Going Against The Grain

In learning most anything, there’s an accepted and standard way of approaching the material. There exists a typical method that emerged over the course of many years. In many disciplines, this method came about through trial and error, meticulously analyzing what techniques have worked best to allow an individual to excel as quickly and efficiently as possible toward their desired goal.

Unfortunately, in jazz improvisation, this did not happen. In jazz, the standard method of learning today arose not from understanding how the masters of the music learned this art, but instead from the world of academia. These academic studies focused on the results of what the jazz legends produced and ignored in entirety their process of how they learned.

By studying and analyzing commonalities among the end product (great solos), these studies drew formal conclusions and neatly packaged them in a digestible way, making the world of jazz improvisation available to everyone, but watering it down for those who wish to learn it on a deeper level.

Ok, so it’s not quite as bad as I’m making it sound. No, there’s not this corrupt agency out to destroy the world of jazz and all its practitioners…although it would make an interesting plot for a movie. There’s not necessarily one group of people that created this watered down version of learning jazz that I’m labeling as “the academics.”

Nonetheless, this false paradigm does exist, it was created in an academic setting, and it does stagnate the learning process of those who really want to get deeper into this stuff. So, what can you do about it?

Explore the model

The bulk of people follow the accepted model of learning jazz improvisation that I just began to discuss. Let me clarify some key aspects of this model. In general, this model places the utmost importance on scales, and more specifically, modes. You’re instructed to figure out what mode works over each chord, and then, using that information as an available pool of notes, you transition from one chord to the next by thinking primarily about which mode you’re transitioning to.

On top of that, this model stresses that if you have a series of chords that are all operating in the same key like a ii-V-I, then you can simply play in the tonic key over the entire progression, adjusting from one mode of the key to another if you like, but more or less you’re thinking in one key.

I could go on about this model, but for our purposes here, that is sufficient. The idea is that in whatever you’re learning, be it jazz, math, or skiing, the first step is to explore the existing models of how people approach this skill. Of course there may be many accepted models, in which case you have your choice as to which direction you take. In any case, explore the models before you jump in to evaluating their effectiveness.

Figure out where the model succeeds and where it fails

Once you clearly understand the present model, then you can start to determine where the model excels and discover any shortcomings that exist.

To do this, think about each element of the model and compare it to the success achieved by people that have implemented it. For example, the model I described previously is the core way that people are taught to navigate jazz harmony and create melodies in jazz improvisation today.

Thinking about this model and the correspondent success that people have achieved using it will give us a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Many people (I would argue the bulk) who practice jazz today have ascribed to this model, yet, how many of them have risen to outstanding heights? This is an over-generalization, but in this case, using our experience and logic is all we’ve got, and in my experience and to my ear, very few people who utilize this model can play fluently on even the most basic of tunes. Why is that?

It’s because thinking in terms of modes of scales completely ignores the harmonic progression occurring and throws to the wayside the tradition that has made this music: the language that has created the sound, feel, and vibe of the music since its inception.

All you have to do is be a conscious objective observer to know that what is being taught in many books and schools does not work, or else everyone would sound great.

Think about it:

Many people know all their scales in all keys and can play them in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, and so on. They can even play sequences and patterns through them and they know exactly what chords to use them over. Still, most people fall flat on their face over a blues. The logical conclusion you should arrive at is: scales and application of modes is not an effective way to learn to improvise, hence the model is flawed.

We know it. Everyone practices this standard stuff and  they don’t get anywhere close to where they want to be, so why should you continue to accept that what people say is true?

The point is, you can’t simply ascribe to a model that people claim is successful when the majority of people have produced horrendous results with it. When you come to this realization about anything, it’s time to stop following the herd and follow the beat of a different drum.

Go against the grain

Going against the grain is essentially figuring out how most people do something and then choosing to do something completely different. Let’s look at some of the common assumptions made in learning jazz and see how going against the grain can help us.

These assumptions exist throughout jazz education to varying degrees. In middle schools and high-schools, they are taught as “the way,’ and even in many colleges these assumptions are still engrained into their teaching methods.

Assumption #1 – application of modes to chords is an effective way to think about harmony

Assumption #2 – learning lines in all keys creates unoriginal lick-players

Assumption #3 – by copying other people you sacrifice your true voice

Assumption #4 – knowing your chords and arpeggios to a tune lets you play what you hear

Assumption #5 – the equipment the jazz legends used is the equipment everyone should use

So, from my experience, I have determined that for the results I wish to achieve, after exploring these assumptions and the results that people obtain with them, that they are all incorrect. If your experience tells you otherwise, by all means do what you like; this example is purely based upon my experience.

Knowing that these assumptions are false, I consciously would do something nearly opposite to each.

Assumption #1 – application of modes to chords is an effective way to think about harmony

As I detailed before, most people use this idea as the fundamental basis for their playing with unfavorable results. To go against the grain, instead of focusing on modes, I’d focus on the sound of the harmony (the chords), and strive to understand why each chord follows the next (the harmonic progression).

This is going against the grain because it removes the focus from scales and puts it on chords; moreover, it shifts the focus from gaining a ton of out of context notes to play, to listening and comprehending what’s going on compositionally.

Assumption #2 – learning lines in all keys creates unoriginal lick-players

I hear this all the time and most people accept it as true. Using our logic as before, if most people believe this to be true and most people are getting poor results, then it must not be true, and therefore, we should go against the grain (remember, like all these examples, they are oversimplifications from my experience to illustrate a point. Your experience may tell very different things at which point you can decide what you believe).

Knowing that people who say this aren’t sounding so good, I’d instead choose to learn lines in all keys. Most of the time, going against the grain is simply doing the opposite. Couldn’t be more simple.

Assumption #3 – by copying other people you sacrifice your true voice

From my experience, people who say this don’t have a voice to sacrifice. Many people believe this though. Going against the grain, I’d get to copying people as soon as I could.

Assumption #4 – knowing your chords and arpeggios to a tune lets you play what you hear

Wow, everyone says this and uses this method. Hmmmm…favorable results? I don’t think so. Time to go against the grain and find another way to play what you hear.

Assumption #5 – the equipment the jazz legends used is the equipment everyone should use

I can’t count how many times people have said to me that you have to play on a vintage Otto Link saxophone mouthpiece to play the way you want to. A simple search on youtube will present hundreds of amateur tenor players honking away on their $1300 vintage Otto Link sounding like a third grader.

No offense to third graders, but this assumption must be false. Going against the grain, I’d explore other options and focus on what works best for my musical needs as well as my personal physical makeup.

Going against the grain is not easy. It’s never easy to say to yourself, “Well I think most people are not doing this right and I’m going to decide to do the opposite,” but as you can see with my over-simplified examples from my experience, that by doing so, you can arrive at methods that actually do produce the results you want.

Once you do make a move like this, see if your experience later supports your decision. For instance, when I got to NY and started learning from guys like Rich Perry and Mulgrew Miller, my going-against-the-grain-decisions were confirmed by the knowledge they imparted to me.

Stay focused on results and always evaluate whether you’re moving towards where you want to go. If you’re not, it’s time to go against the grain.