November 1st, 2011

Ingraining Jazz Language Through Visualization

By Forrest

Visualize lines

We talk a lot about ingraining language. It’s vital to have an array of ideas at your fingertips for any given harmonic situation. And these ideas should be so ingrained that you can easily make them your own with little effort. Visualization can speed up the process of ingraining language tremendously.

Can’t visualize it, can’t play it

If you’ve ever seen the B-rate movie Only the Strong, you know that if you can’t ginga, you can’t fight. Just like Capoeira, in improvisation, if you can’t visualize it, you can’t play it.

Visualization is the key to playing anything. It’s an unconscious step that we all must go through to be able to play what we have in our mind. This mental image precedes everything you play whether you like it or not.

The people that seem to have everything at their fingertips are simply excellent visualizers: they can perfectly imagine what it’s like to play something before they play it, almost without even thinking.

The stuff that is easy for you to play is the stuff that is easy to visualize. In terms of easiness, aim to get anything you’re working on as easy to visualize as it is to visualize one note.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Well I don’t practice visualizing anything, so why can I play what I play?” The answer is: your body taught your mind how to visualize the line through repetition. You repeat something over and over enough, your mind “gets it,” and then it can create a mental image of what that thing was.

Our mind does this for all sorts of things, for instance, physical activities, like riding a bike. Why can you just get back on a bike? Through repetition,  your mind has mapped how it felt to ride a bike. When you are not on a bike, you can visualize how it feels to ride a bike. When you hop back on a bike, you know exactly what to expect and your body follows suit.

However, what if your mind could teach your body? Doesn’t that seem like a simpler more direct route?

To paraphrase Jerry Bergonzi from his book Melodic Structures, the process of mind teaching body is much more efficient than body teaching mind. Visualization is mind teaching body.

Visualize the line

Learning to visualize an entire line is a similar process as visualizing one note. Make sure to checkout our first article on visualization for the detailed process.

Essentially, you want to feel as though you’re playing the line on your instrument. You want to hear the notes in your mind and feel how it would feel to have your fingers press the keys. I think it’s completely unnecessary to see the line written out in your mind because when you get to visualizing language like this and not single notes, the material is much more difficult to notate accurately.

Even if you could notate it accurately, I don’t think trying to “see” a bunch of notes in your mind would help you, but as always, figure out what works for you. Just be sure to capture the sound and the physical sensation of playing in your visualization.

Sometimes tackling an entire line is overwhelming. To start out, break the line up into manageable parts. You can then put these pieces back together once you’re comfortable with each. After doing this for a while, you’ll easily be able to visualize longer lines.

Once you break up the line if need be, it’s extremely important to understand how the line, or a piece of the line for that matter, relates to the sound that you’re playing over. Aim to know exactly what chord you are playing over when you practice the piece of language and to be aware of what chord tones you’re on.

This will help you understand the sound, construction, and flexibility of the line. Of course lines can be applied to many different harmonic situations, but it helps to have a basis for where to start a line harmonically.

So, when you take the line in your mind through all keys chromatically, yes that’s the next step, be aware of each chord and chord tone. Go really slowly and strive for perfection. Repeat each key until everything is fluid and without any mental strain. Remember, it should be as easy as visualizing one note.

You can do all this right before going to bed. If it helps you, write out the lines you want to visualize (just write them in one key) and place them on your night stand as a reminder. Each night, spend five or ten minutes running through them. They’ll marinate in your head as you dream and get ingrained on a subconscious level.

Or better yet, tape them to a nearby wall next to your bed and every time you look at them, take one of the lines through the keys in your mind. This seemingly simple tactic is so powerful. Anything you want to learn, just post it in front of your face. It’s that easy.

To recap:

  • Hear the line exactly as it sounds in your mind
  • In your mind, feel how your fingers would feel as they press the keys of your instrument
  • Break up the line into manageable parts and take them chromatically or through the cycle to go through all keys
  • Stay aware of each chord you are on and each chord tone
  • Be precise and go very slow

You do all this through visualization and the language you want to ingrain in your mind will permanently be there, so be selective!