An Organic Approach to Improvisation

Music is a language very much like spoken language. Since we are al lmore or less fluent in at least one spaken language, we can use that knowledge as a guide to learning musical languages. Any time you are confused about something in music, compare it to your own experience with spoken language… you will find the answer there. We learn to speake by copying others and we can leran to play the same way. Music Theory tends to get in the way. Jazz theory is initially about naming things (“This is Bb Lydian augmented scale, and over here is an F# dominant 7 b5…”) Imagine how difficult it would be to put together a functional sentence if we had to think of the names of every type of word we used: “OK, First I need a Subject, then I need an object, then a verb, or is i an adverb? Oh yeah and I have t oconjugate this correctly ..ah Is this an irregular verb? On and don’t forget that verbs in Eglish go before the object, not after it and what about an adjective…” You get my point? If we had to identify and name the elements of spoken language we would NEVER BE ABLE TO SPEAK. We learn to speak intuitively one word at a time. Ecah new word or concept adds and integrates to what we already know and in a very few years we are FLUENT and can begin TO EXPRESS our own IDEAS. All of this is true for music. Now even though what I’ve said above makes obvious sense, both students and teachers tend to be quite resistent to putting an ORGANIC approach to music into practice. Here’s how to do it: First of all, realize that 95% of makin music is RHYTHM. Rhythm, rhythm, RhYtHm, R-h-y-t-h-m!!!!!!!! Whatever you want to play start by playing the rhythm!! This means rhythm guitar as well as rhythm in general. This might mean buying a snare drum, rid ecymbal, sticks and brushes for a student of American Jazz, some shakers or a pandero for Brazilian music, Claves and a sturdy table for Afro-Cuban music, a Dumbek for Arabic rhythms, a tabla and sruti syllables for Indo-Pakistani music. Don’t study technique first, just try to play along with your favorite records, then listen really hard and try to copy what the musicians are playing. If the technique escapes you then mess with it until it starts to feel better, then start asking questions. Watch videos of the musicians you love to see what they are doing. So, while you are grooving to your favorite salsa album… – learn some chords. – Then play the arpeggio (1,3,5,7) to each chord you learn in the same position as the chord voicing from the bottom to the top of that position. Sing it and play it. – Then fill in each Arpeggio with whatever notes sound good to you. Now you have created some scales. Don’t worry about naming them, and don’t worry if you have more than one scale per chord… the more choices the better… there is no one right scale. While you are doing all this try and learn a few licks that you like .It will be REALLY hard at first but soon it will become easier… stick it out through this first stage and you will become a good musician. Always play the chord, arpeggio and scale that goes with each lick. Play the lick in the same position as the chord so that the chord and lick go together. Next try and learn a simple song… Start by learning the words and melody. Sing the song until you can sing it all the way through by heart. Then learn to play the melody on the guitar in a low octave and then in a high octave. Now figure out how to play the bass notes. Then put chords above the bass notes. When you can croon the tune and play the chords and it sounds pretty good, then try using your scales, arpeggios and licks to make a solo. And there you are. Keep doing this over and over and in a few years you will develop a mas of chords, scales, licks and songs and eventually you will know as much guitar as you want (unless of course you are lazy). So where does Theory come in?? And sight reading?? And chops? Well the answer is that all that stuff is important when you have to learn music QUICKLY and play something with little or no rehearsal. In other words, when you are playing for MONEY. These skills don’t generally replace the intuitive ones we were discussing baove, but are pretty separate and aren’t too hard to develop…. again, just so long as you are not LAZY. DEBUNKING a few common misconceptions about learning music: “IF I learn music by copying others I will never develop my own ‘SOUND'”. This is egotistic bullshit. It is exactly the same as saying “IF I learn to speak English by copying others I will neer write original books”. All communication is dependent on a common language. So one must learn a music common language before one can become a fine musician. One doesn’t have to invent new licks to make great music any more than one has to invent new words to write great books – Expression comes from how you manipulate the common language, and you have to know it – be a master of it – before you can express something unique through it. Just as pretty much all of us can speak and read and write but NOT all of us are poets… Anyone can learn to play music, but only a few will become great musical artists. So COPY FIRST to learn a musical language or two or three, then go and be personal with itwhen you find something special you want to say. “How can I copy others if I have a lousy ear?” If you don’t USE yoru ears they will atrophy like any unused muscle. You must force yourself to DEVELOP musical habits. If one creates a NEED for good ears then good ears you will develop. They don’t have to be anything but good enough for you to say what you want to say. “IF I learn by copying only I’ll never know my instrument thoroughly and I’ll have bad technique”. This one I hat ethe most, probably because I’ve been guilty of it myself… What is good technique?? Being able to express whatever [musical] words you want to express with the right attitude, feel, RHYTHM, clarity IS great technique. BB King’s technique is perfect for expressing the blues. John Williams’ technique is fantastic for counterpoint. BB King’s technique sucks for playing three-voice fugues, and certainly John Williams’ technique SUCKS for bending in tune and making notes cry. If you are not LAZY, and you are in touch with your body, your technique will follow when your ear hears something it wants your hands to do.