Training your brain for both left and right brain improvising

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.

Left and right side of the brain, logic and creativity

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.

3 Comments

  1. Klaus Werner Pusch on April 28, 2019 at 9:32 pm

    Dear Michael,

    I wrote you some time ago regarding my project with a wonderful classical trombone player of the Hong Kong Symphonietta: Chris Rogers.

    I am back in Cape Town now, as my project in HK got delayed and I am at the brink of leaving again to HK preparing myself and writing my scores.

    Just read your excellent article regarding the right and left brain functions and relation to improvising.

    I just believe, that after many years of trusting more or less solely in my creative brain half it was about time and actually very valuable to start using also the other analytical one for increasing my improvisational creativity.

    A common music school way is, to study harmonies and do musical analyses …which are supposed to be intellectually valuable as you get an overview of the “ architecture” of music …but after some time you always start to realise , that it did not really assist increasing your musical and improvisational skills as the two brain halves did not manage to connect and support each other….!

    I just recently…actually already a couple of years ago, I found again- after 40 years of ignoring it- a wonderful and exceptional study and concept actually entitled Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation ….

    I am certain you have heard about it or eventually studied it ?

    If you want, we can discuss this issue as I now, finally, really am going to get involved…as this Concept , after some time you needed to really get the keys to open it’s doors to use it musically, has the ability to combine the forces of the intellectual part of the brain and the creative one.

    All the best

    Klaus Werner PUSCH

  2. Michael Lake on April 29, 2019 at 7:14 am

    Klaus, you use the phrase “increasing my improvisational creativity” when describing the reason to focus on the analytical side. I question the role our analytical mind can play in that, and I think you discovered by your disappointment in that direction that the intellect may not play as significant a role in improvising as many may think.

    Pattern books tend to be very popular since they feed players with the notes to use when improvising, and because of that, I’ve held off creating that type of resource. But I recently finished a pattern book with a twist. Instead of providing the pattern in all 12 keys for reading off the page, I provide the full written-out pattern of 2 to 5 notes only for the first three keys as an example. I then give only the first note for the rest of the keys so that the player can use his or her ear to play it throughout each of the other keys.

    In the end, the analytical brain is given notes, but the creative brain is allowed to discover them through exercising the ear. For me, the act of generating the patterns by hearing them rather than reading them dissolves the friction of the instrument.

    Try this relatively simple example from the book. For each instrument (C, Bb, and Eb), I’ve written 12 patterns and put them in order of difficulty. This is pattern #3. Try it and let me know how easy or hard it is for you to play them without thinking about the intervals as you play past the first three.

    https://s3.amazonaws.com/altobone-electrikproject/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/29070859/Ear-training-pattern-study-Page-6-preview-01.jpg

  3. Jerry Gordon on June 4, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    I tried this exercise and it was fun.

    I recorded myself at the beginning of a month and at the end. (My “month” took a few extra days because I missed a couple of days in the middle.) I tried to practice the exercise each day for at least 5 minutes. Usually once I got started the “five minutes” got somewhat extended.

    I recorded over the Bb blues track at the start of the month and at the end.

    So, here were my impressions:

    1. The exercise was fun and (I think) probably useful.

    2. I didn’t much like either my initial recording or the one I did at the end of the month. I hear ideas I find interesting in both of them but they both reflect all of my weaknesses as a player. There are a lot of splatted notes, for example.

    3. Maybe the final blues recording is a little better than the first attempt, although I don’t hear that much difference between them. I probably made a mistake at the end of the month by listening to the initial recording before making a new one. That made the second recording somewhat similar in approach. Or maybe I just always sound the same way on a Bb blues.

    4. The initial exercise reminded me of doing dictation to myself as I sang a phrase and then tried to duplicate it on the horn. I had a hard time staying with that. So, over time I let the exercise morph into something a little different. I started doing call and response with myself. In other words, I would sing a phrase and then play a responsive one and then play a phrase and answer myself with my voice. That seemed to get me into thinking melodically (which I think was probably the objective) but it also distracted me from the initial exercise. But I had fun and I think both exercises (the original dictation one and the later call and response one) are useful. I may keep at this for a while. Maybe a month is not really enough time.

    5. I realized that I have to figure out how to avoid splatting high notes – but that is not the subject of these exercises.

    Thank you, Michael,, for setting this up. I had fun giving it a try.

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