Beyond the Right Notes

Now let’s say that you are able to play a nice improvisation over any imaginable chord sequence. Is it enough?

Al di Meola once said: “My belly is full of theory but when I play I forget it all.” In addition to what you learned you must also try to improvise completely free (in fact that what you tried before that you started to study music), especially on comps that you are familiar with. They say that Chet Baker didn’t know anything about notes and harmony and Charlie Parker could play any song and solo on it without notes or rehearsals, he didn’t even need to listen to the song previously. Here, as anywhere, ear training is very important and I want to insist on some aspects of this subject.

There are two kinds of ear training: hands-free and while actually playing. The first one deals with identifying intervals, chords, etc. and there are a lot of computer programs to practice with. You may also watch television or listen to radio with the instrument in your hands and try to catch as fast as possible themes or comps that you hear for the first time. For beginning ear training while actually playing, play first on a chord sequence that is entirely written in a certain scale but has sometimes chords that contain notes that deviate from the initial scale. What really matters is to identify the “in-scale” intervals that turn into “out-of-scale” ones, for instance: a major 7th turns into a minor 7th, a major scale (3rd) turns to a minor scale (3rd), a perfect 5th turns to a diminuated 5th, etc or vice-versa. Next you’ll play songs that contain modulations and you’ll try to find out what the new scale is as fast as possible. The more you’ll train your ear, the freer and more imaginative your playing will be.

And most of all, you must listen to what you play. Don’t get completely transported, step back sometimes and hear what’s going on, is your improvisation substantial, does it fit to the general musical ambience, is your tone the right one?

Historians believe that Music was born out of speech and in the beginning there was singing. And indeed, singing what you play is an obligatory exercise when learning to improvise. For instance, George Benson sings and plays in perfect unison (this is also his trademark). Listen to Keith Jarrett’s indistinct hum (he’s not the only one, you may see in live performances players singing while improvising but the over-all sound covers their hum)! Is it a reminiscence of his improvising practice or does he want to add more phrasing to his playing?

Phrasing is a complex notion (is it a formulation that tries to hide the incapacity to explain?) that deals with those musical procedures that can’t or are not written or that don’t strictly fit with the strict measure counting like: the exact moment that you start playing a certain note, the duration of the notes, their velocity and ornaments. To understand the importance of phrasing, just listen to players like Jeff Beck or Steve Vai and the importance they give to each and every note. Here are some ideas (look out, some of them may look completely crazy) of what to practice in order to master your phrasing:

  • try to play together with your favorite singers and imitate their phrasing
  • find words to your favorite improvisation
  • read newspapers articles or poems with the instrument in your hand and try to follow the rhythm of the written words
  • record from the radio a sports broadcaster or an actor and try to play what he speaks

And don’t forget that your solo is a story, it has a beginning, an end and dramatic peaks in-between.

Now you can really manipulate your audience. The purpose of your music is to raise certain feelings in the listeners, to make them “trip” wherever you wish. But first you must master the feeling of your playing. Even “classical” written music may be played in different ways. Take Paganini’s “Capriccio 24” at the “Chops” section. It may be played in the traditional romantic style but also in a laughable way and in an angry way. “Classical” players have (almost) all the time in the world to learn the piece and to play certain passages with certain feelings. Improvisers don’t. So take a certain chord sequence, play it over and over again and try to give each time a different feeling to your improvisation. Can you play anger, tenderness, laughter, fear, gossip, cynicism, indifference, sharpness, childishness, dizziness, curiosity, neurosis, grossness, dreaminess, denial and anything you can think about? From now on, when you’ll listen to a solo, try to identify, to give a name to the feeling that the player intended to.