Sunday, July 7, 2019

Teaching & Learning Improvisation | Phrasing & Delivery


What is really happening when we improvise? What is happening when we interpret written music? What might be the same between those two processes?

Much of my background is in the study of jazz, and what I've found in my study & devotion to this music is a chasm between its practice and its instruction. 

While the history of jazz (in the broadest sense of the term) is overflowing with musicians who have expressed their basic creative impulses in a most dazzling array of personal achievements, jazz education is conspicuously bereft of the discussion of how and why one must cultivate their own creative impulse, and follow where that leads. 

Why is this??
Form & Function

Jazz educators have long found the quantifiable intellectual properties of the music (form, melody, harmony, rhythm) to be the easiest to teach, drawing on the history of formal music analysis which predates the existence of what we call "jazz" by many many years.

This is important work! 

Thanks to educational innovators like Jerry Coker, Jamey Aebersold, Barry Harris, David Liebman, George Russell, and countless others, there is now plenty of information available to help musicians decipher the written language of jazz, train our ears to identify the gravitational tendencies within, and identify the properties of the idiom. As a result of decades of that work being codified, there is now an intimidating amount of information across the internet, decoding the mathematical relationships that would appear to reduce "jazz theory" to a series of explainable phenomena.

With that stated, it is an incomplete picture of what is going on when we improvise, and we all know this. 

What's more, we almost completely gloss over the delivery and interpretation of the melodies to these tunes...

Most of the information in the current jazz education paradigm is offered from a solely theoretical perspective, dealing with the nuts and bolts of what notes to play & where in your solos - according to "THE TRADITION". 

These are prescriptions of "correct" harmonic language wherein bits of preordained vocabulary are ascribed to phrases within the forms of standard tunes, and pieced together to make solos that make sense on paper, but often are devoid of personal meaning or character. 

That is damn near 95% of the discussion among jazz musicians. Whose solo was the hippest or the most "killing" at the jam session? How "crushing" the harmonic substitutions or modern, angular lines are from X player...So rare is the discussion of how MOVING someone's playing is. 

The tradition in jazz education is to deal with chords & chord progressions as if they are stationary snapshots (out of context) giving the jazz student the impression that harmony is rather static - moving in blocks - and encouraging the soloist to play "on" the chords, one at a time. Once the musician becomes aware of the notion that we move THROUGH chord sequences, their efforts are often concentrated on memorizing phrases that someone else played over that same set of chord changes. Once they have an array of preordained vocabulary locked and loaded, they hope they'll be well on their way to expressing real music in the moment! Yet this is much more a recreative process than a creative one. Is this the only way?

Many teachers fail to deliver with appropriate urgency the importance HOW & WHY TO PLAY, ACCORDING TO YOUR PERSONAL MUSICAL IMPULSES IN THE MOMENT! 

Listening to what your ears are telling you. Asking the MUSIC what it needs.

I am drawing a line in the sand right now - I am here to suggest that knowing the "language" of jazz is not NEARLY enough to make great music happen...

MUSIC is something else, not just the right notes on the right chords. Music is something that "happens", not merely a series of explainable intellectual phenomena. It is a happening. An occurrence. It is ALIVE. Music is you, me, the audience, the resonant acoustic space. Music is alchemy. 


So there is the "problem" - how about a solution?

I wish to emphasize, first & foremost, that I believe the study of PHRASING (as it relates to the unfolding of a melodic idea) yields the greatest reward for the improviser. 

This orientation has immediate benefits in the short-term, while yielding tremendous long-term effects. 

1. RHYTHM may be understood as Mirriam-Webster defines it:

"An ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence (in speech.)"

When we separate our notions about rhythm from the necessity of the metric component (even division of measures with a consistent pulse) even temporarily, it liberates us to explore the duration and stress of each note in a melody, observing how stressing some notes over others instigates a unique feeling of melodic motion. This puts us in a position of creative power, by comparing the flow and unfolding of melodic motion with that of our speech patterns. 

** Rhythm & melody are inexorably connected. **

RHYTHM IS ALSO OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE WHEN PLAYING RUBATO! (Rubato: the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace.)

If we are able to connect our sense of phrasing and rhythm with the flow of speech patterns, our music immediately takes on a more personal quality!

2. Rhythm, Melody & Harmony are all expressions of musical motion!

These three components function together to create what we perceive as cohesive musical ideas

The discipline of confidently delivering each idea we play is what makes the difference in how our music comes across to the listener. 

There are simple yet profound ways we can harness this ability, using melodies, intervals, scales, exercises, or pieces of music as our impetus…

A great goal for all musicians to have would be BRINGING EACH PHRASE TO LIFE!

In this way, it simply doesn’t matter WHAT you are practicing or playing, it is important HOW you play it. 

With primary emphasis places on phrasing (long/short duration, loud/soft dynamics, long/short arcs, articulations, etc.) we can play any melodic idea with many interpretations.


PLAY ANY MAJOR SCALE 12345671 using LONG notes as STRESSED notes or ARRIVALS and using SHORT notes as PASSING tones.

EXAMPLE: [ONE 2 3 FOUR, FIVE 6 7 ONE] Arabic numerals represent passing tones, with Stressed notes spelled out in capital letters.


THIS is phrasing. The shaping of a line. 

**What harmonic motion might we imply with the phrasing of our major scale above?**

Allow the duration to affect whether the note stands out as important or is only supporting other notes, by accenting the stressed 
notes in the line using dynamics

(much like the effect of emboldening or capitalizing words in a sentence.)

Now, try that same idea with the melody to “I Fall in Love Too Easily”.

Stressed notes will be represented by caps locked words in the lyrics:


(Check out how different the phrasing of this melody is when Chet Baker sings it from when Frank Sinatra sings it. We aren't looking to pick a favorite, we are listening for the subtle differences!)

The motion from these “stressed” notes THROUGH the passing tones and into the next STRESSED notes are what give shape to our melodic lines. THIS IS ALSO INEXORABLY LINKED TO THE FLOW OF HARMONIC RHYTHM! Of the stressed notes in the ballad above, how many of those words land on a chord tone on beat 1 or 3?? 

Our goal is to start connecting dots as soon as possible.

With only 12 chromatic pitches, a handful of harmonic colors (chords) & their corresponding scales – it is clearly our phrasing which defines the music we are attempting to deliver. Technique merely serves the phrasing. Yet, this is the single most overlooked aspect of music education to date.

I am making it my mission to bring this expressive power to all musicians, at all levels of performance & study.

Application In Real Life...

There is a gap for all of the folks who are going into, coming out of, opting out of, or transitioning between music schools... there is a gap between knowledge and application, practice and performance, conception and execution. We all reach a point where the necessary move is to leave behind our hard earned “expertise” and begin anew. To get back to the beginning. To find OUR MUSIC.

Performance and instruction of music of any variety is enriched by the musician’s full embrace ... reconsidering the simplest elements of musicality, phrasing, delivery, and composition from one note to the next. One phrase to the next. 

As improvisers, we need to consider the compositional process. Again, and again!

As interpreters of written music, the same elements must be considered in order to perform fully realized interpretations!

 This means that all musicians must be able to improvise clear, direct melodic ideas that establish the rules of tonal gravity, as well as the power of intention - grouping even “random” notes together in a melodious fashion that creates a sense of pleasing motion, departure and arrival! 

This is not necessarily “jazz” in its stylistic conception, but rather a spontaneous process of musical expression that assimilates all of the building blocks available to the musician in real time.

Every improvising musician bears the responsibility for the energy on stage, and therefore the energy in the audience. This is paramount - the control we are working toward is about directly connecting with the music, and bringing its magic to life. 

This is a huge responsibility!

Improvisation Instruction...

Improvisation is widely regarded as something that cannot be taught (by classical musicians and old school jazz musicians alike) - on the other hand, the working model for jazz education is largely predicated on the notion that “improvisation” is not a spontaneous creative process at all! It is instead represented as a clever reordering or recitation of preconceived “language” or “vocabulary”, acquired by copying recorded solos from the history of the music, and plugging these licks into the chord changes of a song...this cleverness is valued more than creativity, or should I say musicality, or taste. 

Classical musicians are experiencing a renaissance in exploring the world of improvisation in “new music” circles, and exciting explorations are happening, indeed. Extended techniques are largely emphasized, and improvisations are meant to give sections of the music an uncertain element of “chance”. This robs the performing classical musician of the gift of true study of improvisation in a melodic/ harmonic/ rhythmic (or should I say compositional or narrative) context. 

So what is missing in the study and teaching of improvisation is a method by which one discovers at their own pace, with their own ears, instrument, and value system - one note or phrase at a time - how to navigate and create strong melodic statements, without relying on cliches or preconceived lines, considering extended techniques to be fair game, while putting primary emphasis on the creation of clear and satisfying rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic motion.

 In real time. 

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