Don’t Sound Like A Jazz Robot: 5 Steps To Sound More Natural

Ever feel like you sound mechanical, predictable, and boring, like a robot? Nobody wants to sound like a robot. We’re human. We have thoughts, ideas, emotions…and we want to express these things in our music…

How do we break out of this rigid playing style and feel free when we play? Here are 5 actionable steps you can take to start sounding more natural today.

1.) Surrender to the moment

“Jazz is about being in the moment”Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock

Everything you practice. Lines. Chords. Concepts. The second you go to perform jazz you must free your mind from all of this and let the music emerge naturally. If you’ve done your homework, it will show.

Be prepared by internalizing the harmony of the tunes you’re performing, listening and transcribing what your heroes played on them, learning language, training your ear…but when it comes time to play, listen more intently than you ever have. Lead the rhythm section and at the same time, respond to their playing.

Be in the moment when you perform. The audience can tell if you’re truly present or not. It’s a risk, but a a risk well worth taking because like Herbie says, that’s what jazz is all about: being in the moment. He said that when he played in Miles Davis’s group, Miles would say something to the effect of, “You practice what ever you want in the practice room, but don’t bring that stuff on stage. When you’re on stage, you play the moment.”

The more prepared you are, the more in the moment you can be. Get prepared by learning language and developing a solid base, and spend plenty of time learning to let go.

2.) Learn to use space

Simple and straight forward. Define your phrases by using plenty of rest in between them. Even when you play fast, frame your ideas with space. Miles. The master:

3.) Play more rhythmically and vary your language

Much of the language we practice is comprised of mainly eighth notes and starts on beat one of the measure. Think about the last two-five you learned. Is it all eighth notes starting on beat one?

Transcribe an entire solo or even a single chorus by one of your heroes and I guarantee you’ll find that the majority of the phrases do not start on beat one, and moreover, they vary rhythmically in all sorts of interesting ways; even if the lines are mainly made up of eighth notes, the soloist will leave particular notes out or do other things to define the line rhythmically.

The number one thing you can do to not sound like a jazz-robot regurgitating patterns in a cut-and-paste manner is to vary your lines rhythmically. Learn to start phrases not on beat one.

Beyond playing more rhythmically, learning to vary the language you learn will greatly help you get out of sounding so predictable.

4.) Phrase over the bar-line

A jazz robot phrases like this:

Robot Phrase

They would never think of phrasing like this:

Barline Phrase

Work on making your ideas extend over the bar line and they won’t feel nearly as mechanical.

5.) Hear what you want to play, and play what you hear

With so much of our practice devoted to learning lines, practicing concepts over progressions, and memorizing tunes, we often lose sight of what’s so important in jazz improvisation: to hear what you want to play and play what you hear. I’m not saying the angular melodies that you might want to play but are unable to hear are not valid, but that a main goal of jazz improvisation is to play anything you’re able to hear.

Many times we’ll be soloing chorus after chorus completely oblivious to the music going on in our head. Being on autopilot like this is definitely not being in the moment.

When you step back and remember to one, listen to the musical-voice singing in your head, and two, to play the notes you hear, you return to your true voice. All the work of learning language and hearing harmony is to be able to do this.

Things become much easier. No longer are you bogged down by the weight of every line you’re trying to remember, or every concept you’re trying to fit in. You’re simply focused on creating real music from within.

It takes time to play what you hear, but the idea is with all your practice, you get closer. Will you ever be able to play every note you hear? Maybe after years and years of dedicated practice, but as long as you’re getting closer, you know you’re on the right track.

Don’t sound like a robot

Jazz robots sound predictable because they are not in the moment when they play. They over-play and start their undefined phrases on beat-one over and over and over and over. They keep their phrases in neat packages that would not dare creep over the bar-line. And most importantly they’re oblivious to the music in their head, instead focusing on what their fingers are accustomed to.

As you perform, focus on the music you’re singing in your head and bring it to life in that very moment, using space to define your rhythmically exciting ideas, as they weave together over the bar-line. Music is an extension of yourself and it should sound that way.