There exists a hidden trap on the path of learning improvisation. One that you can fall into without even realizing it. In music school practice rooms, jam sessions, and even in the performance hall, the art of improvisation can frequently devolve into a petty competition. Rather than sharing information and focusing on musicality, some musicians aim to “cut” other players or show off their technical or harmonic prowess.
Instead of an atmosphere of mutual learning and musicality, it becomes every man or woman for themselves. As a result, other musicians squander musical information and keep their ideas to themselves because they feel it will put them ahead in the game, when in fact it does just the opposite.
What they’re missing
If you keep your musical knowledge and discoveries hidden away in the hopes of staying one step ahead of the competition, you are setting yourself up for disaster. Not only are you promoting musical stagnation, but you are effectively stunting your own growth as an improviser.
When someone relies on a “secret lick” to sound hip or a trick technique to wow the crowd, the search for new ideas and influences comes to a standstill. Instead of continually learning, transcribing and experimenting with new harmonies, you return again and again to these stale ideas.
Because so much attention is paid to holding onto these licks and preventing the success of rival players, nothing is left to focus on finding new information. This is not a recipe for success.
If you see this common tendency in your own playing, put a stop to it. Let go of all those tired licks, open up your ears, and start anew each time you improvise. When you give away your knowledge, you escape from the burden of carrying it around and as a result, are free to look for new ideas.
Why are you playing?
The true spirit of this music is found in the act of playing with others and sharing this experience with an audience. When you hide your knowledge from others, you’re making competition the main goal of your solos instead of collaboration. This happens at the detriment of everyone involved.
While some competition is healthy in your ongoing development as an improviser, it should not be the only reason that you are playing this music. Use the lure of competition to push yourself to new levels in the practice room, but when you are on stage, create with others in the spirit of the moment.
Following the model of the masters
Learning from your peers and sharing information with your friends is one of the fastest ways to improve and stay fresh musically. For proof of this, you needn’t look further than the masters of this music.
Take the collaboration of Bird and Diz, the Lennie Tristano “school,” and the stories of Monk and Coltrane practicing together. These are all examples of musicians sharing information and ideas in the spirit of creativity and mutual improvement.
None of these players lost their identity by sharing their concepts and musical discoveries with other musicians. In fact it led them to sharpen their ideas even more and inspire a generation of younger musicians.
Fight this natural tendency
Sharing your hard-earned knowledge is not a new concept, however, it’s one that is tough to follow. Here are a few things to keep in mind on your journey to improve:
Take on a mindset of lifelong learning
One of the biggest barriers to your progress in any discipline, is the short-sighted belief that you’ve learned everything you need to know. Whichever way you look at it, the search for new knowledge is endless. As an improviser there is no point where you reach an enlightened jazz-state and can learn no more.
Once you have mastered a technique or concept, you must let it go in order to search for a new one. Take Miles and ‘Trane for instance. Throughout each stage of their careers they made musical leaps and bounds. At any one point, they could have stopped evolving and remained satisfied with their current level. Instead, they both let go of their established styles and went in search of new sources of inspiration.
One part of their mastery of music was their ability to continually search for new ideas and learn new concepts, evolving musically and technically until the day they died.
Swallow your pride
Wherever you go, there are other musicians that possess information that you could benefit from. The key to improving is to share this information. However, this is not exactly easy to do in that asking questions reveals your own ignorance. Don’t let your ego get in the way of your development or search for knowledge. Take every opportunity you have to ask questions and share information.
Develop your own sound
As you share information, take comfort in the fact that no two musicians can sound exactly alike. Another musician can transcribe the same line as you or use the same substitution, but are they going to play with your sound or articulation? Are they going to use it in their solos in the same way you do?
The answer is no, absolutely not. Simply having knowledge of a harmonic device or transcribing a line from a solo doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to execute it in your improvisations. That takes hours of practice and with this comes each musician’s individuality.
On the flip side, keep this in mind as you are transcribing and learning the solos of your favorite players. Regurgitating someone else’s lines does not qualify as improvising. Always strive to make those lines your own as you learn them from the record, eventually developing your own language.
In the end, be generous with your knowledge and ideas – you’ll receive way more than you’re giving away.