I remember asking this question to countless musicians over my career. I don't ask it anymore because I have reached a conclusion about the matter that I am at peace with. If you ask a group good musicians what they are thinking about when they improvise, you will get a diverse set of responses. There WILL be those that can tell you their thought process as they are improvising. You will also have those that say (in a raspy voice), "It just comes from within my brutha. You gotta search your soul and figure it out for yourself…" Well being a lesser experienced improviser; either response could be equally discouraging or encouraging. It is important to understand that ultimately music is a reflection of who you are. Your harmonic likes and dislikes, your lick selections, and your favorite styles. After a while of playing or even just listening to the music, you begin to become a reflection of what you listen to. Therefore your entire being has been transformed to fit the style(s) of music that you are passionate about. So as a result of being truly passionate about Jazz, Funk, or Blues, you actually become these styles and it is reflected in your playing. Even those that don't play physical instruments literally have a voice as well. But no matter what instrument you play, it is ultimately what's in your head or heart that you want to reproduce.
So then why do many improvisers have a hard time with jazz improvisation? Well there are a couple of parts to this problem. One issue is that some actually like the idea of playing jazz but they are not passionate about it. What I mean by that is, if you are truly passionate about Jazz or any music for that matter, there is something that calls you to it all the time. It makes you listen intently and dissect every piece until you understand completely how it was composed. I myself can't go a day without my Sirius Satellite radio. I keep it on the jazz stations 24/7. I am addicted to jazz. With this said, those that are passionate about something, consume a LOT of it on a daily basis and ideas about the music get stored in your subconscious. This is an important point. Remember the response above, about the music coming from your soul? Well this is true. After consuming so much of something, you are able to reproduce it (at least in your mind) a lot better than someone who doesn't listen to the music on a regular basis. This bring me to the second part of the problem. Many musicians are having problems with improvising not because they don't listen enough to the music, it's that they don't study the music and/or their instrument. As I have mentioned in a previous blog, it is important for musicians to STUDY their craft to show themselves approved. You can have all the ideas you want in your head, but if you can't reproduce them on your instrument, it doesn't make a difference. Now I don't mean to sound like I have made it to the mountain top. No, I am still struggling myself to get all I can so that I can explore more harmonic possibilities in my solos. You have to be as familiar with your instrument as you are with your own voice so that when an idea pops in your head, you are not stumbling to get it out.
So in conclusion, the ultimate goal for any musician is to first know the music they are playing by passionately seeking it out. This includes, listening in private or as a group, going to concerts or recitals, and of course playing with others. Also musicians need to practice and become one with their instrument. This is truly the goal to fight for, because if you let your body and brain become accustomed to holding and playing that instrument, soon it will know exactly what to do, when an idea pops in your head. It will be so tight you won't even have to think about it. This however only comes with much study. It is said that Charlie Parker studied and outrageous number of hours per day. Many of us don't have that luxury since we all have other responsibilities, but we can make sure the time we do spend at our instruments is quality time; working on new ideas and scales and constantly pushing yourself to do better. I would love to practice about 8 hours a day on my Alto/Soprano/Tenor/ and Flute, but for some reason my 9 month old son thinks it's necessary to eat EVERYDAY therefore I have to go to work!! I'm kidding of course, but everyone has their own responsibilities and sacrifices. I work during the day to pay the bills and in the early evening I spend time with my family. Once everyone is asleep, I hit my practice shed until about 2AM. If you are truly a passionate musician, you will find a way to get the time in so that your instrument simply becomes an extension of you and then you can be one of the ones that get asked, "What are YOU thinking about when you improvise?"
Letron "LTrain" Brantley
CEO & Founder
Well Letron, after reading your point of view several times, I find your perspective here to be an ingenious compilation of several techniques that can and do lead to better Jazz improvisation, however, you never answered the question and if I was to answer it for you based upon what you have shared then the answer would be: Don't think about it, just practice as much as you can and thereby establish a loyal and friendly relationship with your instrument, listen to jazz constantly, catch as many live performances as you can , go to jam sessions whenever you can and then get out there on that stage and let 'er rip!! You are clearly a great player and therefore that approach, if I re-worded it correctly, is working well for you but I would like to offer a perspective from many like myself that are relatively new crossovers from the classical music world, especially with regards to our learned approach, study habits, and for the most part our dependency upon sheet music that has rarely (if ever, for some of us) required spontaneous composition based upon chord symbols (with the exception of figured bass improvisation during the Baroque era which has rarely been heavily studied by modern day wind players (like myself), brass players and percussionists that are (or were) living during a time period in which modern day jazz improvisation is (or was) an option). Classically trained keyboard players, bass players and the like that have studied and performed Baroque figured bass improvisation will always have more pavement during their crossover to jazz simply because they were forced to interpret symbols alone and thereby create harmonically sound passages without the note-to-note visuals, so, please allow me to focus more on those of us who have not had such a luxury when crossing over from classical music into jazz. In most instances, Classically (AKA "Art Music") trained musicians have very little freedom when it comes to "playing the notes" (I am referring to not only music from the classical era dating from the early 18th through the early 19th centuries, but rather pretty much all music written prior to the onset of the Avant Garde and Jazz genres). When one's "Classical" performance is being assessed by the performer and/or the listener, the ultimate "no-no", if you will, is playing unwritten notes. Now all Classical players have gotten lost during a performance at some time or another and had to "improvise" (more like "fake it") for a moment or two in order to to get back on track, however, in the Art Music world this is considered unacceptable unless it was done in such a fine manner that the mistakes and/or loss of memory was undetectable. In the Art Music world the ability to do that and pull it off is not at all related to jazz improvisation skills, but rather the ability to seemlessly recover from a near disaster. Regardless of how many concerts were attended, what kind of listening environment was created or how much hands-on practice time was devoted to the instrument, the performance MINDset of classical players is based upon the careful recall of pre-defined details that dare not be distracted by the sub-conscious to the extent that they de-compose and/or re-write the composition being performed. To play the opening melody of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto note for note and consider it to be "the head" and then later on call the the transitional section "the bridge" is one thing, but to drift off into a mostly subconscious recall of everything that I played, listened to and participated in as a player and as an audience member prior to that performance would, perhaps ,offer a unique interpretation of the piece, but it would also cause a riot in the concert hall once my subconscious led me away from the notes originally written by Mozart...the same notes that made it a "classic" representation of Mozart's era, an era which mandated detailed expectations during the performance experience. Now I'm not saying that the mind-set of the Jazz performer is bad or lacks consciousness when compared to the Classical performer's mindset, but rather that they are very different, and when one asks the question "What are you thinking about when you improvise?" then it comes to my mind that the question that most Classical Musicians that respect Jazz and want to play it would ask instead is: How do you improvise without a pre-defined structure that has been carefully prepared so as to meet pre-defined performance standards and not panic when it's your turn to solo? In other words, how does one develop a more abstract, if you will. frame of mind when for years they have been pointed to detail after detail after detail and have depended upon the recall of those details (whether it be from concrete memory or sheet music) in order to get through the performance successfully? Trusting ones "ideas" as being sound ideas is an alien concept to the Classical Musician. Also, regarding your being "addicted to Jazz", an addiction to Classical Music is quite common as well but it offers little to no peace of mind when improvising Jazz. There's a missing link when it comes to improvisation. Is it even possible to have two musical drugs of choice? Perhaps there should be a seperate blog regarding preparation and performance mindset re-construction when crossing over from Classical to Jazz (in which my thoughts would probably be a better fit). Becoming a jazz musician has certainly awkened me to the importance of thinking ouside of the box, but am I thinking too much?
Last edited by MarioHunter (2008-12-02 12:58:59)