Improvisation is a big part of being a jazz musician. To the listener, it appears that the notes just flow out of the musician like it's the most natural thing in the world. The truth is that improvisation is a learned skill. Like anything else, some people have a special knack for improv, but even the "naturals" have to work on certain skills if they want to continue growing in their art. This can include scales, arpeggios, licks, and the study of music theory.
While I'm not a natural at improvising, my own improv skills have improved quite a bit over the past several months. I've been working on licks, building speed with scales and arpeggios, and learning new patterns. I'm highly analytical, and while it may seem counterintuitive, this trait has gone a long way in helping me become a better improviser. I've always been fascinated with music theory. While many other students at music school seemed to look upon the required music theory classes with dread, I looked forward to them. I loved analyzing music and picking it apart to see how it all worked. As a classical trombone player, music theory satisfied an intellectual curiosity. Now that I'm a jazz guitarist, music theory is a necessity. Today, the cool thing about music theory is that it's theory in real time. As the music is flying by, my brain goes into overdrive as I consider whether to play the chord as written, or whether or not to alter it depending on what the other players are doing, or whether I'll play a substitute chord, and if I play a substitute chord, which substitute chord of several do I choose?
Now, if I get too wrapped up in the theory and over think, I'll get in my own way, so I try to save the theoretical study for home practice and just let my fingers do my thinking for me while performing.
I'm pretty good at switching off the music theorist while performing, but there's something else I often do to get in my own way. I care too much. I try too hard. Maybe the musician who took the solo right before me played great, and I feel like I have to keep the energy going, so I'll try to will myself into playing an equally great solo. Maybe I'll start a solo with a preconceived notion of what a good solo sounds like. Maybe there's just some pretty woman in the room that I'd like to impress, and the caveman part of my brain somehow thinks that I'll stand a chance with her if only I play a really good solo for 32 measures! Whatever the reason, if I "try" to play a good solo, it almost never happens.
Oddly enough, I seem to play my best solos if I'm really sleepy. I started to notice this two or three months ago. Practicing at home, I found that if I was really tired and started improvising like I didn't care, my solos sounded terrific. Then I would wake up and think, "Wow, I'm getting good!" Fully awake, trying to duplicate the feat, my next solo would invariably suck. Playing half asleep, though, it was like I was channeling the music rather than forcing it out.
Just a couple days ago, I started practicing the fine art of not caring whether I played a good solo or not. Here's what I do. I start by putting my body into the stereotypical "this is lame" slump that teenagers have perfected over the centuries. Then I close my eyes part way, as if this is all so boring to me that I could easily fall asleep. (Again, I learned this from observing teenagers.) Having put myself into the state of not caring how I sound (although secretly I do), I proceed to improvise. It works like a charm! I let my fingers do the walking, and I'm more able to open myself up and simply be a channel for the music.
Last night I took a chance and applied the "I don't care" approach to my improv solos at a Tea for Two gig. It worked in public just as well as it does in private. Not to pat myself on the back too much, but I played some pretty good solos, and I even played a few new things that I hadn't thought of trying before. It was a very interesting experiment to try in front of a listening audience, like stepping off a cliff and trusting that a bridge would appear.
As long as I'm breathing, I'll continue to analyze music and practice scales, arpeggios, licks, and patterns. That's all important, but it's equally important to learn how to turn it all off and just play.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.