July 10th, 2013

The Improviser’s Tipping Point

By Eric

When exactly do I become good at improvising? Is there a single point that occurs where I can finally play like I want to?

These are questions that inevitably pop up and hover at the back of your mind as you begin learning to improvise. Is all the work you’re doing now really going to pay off in the future?

If you were anything like me, when you first started learning to improvise you imagined a point in the not so distant future where you would suddenly “get it.” Sometime a year from now or maybe 5 years from now… It would be a sort of musical promised land or an instant melodic awakening where everything would fall perfectly into place.

It only had to be a matter of time, it had to be! After so many years spent toiling away in a practice room you were bound to hit that place where the odds fell in your favor and improvisation became easy.

However, this mythical point of enlightenment that contains all the answers sadly doesn’t exist. In reality there isn’t one single tipping point or exhilarating moment of insight that makes you an improviser. Rather, reaching your goal with improvisation is the culmination and collaboration of a number of different areas in your playing.

The greatest improvisers I’ve met never felt like they arrived at a destination – they were always searching for the next level and striving to improve.

Improvisation is not a destination, but a journey with many minor, yet important tipping points along the way. These crucial steps forward are the small victories in your daily battle to improve, the stepping stones that lead you closer to your ultimate goal.

Creating Musical Momentum

We would all like to find these tipping points in our daily practice routine, but oftentimes they turn out to be hidden and elusive. Months and years can go by where the gears are stuck and nothing seems to be getting any better.

What exactly is causing this roadblock?

One common problem with players that are frustrated and can’t seem to improve is that they aren’t putting in the necessary work for a positive shift to happen. These hopeful players have a goal in mind, but they’re barely crossing the starting line.

For a moment imagine that you’re standing on the shore of an expansive lake. Now scan the horizon and find a single point on the far shore – this is your destination. If you really want to get to that distant point you must jump right in the lake and push yourself until you reach the opposite shore, there’s no way around it.

The process is the same for envisioning the player that you want to become one day, your future goal for yourself as an improviser. You must see that player way out on the horizon and do everything in your power to get there.

The players that are frustrated and can’t seem to improve are the players just dipping their feet in the water and calling it a day. Instead of jumping in and swimming all the way to the other side, they are stopping after their first attempt. You won’t get very far by taking one small step in the right direction, you have to commit and put in a serious effort over time.

Musical improvement is not a passive process. Tipping points will not occur unless you lay the groundwork and prepare for progress to happen. You have be diligent and have faith in the process, yet you also have to be patient.

Any positive shift is ultimately dependent on the conditions in your practice environment – the environment that you create everyday. Are you practicing in a way that will allow for improvement? Are you sticking with something long enough to tilt the balance in your favor? Are you even getting into the practice room?

Once something starts moving in the right direction it will eventually gain momentum if enough energy is put behind it. It may take a week or even a few months, but once you get in the habit you’ll start to see progress. This daily momentum will be the impetus that will cause a positive shift in your playing.

3 Steps to Enabling a Tipping Point

So you’re all set to begin your next big improvisation tipping point, however the truth is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t control the exact moment when a chord progression suddenly clicks or a tricky pattern locks into your fingers. Breakthroughs or sudden moments of insight happen naturally and unconsciously. They occur after you’ve tackled a problem for some time, slowly revealing themselves after you’ve beaten your head against the wall and explored every option.

You’ve probably heard of revelations coming to people in the shower or that Einstein’s theory of relativity came to him as he was tinkering at the piano.

There is a point where the conscious mind has focused on a problem for an extended period of time and the unconscious mind must take over. You can’t control that moment when something clicks, it will only happen when the conditions are right. As an improviser, it’s your job to prepare these ideal conditions.

While there are factors that you can’t control in your musical journey, there are some crucial factors that you can and these will enable your tipping point. For example, you can control whether you practice or whether you don’t practice. You can also control the content of your practice routine. The more of these variables that you can control, the more progress you’ll see.

Here are 3 key actions that will enable your musical breakthrough:

1) Habit 

The person searching for an answer everyday is more likely to find it than the person searching only when it’s convenient. In your practice, developing productive habits is the most important path to your tipping point. Open yourself up to the realm of possibility. By showing up to practice everyday you are allowing progress to happen.

Even if the answer is not found, you’ll discover other things that were unexpected (and not even possible if you didn’t show up). Tipping points are the result of a sustained effort over a long period of time. A daily practice routine and clearly defined goals are key for making a leap forward. Whether it’s your technique, a list of tunes or transcribing a Coltrane solo, you should be working towards a goal every day in the practice room.

 2) Repetition

To ingrain a technique, a piece of language or a tune on an unconscious level you must spend enough time with each individual concept. Playing it once and expecting a breakthrough is not realistic. Repetition is the key to memorization and mastery. For every tune, exercise, or line that you practice make sure to repeat it multiple times.

 3) Focused exercises

Time alone will not guarantee musical improvement, rather it’s the quality of practice that ultimately determines your progress. Once you define a goal you need to focus on specific exercises that will allow you to reach your goal. Break that big goal down into well defined pieces and solve them one at a time.

Your tipping point directly relates to your self discipline. You can create your daily habits, you can create a practice routine of focused exercises and you can push yourself to repeat these exercises until they are ingrained. When you establish a goal and set out to achieve it, it’s in your best interest to get all the variables that you can control in your favor. If you leave things to chance and rely on the passage of time to get better, it’s always going to be an uphill battle.

Let’s take a few example areas of your practice and explore how to go the extra step to create a tipping point for your improvisation.

Scales

Nearly every musician starts with scales early on in their instrumental development. Scales can serve as a logical introduction to music, but for the aspiring improviser, they can also quickly become a barrier. Approaching a sound, a chord or even a tune with only 8 notes in order quickly puts your musicality in a box.

The ultimate goal with scale practice is to be able to play in all keys effortlessly and creatively. To build a useful foundation of instrumental technique in any key that will enable creative freedom as you improvise. But how do you turn this 8 note pattern that everyone knows into an improvisation tipping point?

The answer is not simply learning a scale and leaving it there, as most players do, but delving into the foundation of each key. Everybody’s journey begins with learning all of the major scales, but this is just the beginning – it’s only getting your feet wet in that lake that you must eventually swim across.

The tipping point with scales will occur when you don’t have to think about them anymore, when they are ingrained to the point that they are automatic. If you don’t have technical proficiency and freedom in every key it will be a barrier to every aspect of your playing. Remember it takes habit, repetition and focused exercises to see improvement.

Here are five tipping point exercises for your scale practice. You can use the exercises below for any type of scale (Major, minor, whole-tone, diminished, etc.)

Major Scale Tipping Point Exercises:

   Step #1 is knowing all your major scales and modes – this is a given.

   The next step is playing your scales in intervals (3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths & 7ths)

   Play the scales in ascending and descending triads and seventh arpeggios

   Work out each of the intervals, triads and arpeggios in all 4 directions

   Finally add different articulations and groupings to each scale and pattern

By  practicing all of your scales in this fashion, you’ll have the instrumental technique available to transcribe a line or learn a tune in any key. After spending some time with these exercises, a switch will occur where you won’t have to think about your fingers anymore, every key will become automatic – every key will be equal.

By following these tipping point exercises, you’re building a technical foundation to play your instrument in all 12 keys, not just playing a major scale up and down a few times and stopping.

Language and transcribing

In transcribing a solo, you may have experienced a common realization: learning the notes of a solo or seeing them on a piece of paper didn’t magically turn you into a better improviser. You understood the theory behind the lines, but figuring out those notes didn’t noticeably change your playing.

“… it bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.”~Bill Evans

The goal with transcribing is to develop your own language for improvising by creating a harmonic, melodic, stylistic, and rhythmic foundation for the player that you’ll eventually become. To achieve this goal you’ll need to approach the music in a very specific way. Simply learning the notes of a solo won’t change your playing, to create a tipping point you have to do something with that language once you’ve figured out the notes.

Transcription Tipping Point Exercises:

       Select one piece of language to learn by ear from a recording

   •    Listen to this one line on repeat until you can confidently sing it note for note

       Figure out the notes on your instrument

       Repeat this line until you can play it effortlessly from memory

       Analyze the melodic and harmonic content of the line, understand how/why it works

      Learn the line in all 12 keys, repeating until each key is ingrained

       Apply this line into your own solos, then alter & combine it with other language

Now you have language that you can use in your own solos, language that is truly your own. Rather than looking at a line from a transcription book and trying to force it into your playing, you’re gaining something that will physically improve your next solo.

Tunes

Think about the tunes you know well and then compare those with the tunes that you don’t feel so comfortable with. What’s the difference between the two?

With the tunes you feel comfortable performing, a switch occurred at some point in your practicing. You practiced and performed the tune over and over again until the chord progression became familiar and the melody became ingrained. You didn’t have to think so hard to play the tune – you were hearing the melody and natural flow of the chord progression.

This is the goal when you learn a tune, to get past all the technical and mental barriers to create a vehicle for your musicality. You must get past the point of thinking about chord progressions or memorized melody notes or licks and patterns and arrive at the point of an internal aural understanding.

If you’re learning tunes from a fake book or just memorizing chord names this is not going to happen. Instead aim for a different approach with any tune you learn.

Tipping Point Practice with Tunes:

     Learn the melody by ear, sing it then play it

     Learn the chord progression by ear

     Repetition – play the melody with a recording until it’s ingrained physically and aurally

     Go over the chord progression piece by piece until it’s in your ear

     Transcribe some language over the progression

Creating your own tipping points

Learning to improvise doesn’t just require one big tipping point, it requires the combination of several smaller tipping points. Developments like progress in your instrumental technique, improving your ears, broadening your harmonic knowledge, acquiring musical language and expanding your repertoire all contribute to making you a better musician.

Each milestone along the way is an essential piece of the puzzle, but there ultimately has to be something more than just discipline and daily practice if you want to improve -there has to be Inspiration:

“The third type of possession and madness is possession by the Muses. When this seizes upon a gentle and virgin soul it rouses it to inspired expression in lyric and other sorts of poetry, and glorifies countless deeds of the heroes of old for the instruction of posterity. But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.”~Plato

To truly create a tipping point, you must become possessed by your goal, inspired and moved at a deep level, technique alone will not solve your problems. Perhaps it’s not a tipping point that occurs from being a non-musician to a musician, maybe you already are an improviser and you just need to do the work to realize this potential inside yourself. Inspiration will drive you to get better and find these answers that you’ve been searching for.

If you start utilizing the above ideas, you’ll gain musical momentum in your practice. After a while the pendulum will shift and you’ll begin to see improvements in all areas of your musicianship. Things that used to be difficult will suddenly become easy. Finger technique in all keys will allow you to learn the language you’re transcribing much faster and in turn, this language will enable you to improvise more effectively over the tunes you’re playing.

In improvisation everything is related, one weak link in your musicianship or fundamentals can create a musical barrier as you strive to improve. Weak technique, a lack of language, or a feeble repertoire can get in the way of you performing the way you envision.

However, the good news is that you can create a solid foundation in these areas in a short amount of time if you practice the right way. Start by picking one area of your playing, maybe scales or a line you’ve transcribed, and work on creating a tipping point. By defining your goal, focusing on specific exercises, and working on them everyday I assure you that you’ll see a positive shift in your ability to improvise.