The Mindful Musician – Part 3 of 3: If you can hear it you can play it.
So now we’ve talked about how music must come from an inner process, from your aural imagination. And when it does, when the sound is really internalized, playing becomes easy, fun and flowing.
When that internalization is there and the connection to the instrument is strong that’s when cats sound great. That’s when cats turn heads on the bandstand…without even trying.
The Bad News is that very few players really make that connection. With the theory and information heavy music education world, most cats are doing little more than a live version of guitar hero or Beatles Rock Band.
If you’re familiar with those video games, you know they’re fun as hell but they have nothing to do with hearing and playing music. It’s about pushing the right buttons at the right time.
The Good News is that anyone, at anytime, at any age can start developing their inner musical process, make that mind-body-instrument connection and start playing music in a way that is truly personal, joyous and natural.
Using mental practice & rehearsal along with the right strategies it’s possible for anyone to start feeding and tapping into their musical mind and start playing what they hear.
And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been playing a long time and have developed bad habits or never got that inner process happening.
Personally, when I finally discovered and began to use these concepts we’ve been talking about my music was never the same. It got easier to play. My playing became consistent, flexible and flowing.
I also discovered the joy of letting go on stage. Some cats think that letting go is a magical process. That somehow the top players just have the courage to let go and great music comes to them through divine intervention.
The reason they can quote-unquote “let go”, is because the music they are playing and improvising on is completely internalized. They’ve prepared. They’ve got music just running through their head. Loud and clear. Anchoring them and supporting them so they are able to let their musical instincts guide them.
If the music isn’t strong in your head – your inner ear – it’s like walking on eggshells. it’s uncomfortable, labored and at any moment the music could fall apart.
Okay, in the last post I shared a process with you that you can use to internalize music and musical vocabulary.
Let’s talk about what to do next with that vocabulary and how to get that inner musical process cooking.
- You’ve picked a piece of musical vocabulary to learn -a short Louis Armstrong phrase.
- You’ve listened to it many times and let it start to sink in.
- You’ve practiced singing along with the recording.
- You’ve practiced inner hearing the phrase using mental practice.
- Then you practiced singing it without the recording because, as the old time cats used to say, if you can’t sing it you can’t play it.
- You found the line on your instrument and practiced it until you owned it.
- And then you used full on mental rehearsal to practice hearing, seeing, feeling and experiencing playing the melody.
I want to emphasize here that this is just one application of this process. You can use mental rehearsal for literally anything and in many different ways. You can mix these steps up and even jump straight from listening to mental rehearsal.
In fact once you’ve got a strong connection with your instrument that’s naturally what’s going to happen. you’ll hear recordings and just immediately hear and see it on your instrument without ever even having to play it.
Once you’ve got that connection established listening to records is effectively like fueling your creativity. You’ll more quickly absorb musical ideas and vocabulary into your long term musical memory.
And the stronger and deeper the musical memory the deeper and more connected your playing becomes.
Okay, so now you have that 1 phrase internalized. What’s next? You could simply move on to the next phrase. Or perhaps learn the entire solo phrase by phrase in this same fashion. That of course would teach your ears a thing or two about building solos and telling musical stories.
But let me also give you a few different ways to start using this phrase.
ONE: Play Around. Experiment with it. Play with the rhythm. Take some notes out. Invert it. Play it backwards. Augment the rhythms. Add some embellishments. Play around with it and have fun.
Think of the phrase as source material for free improvisation. Stay close to the phrase at first. Altering just a note or two. And gradually take more liberty. You are literally just playing around, seeing what you can find. You could call it creative exploration. Let your ear and your own musical taste be your guide while you see what you can find.
A lot of the ideas you find won’t be keepers. Maybe even most of what you find. That’s part of the process.
When you do find something really cool, you want to add it to your musical memory, your vocabulary. So you practice playing these new variations until you own them. Then you practice inner hearing.
One thing that is helpful is to record this kind of work from time to time. Listen back and pull out the stuff that you really dig and purposefully add it to your vocabulary using mental rehearsal. In this way you’re being proactive and taking control over the development of your own sound.
TWO: Practical Application. Practice applying the phrase in a solo. In other words practice applying and using the vocabulary. This is for the practice room, not the bandstand mind you.
As an example, suppose you copped a ii V lick in F from a Louis Armstrong recording you really dig. You want to practice actually applying it to a solo over a tune.
You could choose to plug it into every a ii V in F that occurs; or just one or two that you decide ahead of time.
Remember, it’s completely okay to be intellectual with music. To be mathematical even. To make little musical puzzles for yourself.
You just need to move past it and really assimilate what you’re working on into your aural imagination, musical memory and connect it with your body.
Because on the bandstand you don’t want to be thinking. Or at least as little as possible.
THREE: All 12 Keys. Of course it would also be a great idea to take the phrase into a few different keys, if not all of them! Applying it to a tune that has Two Five’s in several keys would be a great idea as well.
Okay that’s a few ideas for you to apply your new language. But use your imagination. it’s your phrase now. Do with it as you will!
Let’s move on to a few advanced applications of mental rehearsal.
Practice Hearing Chords and Voicings. Find a musical example that you really dig – that you can actually wrap your ears around – of a pianist or a guitarist comping through some changes.
Choose a short phrase and go through the same process. Listening many times until the different notes become clear to your ears and until it sinks in.
You obviously can’t sing a chord, but you could sing part of it if it makes sense, like one voice – the top note, bass note, 3rds, 7ths.
Or you can skip the singing step for this. And just listen many, many times until you can hear it in your mind’s ear. Then find it on your instrument. Then practice until you own it. Then use mental rehearsal to really solidify it. Then make it your own, experiment with it.
If you have a hard time hearing chords and voicings you could start with theory and use a similar process.
So you take some standard voicings you have learned – say shell voicings or something like that. And you play a simple ii V voicing that you have practiced. And you record it.
Now practice listening to it, and repeat the process with that. Get it into your mind’s ear. In fact you could do that with anything you learned from written music.
You don’t even necessarily need to record it. You could play it many times and listen closely. Play it slowly and until you don’t have to think about it at all and you can put more and more attention on listening to what you’re playing, hearing all the detail you can.
The possibilities are endless. The key is to always focus on developing your ears and your aural imagination.
And to always remember to take time to apply the new found vocabulary, to practice using it.
Play With Other Cats. It’s also important to practice playing with other people. Sessions and later gigs are a huge part of the learning process. Huge.
That’s akin to using and applying new spoken language in the real world.
For instance, if you were learning Spanish you might learn a new phrase in Spanish in a class or from a CD program. Then you practice using the phrase with your classmates, spouse, friends, etc. Then you practice using it in context: in a Spanish speaking country to order a coffee or ask where the train station is.
Through this process and other immersive activities like watching Spanish T.V. reading Spanish books and magazines and writing simple notes and letters in Spanish you gradually become fluent, the language becomes real for you through applied practice.
It’s the same with jazz.
But, the name of the game and the crucial step is internalization. And mental rehearsal is probably the most powerful thing we have at our disposal to that end.
Unfortunately, when I was first learning to play no one ever told me about aural imagination or musical memory or mental rehearsal. I was just taught from books and methods – techniques and exercises, repetition and rote playing.
That can be a useful way to learn in the beginning. It’s a way to get some chops and learn some instrumental basics.
The problem is that so many of us just assume that’s how you do it forever. We continue to practice and study the same way we did when we first started out.
*And a lot of cats never get past that push-the-right-button-at-the-right-time-while-counting-out-loud approach to playing.
And that’s exactly why I decided to put this series together and why I created “The Mindful Music Method”.
In The Mindful Music Method I dig into the world of mindful mental practice and lay out what it is, why it works and exactly HOW to use it to get dramatic results with your playing.
Mastering the art of mental practice will allow you to connect to your own musical voice and let your personality shine through.
It will allow you develop a strong inner musical guide so you can easily internalize the music that is important to you.
As your inner ear strengthens you can begin to let your ear be your guide and start to truly improvise and communicate with your music.
The really cool part is feeling great when you play, playing with joy and ease – getting back in touch with that spark of excitement you felt the first time you heard Charlie Parker, or went to your first live concert, got your first instrument or whatever your first truly inspired musical memories were.
Imagine being in control of developing your musical voice.
Imagine having that anchor, that inner sound keeping you afloat on the bandstand or at the jam session.
No thinking. Just playing.
When you have that aural imagination going strong it supports you and makes playing easy.
You can literally stop playing and the internal sound keeps going, keeping you in the right place, connecting you to the band and to the music and to the creative spirit.
It’s a beautiful thing.