In this 3 part series I hope to shed some light on what has been, hands down, the most important and powerful lesson of my entire musical life.
Pay attention to this simple lesson and the actual step by step process I’m going to explain in a few minutes and your music may never be the same.
In the last post I gave you an overview of the ‘big idea’.
If you can hear it you can play it.
Now, I’ve been around the Boston jazz scene for a long time – just over 20 years now. I’ve met hundreds of teachers, players and students. Thousands of cats have taken my courses on line. And, over the past few years I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails, comments and questions.
And you know, one of the single biggest issues that cats deal with and that I get questions about all the time is this:
How do I play what I hear? Well I’ll tell you, struggle as they may, cats that are asking that question are on the right track.
I think most us kind of intuitively know that it’s all about hearing. We’ve got something going on in our inner ear, our imagination, we hear something.
The problem is it’s vague, fuzzy and quiet. It’s not reliable. And it comes out of your instrument, well, vague and fuzzy at best.
So let’s amend the musician’s mantra slightly, shall we.
If you can hear it LOUD and CLEAR, you can play it.
Most of us learn to play music in a similar fashion. We learn the information first, then we try to put it to our axe. We often deal with paper, theory, even music math. Those things can be and are an important and necessary part of learning to play.
But at the end of the day this is a language. And we don’t learn to speak by reading a book. We learn by listening and imitating first.
We need to learn to make sounds, then words, then phrases and then practice putting them into sentences that communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas. And eventually stories.
It’s a very similar process for music.
It needs to take place in the ear of course; and in the aural imagination. First we listen and feed our aural imagination. Then we start to imitate what we hear – as best we can – on our instrument. At first it’s very abstract and very simple. Over time we build up our musical memories and our vocabulary and we connect it with our body. So that our ear and our nervous system can make our body produce the sound we ‘hear’ in our aural imagination; often in response to what we’ve just played or what we hear the other cats in the band play. And all of that happens through our practice process – a process that takes place at the stereo, at live performances, in the shed, at sessions and on the bandstand.
I think it was Chick Corea who put it this way – only play what you hear…if you don’t hear anything, don’t play anything.
When I first came across that Chick Corea quote back in my Berklee days I didn’t really know what to do with it. I was up to my ass in practice topics, exercises, method books, homework and other academic stuff.
I had 6+ hour practice routines – mindless repetition of technical exercises. I thought that learning to play jazz meant hours and hours of repetition, struggle and pain in the practice room. I read somewhere that Trane practiced 8, 10 or more hours a day.
So I naturally concluded that it was all about putting in the hours, paying my dues and being a good little struggling jazz musician.
Now, mindful repetition in the name of creating excellent habit, feeding the aural imagination and connecting with your instrument IS a good thing. And hours of this kind of quality practice do work for some areas of our musicianship. Don’t misunderstand me.
But the kind of mindless repetition and almost gymnastic physical practice that many cats do is probably like 75 or 80 percent a waste of time. Like, don’t practice scales in front of the T.V. for instance. Bad idea.
It’s all about hearing melody in your mind, loud and clear, responding to the cats on the bandstand, to what you just played and to the vibe in the room with that sound in your imagination.
Melody is how we connect. Melody is what we give our band mates to respond to and hook onto. Melody is what we touch our audience with.
Another old saying in the world of jazz is let the melody be your guide. That’s why it’s so important to internalize lots and lots of great melodies and melodic phrases and build up that melodic vocabulary.
In fact that’s one important way that jazz improvisation developed. Old timers playing tunes at the gig every day, tunes that they learned by ear, and improvising on them – playing simple variations, embellishments and making the melodies their own.
After you learn enough great tunes you start to build a vocabulary of melodies that you can use to build solos. You develop a voice, a sound. And having learned these masterful melodies you intuitively absorb the sort of rules of melodic construction.
Now, let’s use the language analogy again. You could say that music theory is similar to grammar and the so called rules of a language. When you talk to your friends are you concerned with subject-verb agreement, choosing the most hip adjective or making sure to avoid using a dangling participle?
If you are, I bet you’re not very fun to hang out with. We study that stuff in school, AFTER we already know how to speak mind you, so that we can understand the art of writing and so that we can practice and improve our ability to communicate.
But we want to get past it, forget the rules and just write and speak – by ear really. It’s what sounds ‘right’ when you say it or write it. It’s an intuitive thing.
It’s the same with jazz. But a huge part of learning those rules comes from immersion. From hearing and absorbing them. That’s why it’s important to learn vocabulary by ear. Then you can analyze it, put some theory to it to help expand the possibilities.
You will find that the music you play the best is the music that you have truly internalized to the point where you don’t have to think, you can just play and use your vocabulary, by ear, to express yourself.
What happens to most of us is something like this: Some fantastic, creative monster musicians came before us, developed a wonderful vocabulary and played some sick, truly original stuff. We heard it, felt it and these cats became our heroes. We took lessons or classes or bought DVDs and method books. These books, written by theorists of sorts, taught us abstract concepts that supposedly were at the heart of these great players and their music.
So we started shedding some of these concepts. Then, so we thought, if we just used these things at the right time – in other words the right scale on the right chord, or the right abstract idea like motive development or whatever – if we used these concepts too we would be playing real jazz. Good jazz.
But then when we play, something doesn’t sound or feel quite right, it doesn’t connect, it’s just kinda off.
This is music produced by the thinking mind. This is the music of a player whose musical intellect is farther ahead then his or her ear. For many of us the gap between the intellect and the ear gets wider and wider as we learn more technique, theory and practice more stuff.
The solution is to practice in a way that feeds and develops that aural imagination and your musical vocabulary. Everything we do in the shed must aim at our inner process and our ears.
When we go to the gig we forget all the crap we’ve been practicing and we play by ear. If we don’t hear it we don’t play it. Miles Davis, apparently, used to literally take his horn away from his mouth if he wasn’t hearing anything. Then he would just wait for it. He wouldn’t play until he heard something great.
That takes courage and the trust that something will come to you. But through the right daily practice we can all get there.
Now, when we get our butt kicked at a session or at a gig, it’s because that context – be it a tune, or a meter or a key, a form or a tempo – has not been thoroughly internalized by our aural imagination and our body. The two are connected.
Therefore, the best course of action is to be objective at the gig when that happens. And say to yourself, okay, I choked during that tune in 5/4.
I really had to work hard and even had to count to keep my place. And I just couldn’t really play anything at all.
So I’m going to go put 5/4 under the microscope in the practice room, find some great recordings and start building a vocabulary in 5 and start internalizing the time.
Then I’ll practice letting go while playing in 5 and see where I’m at. I’ll record and critique myself and make adjustments accordingly.
Okay, I think by now you get my point about the ear, the imagination and internalization.
Now, I’m going to give you the exact process I personally use in the shed. This is not the only way to practice by any means. You can continue working on the all the other stuff you’re practicing. Just add in this process for a while and see what happens. Trust me though, you’ll like the results.
Learning and internalizing vocabulary from the tradition is absolutely necessary to play jazz. I’m going to give you a process for that. You can adapt this to internalize anything musical you want to.
How to learn and internalize jazz vocabulary in 6 steps.
Step 1 is to start with the vocabulary you want to internalize. You’ll want to choose vocabulary that fits into your current musical direction and goals.
So let’s just say that you are trying to lay down some roots in your playing, get some deep tradition. And you love Louis Armstrong. Who doesn’t, right?
And whether or not you play trumpet you can grab vocabulary from Louis or any player. In fact you should learn from ALL your favorite players – especially the founders of the music.
Okay, so find a Louis Armstrong recording that you really dig and find a phrase or line or melody that really hits you. I would start by choosing a smaller piece to work on – maybe just a bar or two to start.
Once you have that phrase picked out the first step is to simply listen to it many times. Get very familiar with it. Look for details as you listen – details about the rhythm, the articulation, the dynamics, the vibe – how long is it, what is the melodic shape, anything you can hear. You want to listen to it until you are completely familiar with it. Let it really seep into your ears. This process may span over a few days. Take your time.
Going slowly and patiently and really letting the music soak in and internalize is actually the fasted way to improve. Rushing through your practice is nothing more than shooting yourself in the foot.
The next step is to sing along with the recording. Sing and listen…listen and sing, until you can easily sing along and match as much of the detail in Louis’ playing, as you can hear, without thinking about it.
Okay, the next step is ‘inner practice’. Let the melody play in your mind’s ear. As you practice inner hearing this melody many times bring more and more detail and clarity to it. You can refer back to the recording as needed. Do this step until you can hear the melody as loud and clear as possible in your aural imagination. You’re purposefully imprinting this melody into your musical memory, and into your creative wellspring.
Once you can hear the phrase loud and clear in your inner ear the next step is to practice singing the melody without the recording. Remember, if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.
Don’t worry about your singing chops. We’re not trying to be the next Frank Sinatra here. We’re just trying to get connected to the music. Go slow. Go piece by piece if you need to. And go back and forth between the first 3 steps as needed.
The key here is to do this process until the melody is ingrained in your ear and you can easily hear it internally and sing it out loud the way you can with a tune like happy birthday.
Once you’ve reached this stage you’ve already done a wonderful thing for your music. If you did this every week with a new phrase your playing would be dramatically affected after a few short weeks.
Now it’s time get your instrument out and start purposefully connecting the sound to our instrument. Eventually, we want to be able to just jump right to playing the new vocabulary.
But at first you may have to pick the melody notes out 1 by 1. Once you figure out the melody, you practice it until you own it, until it plays itself, until you do not have to think or ‘try’ to play it. Again you can go back and forth between listening, singing, hearing and playing as needed.
Next we want to mentally rehearse it. We want to exercise that imagination while connecting the sound and the body and the instrument.
Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and relax. Now, imagine yourself playing the phrase. In your imagination, hear the melody in as much detail as possible, loud and clear. See your hands and body executing the line. See and feel your instrument. Feel it in your fingers, breath, body. Experience playing the phrase, with your whole body and all of your senses in your imagination.
See and hear yourself playing it beautifully. Imagine what it feels like to play it easily and effortlessly. Imagine the sound. Imagine a wonderful relaxed posture. Imagine feeling confident and having the music just flow out of you. You can even picture yourself playing masterfully on a stage in front of an audience, feeling good, having a blast. Create an ideal memory in your imagination.
Not only is this going to help you achieve mastery over this one phrase. Not only is this going to help strengthen your ear-body-instrument connection. It’s going to feed your creative wellspring. It’s going to develop your aural imagination. And it’s going to set you up to experience this on the bandstand.
And as you get better and better at this you’ll begin to move more quickly through those in-between steps. And go straight from listening to assimilation and mental rehearsal. Then you’ll be able to add desired musical elements & vocabulary to your playing at will.
You’ll be able to practice music anywhere. And you’ll have a super strong and natural connection between your ears and your body. And soon you will never want to play anything that you can’t hear again.
Seriously, try this out. It’s super powerful. And it WILL work for you. Just be sure to choose music that is challenging but doable. And take your time…enjoy the journey.
Many of the greatest minds in history in all fields have used mental practice and process to take their craft to unprecedented heights. From Leonardo da Vinci to Paganini to Tesla, to Rubinstein, Mozart and even Einstein.
I’ve got one more post in the works for ya. I’m gonna give you some more juicy practice strategies for using mental rehearsal and we’ll talk about what to do with your new found vocabulary. All in the name of putting some serious speed on your musical progress. Not shortcuts, mind you. Just powerful ways to get connected so you can start getting the music that’s in YOUR head out into the world.