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  1. #1

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    Inspired by the thread "Trouble with improvising", I wanted to raise a specific question to those on the forum that are competent improvisors.

    Now, I know that i have the word "thinking" in the title, and that most will agree that when improvising there is no time to be thinking - but that obviously means that all one's thinking must be done as part of one's practice regimen. We all practice different things, but some may practice improv strategies like I do by developing etudes against various tunes or progressions. Let's say I'm moving though a typical tune where I'm applying various devices for each new chord where I'm playing unbroken 16ths, so usually 16 notes per bar. I practice around 60 devices for each chord type (6 per each 5 positions) and as such I'm not trying to memorize what I'm doing because I mix it up all the time, forcing myself to make choices on the fly.

    So this is a modular approach where you are stitching modules together. Yes I know, it's not "true" improvisation ( I work on that separately ), but it's a technique that I know a lot of players have mastered as part of their style (Sonny Stitt, Clifford Brown, Coltrane etc etc). I've been doing this kind of practice for a few years now and keep finding more challenging ways to mix it all up, switching devices randomly, switching directions randomly, switching at different strings, different parts of the bar, between different positions etc.

    OK, so having a sound technique and a good ear helps with all forms of practice (as it does with performance), but there is another aspect to all this that hardly gets mentioned here or elsewhere and it's about having a good brain! You need a good (left) brain for this work (unfortunately!), it requires unwavering concentration during an activity (making music) which invites engaging the right brain (creativity). But shutting out the right brain is not the only battle, you need to think of what you will play next well ahead of when you'll play it, while you are playing some other intricate idea that needs enough attention to do it properly.

    We are serial thinkers (at least us men are ), and I can certainly speak for myself when I say that this kind of "parallel" mental work does not get any easier with age. Of course with enough practice, things get relegated to autonomic reflex where you don't really think about what you're currently doing and can be free to engage the creative right brain to the point where even "module switching" approaches a kind of improvisation, especially if you are singing along with whats coming out. However, until things become automatic, it's headache central, no pain no gain and all that. So my question to those who have worked through this process yourselves - and reached a point where enough material has been internalised in this way - is this: How important do you think the ability to "think ahead" is when practicing improvisation techniques. And how important is it in your actual performance improvs? Are some of us better endowed than others with respect to this ability? Or do you think learning to improvise needn't require this facility because you're always in the moment whether in practice or performance?

    How would Coltrane answer these questions? Or Wes, Pass, Martino, Benson??

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  3. #2

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    When I'm putting data into a spreadsheet I'm not thinking, I'm just going through motions and it's joyless. I want music to be as far from joyless repetition as possible, so I think a lot. I think about the chords (Am7 coming up), the tones (chromatic from a flat 6 to the root, huh that didn't sound right), a specific lick (I'll do that maj 7 thing here).

    But what do I know, I've only been at this a year and a half. I'm on lesson 11 of the Mickey Baker Book.

  4. #3

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    I'm still not a competent improviser but have done "only by ear" training for 5ish years now. I believe anyone can do it, just that it seems impossible for a good while.
    I have watched some suitable long videos and slideshows (muted), played a game (MUD)... and last but not least, read a book while improvising endlessly on some standard. With no "mistakes" and "wrong notes" happening when the key changes are settled in.
    It can become completely automatic and this proves there is no thinking required to improvise whatsoever.. Also, when wanting to play some specific stuff like arps, then just try, fail a lot and eventually these will become automatic also.

    But this "thinking ahead" is pretty much mandatory for a good sounding solo. There is a weird attitude promoted sometimes - be on the spot 100%... the flow.. take chances. But in my experience, when this happens in a good way, from that current spot, I always felt I kinda knew what would happen next.

    Imo, it's kinda like chicken and egg type of problem. You can't think ahead when struggling with what is going on currently. And also can't be 100% focused all day long to practice this "thinking ahead" effectively.
    Will happen in its own time somehow without even having to push for it. It will happen, I promise - I gots not the best brains here but got it working somewhat in those recent years

  5. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by AllanAllen
    When I'm putting data into a spreadsheet I'm not thinking, I'm just going through motions and it's joyless. I want music to be as far from joyless repetition as possible, so I think a lot.
    You're new to this so you may not realise that most players feel that having to think about anything while playing is "joyless"! It's kinda true too, when you get your shit together and close your eyes and blow and you not only make all the changes but can instinctively weave perfect melodies while just intuitively being in the moment- it's pure right brain joy, and what the payoff is all about for all the work you put in. But for most of us it takes a few thousand headaches to get there permanently... But I never will because I'm addicted to new challenges, so I'm always fighting the instrument.

    Thinking fast on your feet is never comfortable, it's risky, but that makes it rewarding on other levels. But you need to develop a kind of buffer area in your brain for parallel processing. Remember when you were learning chords to a tune (I'm sure you still are)? You need to think of the next chord while you play the current one, right? Well, if you're thinking of a 16 or 32 note long device starting from a particular string or note, it's a fair bit harder, but essentially the same demand on the brain. When a 32 note device becomes as automatic as fingering a chord, then you move on to a new challenge. A good brain for this kind of learning, along with a good memory and good taste, goes a long way towards helping you advance this way of playing. Coltrane is an obvious example of the combination of all the above, in high doses. He's also some one who, although born somewhat gifted in these departments, worked his ass off to improve them. Somewhere along the line he must have improved his ability to think ahead while playing. I'd happily settle for a small fraction of that ability!

  6. #5

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    Practice through a set of chords, not on individual chords. One of the five main mistakes most students make.

    Link everything together.

    To do this it helps start with a goal in mind. What note am I ending up on and what beat or upbeat, and on what chord?

    You can practice building your line backwards. Start on the destination note and add each note in turn leading back to the beginning.

    You practice scientifically so that you can play freely and creatively. Don’t confuse them!

    Obviously If you have to micromanage note choices on the gig you are pretty much screwed... a higher level of conscious organisation can happen on the gig, but it’s very easy to muck yourself up.

    Recording even more so.

    Letting go; akin to meditation is what it’s ultimately about. You can get into the same kind set doing the housework. This is not a bad thing as I have no gigs lol.

  7. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by emanresu
    I'm still not a competent improviser but have done "only by ear" training for 5ish years now. I believe anyone can do it,..
    Yes, I think you're right. I call that kind of playing "free wheeling", which is pure improv - i.e, no prefab content. It accounts for probably about 50% of my playing that I like to mix in with the pre learned devices. I think anyone who likes fast, long lines does this to an extent. It's not like lick playing, or even line playing because a device is more flexible, which infers that choices are still made on the spot. Now sometimes these choices are made a microsecond before the next chord, and sometimes much longer. But when practicing, working in new devices forces me to think way in advance which often throws my concentration on the job at hand. It's always a hard slog, and some days are better than others. It's a very specific form of concentration, and perhaps unique to Jazz improv.

    I sometimes wonder if it's harder on the guitar than other instruments given the different kind of attention required for each hand. It's hard enough to execute difficult lines cleanly without having to decide and then plan to execute a new idea for the very near future at the same time - how you're going to voice lead into the next device at the next bar, how you're going to get your left hand in position smoothly as well as your right hand position (are you slurring at that point, sweeping? downstroke? upstroke?). If you've played that switch many times before, then yeah, you don't need to think about it. But if it's a new combination - and I can make it so that it always is - then there is always going to be some parallel brain buffering going on. My brain hurts just talking about it...

  8. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77
    Practice through a set of chords, not on individual chords. One of the five main mistakes most students make.

    Link everything together.

    To do this it helps start with a goal in mind. What note am I ending up on and what beat or upbeat, and on what chord?

    You can practice building your line backwards. Start on the destination note and add each note in turn leading back to the beginning.

    You practice scientifically so that you can play freely and creatively. Don’t confuse them!

    Obviously If you have to micromanage note choices on the gig you are pretty much screwed... a higher level of conscious organisation can happen on the gig, but it’s very easy to muck yourself up.

    Recording even more so.

    Letting go; akin to meditation is what it’s ultimately about. You can get into the same kind set doing the housework. This is not a bad thing as I have no gigs lol.
    But I don't want to play on auto pliot all the time, I'm practicing being able to make choices in the moment. Some choices are small chunks, some large.All my favourite players are combining things in this way. I had a good look at Parker many years ago and it became obvious that the blistering lines were pre learned, but he used them in novel ways constantly. This requires some thinking. Yeah I know he was the guy that famously said "learn your stuff well, then forget that shit and just blow" , but he was still thinking fast on his feet, absolutely, even if he didn't feel like he was. Django - another fertile mind, scarily so. People say "just feel it", but for most that leads to some pretty pedestrian playing, especially on the guitar.

    So yeah, "thinking ahead", we all do it, but to what extent, and how conscious are we of it?

  9. #8

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    Quote Originally Posted by princeplanet
    But I don't want to play on auto pliot all the time, I'm practicing being able to make choices in the moment. Some choices are small chunks, some large.All my favourite players are combining things in this way. I had a good look at Parker many years ago and it became obvious that the blistering lines were pre learned, but he used them in novel ways constantly. This requires some thinking. Yeah I know he was the guy that famously said "learn your stuff well, then forget that shit and just blow" , but he was still thinking fast on his feet, absolutely, even if he didn't feel like he was. Django - another fertile mind, scarily so. People say "just feel it", but for most that leads to some pretty pedestrian playing, especially on the guitar.

    So yeah, "thinking ahead", we all do it, but to what extent, and how conscious are we of it?
    This way of putting it seems a little like you are trying to construct some sort of logical argument. It’s not really like that? Playing gigs just throws this stuff up all the time.

    I feel I spend a lot of my time here needlessly defending this or that dichotomy, and in reality it’s all much more organic and messy, and the conscious/unconscious thing is not a binary distinction. But we all know when it feels easy, and over time you gain the experience and advice to say why.

    Sensitise yourself to tensions and understand how to work on them. Understand how to go from deliberate to intuitive and what that means.

    Then, when it comes to playing, the first challenge is to not muck yourself up. I mean after you’ve got vaguely competent.

    Anyway I think the modules thing is a good way to look at it. Never steal a phrase longer than 7 notes as Scott Henderson puts it. I think 2 beat/half bar modules work well for chunking. Maybe a bar for fast tempos.

    OTOH if you can’t play tunes on autopilot you probably should work to getting the point where you can. And then edit yourself. A lot of players and educators talk about this. I’ve found it with my playing. You go through the 8th note phase and then you get bored of it. But it’s still important to do it.

    The other thing is I can always tell when students are having to think about their pitch choices when playing because it ruins their rhythm. Every single time. Don’t do it kids!
    Last edited by christianm77; 10-16-2020 at 02:34 PM.

  10. #9

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    I don’t practice meditation, but apparently it’s not what people think exactly....

  11. #10

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    don’t just think ahead...PLAY ahead!


  12. #11

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    Quote Originally Posted by princeplanet
    Inspired by the thread "Trouble with improvising", I wanted to raise a specific question to those on the forum that are competent improvisors.

    Now, I know that i have the word "thinking" in the title, and that most will agree that when improvising there is no time to be thinking - but that obviously means that all one's thinking must be done as part of one's practice regimen. We all practice different things, but some may practice improv strategies like I do by developing etudes against various tunes or progressions. Let's say I'm moving though a typical tune where I'm applying various devices for each new chord where I'm playing unbroken 16ths, so usually 16 notes per bar. I practice around 60 devices for each chord type (6 per each 5 positions) and as such I'm not trying to memorize what I'm doing because I mix it up all the time, forcing myself to make choices on the fly.

    So this is a modular approach where you are stitching modules together. Yes I know, it's not "true" improvisation ( I work on that separately ), but it's a technique that I know a lot of players have mastered as part of their style (Sonny Stitt, Clifford Brown, Coltrane etc etc). I've been doing this kind of practice for a few years now and keep finding more challenging ways to mix it all up, switching devices randomly, switching directions randomly, switching at different strings, different parts of the bar, between different positions etc.

    OK, so having a sound technique and a good ear helps with all forms of practice (as it does with performance), but there is another aspect to all this that hardly gets mentioned here or elsewhere and it's about having a good brain! You need a good (left) brain for this work (unfortunately!), it requires unwavering concentration during an activity (making music) which invites engaging the right brain (creativity). But shutting out the right brain is not the only battle, you need to think of what you will play next well ahead of when you'll play it, while you are playing some other intricate idea that needs enough attention to do it properly.

    We are serial thinkers (at least us men are ), and I can certainly speak for myself when I say that this kind of "parallel" mental work does not get any easier with age. Of course with enough practice, things get relegated to autonomic reflex where you don't really think about what you're currently doing and can be free to engage the creative right brain to the point where even "module switching" approaches a kind of improvisation, especially if you are singing along with whats coming out. However, until things become automatic, it's headache central, no pain no gain and all that. So my question to those who have worked through this process yourselves - and reached a point where enough material has been internalised in this way - is this: How important do you think the ability to "think ahead" is when practicing improvisation techniques. And how important is it in your actual performance improvs? Are some of us better endowed than others with respect to this ability? Or do you think learning to improvise needn't require this facility because you're always in the moment whether in practice or performance?

    How would Coltrane answer these questions? Or Wes, Pass, Martino, Benson??
    Thinking ahead is essential, even if not on a concsious level.

    Hearing/anticipating what is to come next is the foundation to smooth and logical phrasing.

    On a theoretical/cognitive/conscious level it is good to practice and play around with it as it is a very useful tool in various situations, for example in fast complex harmonic shifts, you can begin to play the upcoming chord a few beats before hand, or begin to play various symmetrical scales or a superlocrian scale that will resolve in the upcoming bar etc, endless of possibilites.

  13. #12

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    I guess I'm competent...I mean, I don't always embarrass myself

    I think about a general "shape" I want my solo to take. Where it starts, where it kinda goes. I think about "movements" in the music...groups of chords. I try to have a plan going in. Otherwise, it's just "finger wiggling."

  14. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77
    ...
    Sensitise yourself to tensions and understand how to work on them. Understand how to go from deliberate to intuitive and what that means.
    ....

    The other thing is I can always tell when students are having to think about their pitch choices when playing because it ruins their rhythm. Every single time. Don’t do it kids!
    Yeah, if you're too deliberate, then that sounds rather pedestrian also. I guess everyone has their own balance of deliberate vs intuitive, but speaking personally, my intuitive ability has improved because of time invested in seriously uncomfortable "deliberate" effort. Also, I'm coming to think that it need not be a case of switching b/n intuitive and deliberate. With stuff I know really well, I feel like the two kinda coalesce, or something...

  15. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by princeplanet
    I sometimes wonder if it's harder on the guitar than other instruments given the different kind of attention required for each hand.
    I don't think that is the issue. On a piano i see players doing different things with both hands.

    My problem with the guitar is that one specific note can be played in different positions. That makes it tricky to remember. If i'm playing a keyboard and i'm working on something in G major, it's very obvious which notes are in key. On a guitar it is not.
    I've been playing for 35 years, but i'm just recently 'fixing' this problem. Trying to fix it, would be a better description.
    Last edited by Marcel_A; 10-17-2020 at 01:00 PM.

  16. #15

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    Quote Originally Posted by princeplanet
    But I don't want to play on auto pliot all the time, I'm practicing being able to make choices in the moment.
    That is the problem with faster tempos, the faster the tempo, it is more likely to rely on auto pilot. With really slow tempos it opens up space to be more creative and analytical. But with practice and just being aware and pay attention, it is possible to be creative in fast tempos as well.

    Quote Originally Posted by princeplanet
    Some choices are small chunks, some large.All my favourite players are combining things in this way. I had a good look at Parker many years ago and it became obvious that the blistering lines were pre learned, but he used them in novel ways constantly.
    This requires some thinking. Yeah I know he was the guy that famously said "learn your stuff well, then forget that shit and just blow" , but he was still thinking fast on his feet, absolutely, even if he didn't feel like he was.
    Yeah, very creative and musical, well, he was a true genius. No more needs to be added, haha

  17. #16

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    How important do you think the ability to "think ahead" is when practicing improvisation techniques. And how important is it in your actual performance improvs? Are some of us better endowed than others with respect to this ability? Or do you think learning to improvise needn't require this facility because you're always in the moment whether in practice or performance?

    How would Coltrane answer these questions? Or Wes, Pass, Martino, Benson??


    Thinking about what we're playing while practicing is part of what Jazz musicians must do. And I'm guessing that many of those Jazz greats in former eras spent more time practicing and working out ideas.

    I tend to think behind, not just ahead when practicing improvising. I just go ahead and improvise to part of a song's chord changes and analyze what I just did. At that point I might find that I should do something different because I'm getting redundant.

    This post is inspiring to me! It's interesting to see how other guitarists spend their practice time. We all get into slumps now and then.

  18. #17

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    Quote Originally Posted by princeplanet
    Yeah, if you're too deliberate, then that sounds rather pedestrian also. I guess everyone has their own balance of deliberate vs intuitive, but speaking personally, my intuitive ability has improved because of time invested in seriously uncomfortable "deliberate" effort. Also, I'm coming to think that it need not be a case of switching b/n intuitive and deliberate. With stuff I know really well, I feel like the two kinda coalesce, or something...
    I wouldn't say pedestrian. Actually, playing involving too much conscious cognition rushes normally.

    IN FACT good, in the pocket and unfussy playing often feels pedestrian AT THE TIME, and it's very hard to ignore the voices demanding that you 'do something interesting.' A second is a really long time in subjective terms when playing music. As well as affecting time/feel these voices also affect phrasing and musical logic. Developing control of the compulsion to overplay has been very hard for me - but also for others.

    In general a big problem with learners is not that they play no good ideas - but that they do a lot of meaningless, unheard guff in between the stronger phrases. The trick to making them sound better is to find a way of getting rid of the rubbish much of the time (still working on it myself lol.) Why? People are afraid of silence. What do I do till my next idea? (Nothing is better, but it's hard to accept that on a molecular.)

    It's like that little tick in solo jazz playing where learning guitarists in this style will replay the chord at the end of a phrase at least once. They don't have anything more to play, but it is comforting to cling on to what you have just played. Artistically, however it is completely unnecessary. (I did that for the longest time but I think I am losing it.) It is hard to shut up for more than half a bar. That's also one big problem with time feel, BTW, how long the gaps are, especially when the rhythm section isn't spelling it out for you...

    Speak only if your words are better than silence, as the saying goes.

    And music is brutal, there's really no hiding.

    Anyway I've not found there's a way to make playing swing other than making at least some aspect of the playing automatic, and for faster tempos that means a 'chunked' approach. That's the great challenge with jazz improvisation BTW; it's much easier to do with rehearsed material or riffs, say. Which is one reason why I say it is important not to worry too much about improvisation early on. It's more important to play the music than improvise to start with.

    As I say modules are not a bad idea. Just make sure it's good sounding shit and well practiced, and well learned BY EAR with phrasing, inflection and all that good stuff.

  19. #18

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    Maybe I shouldn't respond, since there's a lot of stuff that good jazz guitarists do routinely that I've never been able to do, despite years of trying.

    Ideal situation: I know the tune really well and I can feel the changes and find the notes without any conscious thought. The gear sounds right. The band is in the pocket and everything sounds balanced. As I progress through the solo, the other players follow what I'm doing, not so much harmonically as with dynamics, playing off rhythmic ideas and maintaining good feel. The tempo is in my comfort zone. Nothing is making me nervous.

    In that situation, my mind empties, I begin scat singing and I play those notes, or at least, pretty close. The only planning, if you can call it that, is that I can prehear where the scatted line is going. That is, I'm composing phrases in my mind, not just going a note at a time. I can't explain how it is that I (or anyone) can scat sing, so I can't explain what I'm playing or why.

    The result usually doesn't sound as classically jazzy as I would like, but it's the best I can do. I'm not very interested in playing things mechanically that I can't hear. In the practice room I do use that as a self-teaching device to try to learn to hear the mechanical ideas. Rewards have been sparse.

    Less than ideal situation: Any one (or more) thing in the list above isn't happening. I can't relax enough to do the singing thing. Or maybe, I can't hear the changes and find the notes I want because the harmony isn't familiar enough. So, in that case, my brain is usually thinking chord tones (with some scales and arps, in a haphazard way), my fingers seem to start playing patterns they (the fingers) seem to know (which I immediately recognize as unwanted), and I'm struggling to create something musical. At that point I'm liable to think in terms of the overall arc of the solo. Or maybe it's plural, arcs, on several axes. Sparse to busy. Low pitch to high. Muffled notes to singing notes. More chord tones to more tensions. With the time, or phrasing against it (like triplets or hemiolas over straight 8ths). Etc. But it's arcs, not scales, arps or licks.

    So, if I'm the leader on a gig where I don't want to take any chances, I hire players and call tunes that are likely to be ideal.

    But, I'm usually a sideman, often reading new material, so I spend more of my time scuffling in less than ideal situations.

  20. #19

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    I haven’t read many of the responses but.


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  21. #20

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    But?

  22. #21

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    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77
    I don’t practice meditation, but apparently it’s not what people think exactly....
    Yeah, it's pretty much like improvising. You practice meditation for years until you can do life in real time.

  23. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by OneWatt
    Yeah, it's pretty much like improvising. You practice meditation for years until you can do life in real time.
    Ha! Nice one

  24. #23

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    This Bobby D's thought is valuable.
    But more like.. when you're thinking ahead, this should be based on what you did before that.
    So, instead "what interesting thing should come next", the better question would be "how to repond to what happened before".

    I mean, its totally the good old question and answer. But I believe, the more we are able to remember.. the more complete the solo would be.
    By more, I mean in literal bars and phrases. I can keep in mind 2-3 bars max right now. That's a bit sad

  25. #24

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    I cannot improvise like this so I can’t really offer any good advice. But ill try to offer something. I dont think wes played like this really and i dont really look at the patterns coltrane applied as something he would use as his concept for An entire solo(More turn around/cadenza/emotional effect).