Improving at jazz improvisation is a process. It’s an interesting process because it’s both static and dynamic. It’s dynamic in the sense that it constantly involves bringing new ideas, material, and concepts into your playing, keeping you excited, motivated, and passionate about your own playing. And it’s static in the sense that you have to stay with things long enough for them to sink into your subconscious, having the capacity to creatively utilize them in the future.
There are two contrasting mindsets while learning jazz improvisation, and to improve quickly, you’ll want to make use of both of them simultaneously.
You know you’re a reviewer if you’re bored with your playing and feel like you’re in a rut. These symptoms indicate that at one point you learned a set amount of information and then stopped expanding your knowledge-base, hence, you’re bored with the same old lines you’re playing.
Most people tend to be reviewers. It has to do with our comfort zone. As we learn something new, our learning curve is straight up and we make giant leaps in progress very rapidly. Then, gradually, our progress slows, until it comes to a screeching halt.
At this point, we practice what we’re good at and ignore the aspects of our playing that need work. Consequently, we’re in a constant state of review. You’d think that the material we review would get more and more solid, but in this completely static mode, our lines and concepts actually get worse. Why is this?
Because our passion goes out the window, we become less and less excited about the stuff we’re playing day in and day out. This attitude translates to everything we play, making it sound dull and boring.
Conversely, if you’re constantly learning new things, feel fairly excited about the music, but when you go to play you don’t feel like you’ve made any progress, chances are you’re a mover.
Movers love learning new things. Actually, it’s not really learning at all; it’s more of a vague understanding, with little or no idea of how to implement the information. A mover is like the kid who wants to know how every magic trick is done, but doesn’t care to ever learn how to actually do it themselves. And then once they are told the secret to the magic trick, they dismiss it as obvious, wanting to know how to do another.
They repeat this behavior over and over, desiring to know a trick, finding the technique, dismissing it as obvious, and moving onto another, all the while never learning to perform a single trick.
In jazz improvisation, movers hear something they like and they immediately want to know what they’re hearing, so they rush to figure it out. They may transcribe it, but because they are in such a hurry to know what it is, they’ll look around for a transcription first. Once they find the excerpt, they’ll play it a few times and celebrate, feeling like they own that knowledge. Then they’ll move on to another line in a similar manner.
Moving and reviewing
The approaches of the movers and reviewers are both partially correct. It is essential to review things to get them operating at a higher and higher level. And it’s essential to keep moving past the things you learn, introducing new material into your concept.
Here’s a diagram depicting where you want to be:
It sounds simple, but it takes conscious planning to approach your practice like this. What you want to end up with is splitting your practice between reviewing things and adding things. The precise ratio of your practice between reviewing and adding is up to you.
It’s a feel thing. If you’re feeling stagnant, start to add some new ideas, or if you can barely remember what you were practicing yesterday, go into review mode. The key is to keep a healthy balance between the two, constantly moving forward, while at the same time, strengthening anything and everything you’ve ever practiced.
Get creative with the way you strengthen this old material. Don’t just play it the same way you’ve always played it. It’s like strength training. If you don’t mix up the exercises you do in strength training, your body gets used to them and you stop building as much muscle as you could be.
So in review mode, take a phrase that you’ve previously worked on and start to increase the tempo while keeping full control. Work on smoothing out the line in any difficult keys to the point you don’t have to think. Try moving the line to the extreme registers of the horn; this is a great way to start building up the altissimo register on the saxophone. Do anything you can to become more fluid with the material. That’s the goal of this review mode.
And when you’re in the adding mode of a mover, take your time. The idea is to gently introduce yourself to a new concept or line, knowing full well that in a few days, the new material will go into review mode. When you know that you’re going to constantly review something you’re working on, you feel a lot less frantic and desperate. You know that the goal is to get it into your long-term memory, not your short-term; you understand that this takes time and you’re okay with this.
It looks like this:
If for instance you’re in review mode, eventually boredom sets in and you transition to adding mode. When forgetfulness manifests in the form of not recalling something in an instant, you make your way back over to review mode.
Practice is an ongoing journey through this cycle. Hopefully after reading this article you have a little more understanding of this cycle. With this understanding you should have a good idea of how to review things and move forward simultaneously, resulting in greater efficiency and faster improvement. Keep note of where you lie on the mover-reviewer spectrum. You know where you want to be.