisation. When I am at my best, I’m more right brain. When I am less satisfied with my improvisation, I am relying too much on my left. That’s just me. Nothing inherently wrong with either approach, but you should know your tendency.
It’s pretty obvious that we build left brain improvisation skills through repetition of scales, patterns, and licks. We memorize jazz solos and learn the relationship of chords to scales. The resulting muscle memory enables the brain to conserve energy. Think about riding a bike. Staying balanced no longer requires great amounts of conscious brain power.
Providing for right brain energy conservation
But how do we train our brain so that it conserves energy and reduces the conscious workload for right brain improvisation?
The primary skill for a right brain improviser is in reducing the friction or blockage between their musical mind and their instrument. Ideally, what ever you can sing, you can play on your instrument. But we don’t necessarily live in that ideal. Try it out: sing a note, then pick up your instrument and play it. It’s not that easy for most people.
How do we train for that skill, and more importantly, how do we hard-wire our brain to enable spontaneous, frictionless flow between mind and instrument?
In my video, A simple 30-day habit that will more quickly meld mind and instrument, I demonstrate an exercise to practice this skill. I provide a Bb7 rhythm track and while it plays, ask you to sing a simple phrase. Then play that phrase on your instrument. I suggest that the degree of difficulty for you should be 5 to 10 percent more complicated than what is easy for you. Challenge yourself but make it attainable after a try or two with the instrument. Your brain learns best when it is having success and enjoyment in the process. Frustration and anger are the enemies of learning.
The point of the 30 day challenge is to develop a habit for the exercise, doing it only for three minutes each day for 30 days. Remember what I wrote earlier about habits being a way for your brain to conserve energy? If you practice this each day at roughly the same part of your practice routine, you will start to build brain connections that facilitate playing what you imagine in your musical mind.
At the end of 30 days, I believe you will feel a difference in your improvisation. Perhaps your fingers or arm will go to some new places outside of where rote muscle memory of scales and patterns has always and comfortably taken you.
At the end of the video, I suggest recording your improvisation on the Bb blues track I provide at the beginning of the 30 days, and to do the same at the conclusion. Send me both tracks and I’ll give you a free Skype lesson.
This exercise works for me and I believe it can work for you, so let’s find out.