The Myth of The Linear Path

It’s as easy as getting from point A to point B, right? Of course it is. But what they fail to mention is that the distance between the two points is not a straight line! In terms of large goals, like learning how to improvise, the path is not linear. In terms of small goals like learning a single line or concept, you can create a direct approach to practicing that particular thing and work it into your playing in a systematic way. However, today we’re not talking about little goals. We’re talking about big goals. Large ideas. Multiple levels of improvement.

We’re talking about learning jazz improvisation as a whole. The larger the goal and the more general it is, getting from point A to point B becomes less linear, so you can bet that this is a good candidate.

Understanding the reality of non-linear paths

What is a non-linear path and why does it even matter? Saying a path is not linear means that it’s not as clear-cut and dry as people think. When we first start to learn how to improvise we’re scrambling for what to practice and we easily get overwhelmed when we realize there’s so much to learn.

With all this to learn, in what progression do we tackle the material?

We recently received a question from a reader asking if they should start transcribing, or working on ear training, or learning language…and the answer is: yes.

It’s simply yes because these are all necessary steps but in no particular order. They’re all things that you’ll be working on forever and they’re all interrelated. The trouble lies in that we want to conceptualize our path to improvement as linear and the reality is, the nature of the beast is not linear.

So why does this even matter?

It matters for several reasons. First, realizing that learning this stuff is not linear will set you free from searching for the magic formula that will get you from point A to point B. It doesn’t exist. There’s a lot of wonderful material to practice on this site, but it’s difficult to say specifically where you should start and where you should go from there because it’s largely up to you.

Secondly, it matters because you’ll understand that the natural way to learn this music is to get deep into one subject for a while, then go to another, then perhaps return to the previous subject, then go deep into another subject for a while, and so on.

There’s no one right way! It’s not as if you learn a particular set of tunes, transcribe a particular set of solos, and work on a particular set of lines, and you’re made. That’s not how it works.

It’s a personal path, making everyone’s all-together different. Of course there is much overlap with respect to where time is spent, but specifically on what, how long, and in what way varies immensely from individual to individual.

And lastly, it matters that you understand that learning this music is not a linear path because it will help you figure out what the best way to approach your musical improvement .

How to approach the non-linear path of jazz improvisation

To approach the non-linear path of jazz improvisation, start by going down one specific rabbit hole for a while. Perhaps it’s rhythm, or language, or the tunes of Rodgers and Hart, or even the solos of a particular soloist. In my own experience, at one point I decided that I’d stop practicing anything but pieces of language. Why?

Because that was the weakest part of my playing and I knew that the nature of the non-linear path was in my favor; I would focus on just language for a while and in time, I’d surface a stronger player, ready to rabbit hole down something else for a while.

And when you get really deep into one subject, do just that. Don’t simply skim the surface. Approach it as if it’s the only thing in the world that matters, that nothing else exists to practice. Don’t worry about the tunes you don’t know or the solos you haven’t learned. They don’t exist. All that exists is the one subject you’re immersing yourself in.

Revisiting, time and time again

After you focus on one subject, one concept, or any one thing for a while, you’re actually not done. You want to revisit the practiced subject over and over again, with the aim of each time raising the bar. That’s the attitude of the non-linear path: there’s many different topics and you’re constantly raising the bar of each one of these and consequently, the bar as a whole will rise.

Not only is it okay, but it’s necessary to revisit the same subject, concept, or even a line, over and over again. Because we want to think of everything as a linear path, we immediately dismiss the idea of practicing something we’ve already worked on.

Would you go to third grade once you’ve gone to fourth? Of course not, so why on earth should I work on All The Thing you Are?? I worked on that when I was twelve!

The flaw in this thinking is that there are no grades to progress to in jazz. There’s no belts like karate. There’s no levels like Zelda. You’re just working on various things, only to work on them again in a new way later.

That’s the beauty of the non-linear path. Each time you revisit the same information, you not only strengthen what you know, but you discover new ways to approach old material, leaving you with a feeling of,  “why didn’t I think of this before.”

The myth of the linear path

The myth of the linear path is all around us. The most obvious example is that of evolution. Despite whether you agree with evolution, the point is that it’s not a linear path. However, in many cases it’s depicted as such. The progression of ape to man, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that neat and orderly. Evolution is a matter of trying endless variations and pruning off the ones that don’t succeed. In hindsight it looks like a nice straight line, but that’s because all the variations that existed aren’t here to screw up this perfect point A to point B picture.

Is learning and improving at jazz improvisation as complex as evolution? I’m guessing not, but sometimes, it certainly feels that way. Get a firm grasp on the idea that your path to getting where you want is not a linear one. With that, you’ll be armed with the right attitude and approach to work towards your own personal point B.