Thinking Macro vs. Micro in Practicing Improvisation

Your mental approach to the things you do can have everything to do with your success or failure. In fact, the way that you think about things like setting goals, learning new skills, or creating routines directly affects how successful you’ll be – and this is especially true when it comes to practicing jazz improvisation.

When you think about your goals in music and how you’re going to accomplish them, you can look at things in one of two ways. You can take a step back and look at the big picture or you can take a magnifying glass to the task at hand and focus in on all the nitty-gritty details.

Both give you a surprisingly different perspective of the same music, and both can be useful in reaching your goals in different ways.

Think about your own mindset as you set your goals and head into the practice room. Are you constantly setting your sights on the big picture and the end result of your work?

…or are you focused on the specific details that will lead you to achieving these goals?

Maybe you do a little of each, or maybe you’ve never even thought about it at all? However, the answer to these questions are more important than you think, and if you’ve been having trouble realizing your goals, the culprit may lie with your mental approach.

Even though both approaches are essential for your improvement, there is a specific time and a place for each one, and knowing how and when to use them can determine your success.

A macro view vs. a micro view

First, let’s take a look at what we mean by “macro” and “micro” thinking.

The “Macro” approach to practice

The macro view is the “big picture” way to look at things. Large in scope and concerned with the final result, this is the mindset you want to have as you take stock of where you’ve been and where you want to be in the future. This type of thinking is ideal for setting your goals, identifying the skills that you would one day like to have, and creating a long-term plan to acquire them.

Macro thinking would include goal setting, visualization exercises, time management, scheduling a practice routine, and thinking in a larger time frame – months and even years ahead. Basically, this is the planning stage before you start the dirty work and once you’ve begun, it’s a mindset that you can return to that will give you a continuing sense of perspective.

The “Micro” approach to practice

The micro view on the contrary, is focused on the specific details of the task at hand. You’ve already identified your big goals, so here you are zeroing in on the daily tasks and skills that will eventually get you to this goal. With micro thinking you are not concerned with the big picture, instead you have a small, well-defined task that you focus on intently and strive to master.

With micro thinking, you break those big goals apart, separate them into manageable pieces, and identify the individuals skills that are required. This is the type of mindset to use as you approach your daily routine; you have a limited amount of time, you’re dealing with small units of information, and you have a specific goal to achieve at the end of each session.

Using these approaches effectively

As you can see from the description above, each type of thinking serves a specific purpose and has its own particular benefits. For musicians, we need to use both of these mindsets in order to establish goals and continually progress. However, each mental approach must be applied at the correct time and in the right way to be effective.

A macro mindset is best applied at times when you are away from your instrument and outside of the practice room. Remember, you’re setting your goals here so stick to planning where you want to be in the future and keep your sights on the end result.

A micro mindset is crucial when you enter the practice room. You need to be focused on details and have a specific time frame in which to accomplish a task (e.g. 30 minutes or an hour). Don’t worry about the ultimate goal, so much as the immediate task at hand.

Applying these mindsets to your musical goals

To illustrate these points, let’s take three common goals that improvisers often make and divide them into both the macro and the micro approaches.

Goal #1: “I need to learn twenty jazz standards in the next six months.”

  • Macro view: pick out and make a list of these 20 tunes, find the specific recordings and versions that you want to learn them from, create a detailed practice schedule to organize your time (need to learn 3-4 tunes a month), visualize how you want to sound on these tunes and the players that you would like to imitate.
  • Micro view: focus on one tune at a time, listen to each section of the tune repeatedly, sing the melody until it’s ingrained in your ear, play the melody until you have it in your fingers, focus on the chord progression, and work on improvising over those changes. (This lesson is a great example of the “micro” mindset for one tune!)

Goal #2: “I want to play double-time lines in my solos.”

  • Macro view: Find some of your favorite solos with double-time lines in them, listen to them until they are in your ear, visualize what it would feel like to play those lines, and create a practice schedule to incorporate this goal into your routine.
  • Micro view: Take one section of one solo and put it into Transcribe to slow it down, listen to it repeatedly, sing the line and then play it on your instrument, analyze the line note by note, look at the shape of the line, the articulation, how the notes relate to the chord progression. Identify what skills you need to develop in order to execute this type of line – more technique, cleaner articulation, more language, etc.

Goal #3: “I am going to transcribe three Miles Davis solos.”

  • Macro view: Think about which solos to transcribe and why you should be learning each one, determine what you’ll get out of each solo (ballad playing, rhythm changes solo, learn to phrase or articulate), listen to each solo until you can sing it along with the record, consider your time frame and create a practice schedule.
  • Micro view: Put the solo into Transcribe if it’s too fast, focus on one phrase of the solo at a time, sing it then play it on your instrument, analyze the line, develop the language, sound, articulation, and style of the solo until it’s a part of your own playing.

Dividing your goals in this way can greatly improve the effectiveness of your practice routine.

Outside of the practice room you employ a macro mindset – setting your goals, planning a practice schedule, and doing prep work for the actual practicing.

Then when you do get into the practice room, you take a micro approach – focusing on the details, analyzing the essential elements of each skill, and isolating small tasks to accomplish each day.

Mixing up the two mindsets

A concept such as this one seems simple enough, however, it’s not always as easy to keep your mind on track as you might think.

One of the areas in practicing improvisation where things can go awry is when we inadvertently apply a macro approach when we should be using a micro approach and vice versa.

This commonly happens when players make large, ambitious goals and head into the practice room eager to accomplish them as quickly as possible. Say the goal is to learn 20 tunes as listed above. Instead of planning in a macro view and getting to work in a micro view, many players rush in to practice with only the macro view or end result in their minds.

Because of this mindset, they end up in the practice room trying to cram these 20 tunes as quickly as possible. Instead of having a plan and focusing intently on the essential aspects of each tune, these players gloss over one tune in a hurry to get to the next. The only thing on their minds is the looming goal of learning 20 tunes by the “due date.”

As a result they have just scratched the surface of these tunes and in turn, will probably forget them in a few weeks. In the end, this is not really an improvement from their beginning situation at all.

Rushing into a project is like a construction crew heading to a site with only the architects final drawing in their minds. Some in the crew might be overwhelmed and confused as where to begin, abandoning the project all together. Others might attempt to push through, aiming to do whatever they must to get to the end result regardless of the details.

“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.”~Chuck Palahniuk

However, if the project was done correctly, the overall plan would’ve been clear from the onset. A detailed blueprint defined from the start and clear objectives for each day would be established (lay the foundation, build each floor, etc.). The overall vision would determine the daily work and everything would be accomplished much more efficiently and productively.

The same is true for practicing all of the different aspects of improvisation.

Using macro and micro to improve

Just as the unfocused construction crew came to a halt, an unfocused practice session can do you more harm than good.

Approaching any goal that you make with a one-sided mentality will eventually get you into trouble. To succeed and reach your potential, you must see the big picture and be able to concentrate on every last detail.

First set the overall goal and make a plan of action, then get to work on the details. Lay a foundation of skills to achieve your objective and progress step by step until the original goal is accomplished. Whether you’re building a repertoire of tunes, transcribing solos, or developing language you need to plan a course of action and then follow through by mastering the details every step of the way.

Keep in mind that getting lost in the big picture is not the only path astray. In the practice room it can also be easy to get stuck in the minute details.

You might start focusing on scales and chord progressions or begin obsessing over new harmonic concepts from your transcriptions. Eventually this mentality can be carried over to the bandstand and pretty soon, you’ve forgotten that you’re performing and trying to communicate with an audience.

Either way, it is necessary to employ both a macro and micro approach as you practice improvisation. Always relying on the big picture or immersing yourself in details can both have their drawbacks. However, using the ideas above you can create a balanced approach to your short and long-term goals that will give you the best shot at becoming the player you want to be!

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