I'm pleased to have Kevin Jacoby as a guest writer again for his “The Art of Improv” series. Be sure to read part 1 as well. I admire KJ as an entrepreneur, musician, writer, and friend, so I'm extremely happy to have him offer this second part on the subject of music and improv. Read and “listen”.
A new musician is the very definition of irony. After all the time and money spent preparing for a journey through the world of music, the one thing that flies out the window is the ability to listen.
The reason is simple of course: in order to become proficient at an instrument you have to get your hands moving just the right way. And since this is a herculean task, as a new player you focus all your energy on the physical aspect of playing.
This is the right thing to do, of course. If you can’t drive the car, there’s no reason to plan a trip. But too many musicians forget that, once you get your fingers working, the next step is opening your ears. And, when we end up with an army of technical geniuses who can tap, slap and sweep contrapuntal harmony like Paganini himself but couldn’t find a groove if it bit them on the ass, the art of music takes a big hit.
Some of the best musical experiences of my life happened on stage with a group of people I knew intimately (in a musical sense). We would spend months on the road together. We would finish each other’s sentences. And when we got on stage, regular communication was no longer necessary – we were of one mind.
Great improv never happens in a vacuum. Those who close their ears to the music around them run out of ideas quickly. But listen carefully and you’ll find the endless inspiration you need to make magic. It also puts your solo in context which makes it a million times more pleasant for the audience.
Miles always had one ear on his horn and the other on that incredible rhythm section. Bill Evans’ thoughtful comp’ing alone was enough to inspire endless choruses of soulful, rhythmic and fresh melodies – something Miles was always happy to do once he got going.
The funny thing is, this should be the easiest thing in the world for us to do. But it isn’t. What we should all do in an improv situation is listen openly, play fewer notes and imbibe every thump of the groove like a thirsty person with a drop of water.
Instead, we fall into the trap of musical tunnel vision. Worried, perhaps, that we might embarrass ourselves in the spotlight, we mistakenly use it to illuminate a flurry of rapid, disjointed phrases that, were they to be sentences in a conversation, would have the audience looking at us like we just stepped off the turnip truck wearing a fuzzy bunny suit, smoking a fat Cuban stogie.
Weird that you even need to think about this, right? You’ve been listening your whole life. And just when it matters most, you have to force conscious thought into a situation that should be completely fluid.
But that’s exactly what you have to do. As George Carlin said, sometimes to start a path you have to hold down the grass yourself at first.
Next time you get on that stage, have the courage to turn your back on the audience like Miles did. See the band. Truly hear what they’re playing. Appreciate their support in your moment of glory.
Then close your eyes, let all that’s happening wash over you, and play as part of the group, like the melody of an amazing song, floating above the harmony, but undeniably part of it.
Only then will you be ready to say something truly worth listening to.