Copyright 2002 by Hal Galper

As published in the IAJE Journal

“Learn it then forget it” Charlie Parker

The ultimate goal for any artist, in any medium, is to gain control of their internal and external creative environment. The reality of an artists internal life takes precedence over the external.

To this day I remember, while a student at Berklee School in the late 50’s, walking down Boston’s Newberry St. asking myself “what is supposed to be going on inside me when I’m playing?” A universal question for jazz players. A question that has been the guiding light for my research over the last 45 years. Like all good questions, the question leads to two succeeding and universal questions: How to I practice and how do I use what I’ve practiced to be an effective jazz improvisor?

I looked for the answers to this mystery from the point of view that most of the tools we need to develop to be a jazz improvisor are internal processes! A difficult concept to grasp as it is natural to focus our attention on the externals: hands, lips, the instrument, written music, etc.

Supported by the latest neurological research on how the brain functions, Robert Jourdain, in his book “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy,” makes a convincing case for the idea that humans are “hard-wired” for music from birth. That the source of all music stems from the way we all are physiologically constructed.

Learning how to improvise and perform jazz music involves, on an intuitive level, understanding a complex of the technical and mechanical elements of jazz and the relationship between three interlocking and interdependent physiological elements: the mind, the body and emotions, as well as how this complex of elements work together to produce the improvised experience. It’s generally assumed that these physiological elements are fixed, as givens that are immutable. To the contrary, the mind, the body and emotions are malleable and can be trained as tools you can control and use to work for you. They are the basic tools of any artistic endeavor!

Mind: Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, in his presentation before an October 2001 symposium in music and neurology (from an article published in the spring 2002 issue of Berklee Today), “made comparisons between the brains of professional musicians and those of nonmusicians. His findings indicate that professional musicians tend to have larger motor cortices than nonmusicians and that years of repetitive practice can strengthen existing synapses and even lead to the formation of new ones.

Body: Seymour Fink describes the experience of playing rhythm as a “kinetic“ (the motion of bodies) experience which occur in continuing “wavelike beats.” … “This is fully perceived only by the body; it is not a mental concept.” It is “the life force of the music, the performer‘s internal engine that propels the music forward in an unstoppable flux.” … “We respond physically to this living, pulsating organism that is music…”

Emotion: Dr. Anne Blood, during the same symposium, described a “significant aspect” her research into the brain’s response to music is “that almost all of the brain’s response to music takes place at the subcortical level, that is in the nerve centers below the cerebral cortex, (emphasis mine) which is the region of the brain where abstract thought occurs.” …It looks like the emotional part of music is getting at something more fundamental that cognition.” Her study “also revealed that the brain processes consonant and dissonant sounds in very different ways. Dissonant sounds affected areas of the brain involving memory and anxiety, while consonant sounds stimulated in pleasant emotional responses. The results of Dr. Blood‘s study may be validating what composers and performers of music have know for centuries.”

In “The Creative Mind/ Myths & Mechanisms“ (Basic Books), Margaret A. Boden quotes psychologist Phillip Johnson-Laird: “It has been know for some time that aesthetically pleasing melodies tend to involve a succession of small intervals followed by a larger one, and visa versa…For example (using * for the first note, R for repeat, U for up, and D for down) the opening of Beethg\oven‘s Fifth has the contour *-R-R-D-U-R-R-D, and ‘Greensleeves’ opens with *-U-U-U-U-D-D-D-D.

Obviously, it is realistic to assume that jazz performers, with the proper training, learn how to control, on an intuitive level, the mind, body and emotions. (For more on controlling the mind, body and emotions see the article Stage Fright, Relaxation and Energy)

These tools can be further understood as the interlocking functions of External Behavior and Internal Behavior.

Practicing is external behavior that affects internal processes that in turn affect external behavior, i.e. performance. The three functions interact.

Taking this idea to it’s logical extreme, playing a musical instrument is, fundamentally, a process of “mind over matter.”

“The imagination can manipulate ivory, felt, steel and spruce to sublime ends. Evans called it putting emotion into the piano and he proved that it can be done…” from BILL EVANS (Yale): How My Heart Sings By Peter Pettinger,

Most students give primary consideration the external, technical and mechanical aspects of study: notation, theory, the instrument, mechanical technique, all those aspects of playing music that are visible to the naked eye. Your instrument, which ever one it may be, IS NOT THE INSTRUMENT! It just looks that way. The external aspects are an illusion.

Seymour Fink, in his article “Can You Teach Musicality” (May/June 1997 issue of Piano & Keyboard magazine), states “ By restricting our instruction to the teaching the mechanical (getting around and pushing the right levers) and teaching notation (lines, spaces, rhythmic subdivisions and the like), we ignore – or worse, might even obstruct – the true musical development of a student.” He further suggests that.. ”the essence of music making… Is found in inner hearing with its linkage to the body, and in a deeper grasp of musical values and their relationship to performance.” “… Along with teaching notation, we must also teach it’s limitations, namely that it is an approximate, pictorially inadequate representation of those live and vital sound that started in the composers head. That music exists only in live sound, not on the page, is too quickly forgotten.“

The musical realities you have to deal with are internal processes. The conclusion that follows may be difficult for the student to grasp at first: YOU ARE THE INSTRUMENT! A musical instrument is merely a machine. It is an input and output device. It is worth stating twice: the mind, the body and emotions are the basic tools of any artistic endeavor! They can be trained to do the improvisor’s bidding.

The goals of practicing are to develop one’s internal processes. The goal of playing is to use these processes as performance tools. A instrument is an input device used to train internal processes, like the keyboard of a computer. When performing, an instrument acts like a computer’s printer. It is the output device. The internal processes can be compared to software code that you’re constantly writing and rewriting.

The internal life of an artist takes precedence over the external life. It is within this internal life that the richness of creative and controlled musical experience can be discovered, developed and enhanced. Being somewhat ephemeral in nature and initially difficult to grasp, this inner life is often ignored in favor of the external life. All practicing is dedicated to the development and control of inner processes.

The Practicing Attitude

Quite often students don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between practicing and performance and how the two interact. There is a practicing attitude and a playing attitude. Each attitude is different.

The main contributor to a confusion between these two attitudes is that students spend more time practicing as compared to the amount of time spent playing. Without realizing it, they are developing a practicing attitude. They then, mistakenly, try to apply this practicing attitude to a playing situation, becoming frustrated when it doesn’t work. The main challenge most students face in developing a playing attitude is having the opportunity to gain enough playing experience with musicians of a high enough calibre to get to hear how to do it right.

The Playing Attitude

Simply put, the playing attitude employs a process yet to be codified in western music education, “Faking It.” Although the name has a slightly disreputable connotation, as if Faking It were somehow “cheating,” it is a highly sophisticated process that can only be self-taught,.

When studying music as a child, most of us share the common experience, (especially those with exceptional capacities for hearing), of our teachers discouraging us from memorizing and playing music by ear. I know I did. I remember my first piano teacher, Mrs. Olivier, yelling from the kitchen “Harold, your playing from memory! Read the music!” I never knew how she could tell that I was playing by ear but I suspect it was because I was over-interpreting the pieces, perhaps playing them with too much feeling. Our early teachers implanted within us guilty feelings when we played by ear, as if it was wrong to do so.

However, in his book “The Art of Playing The Piano” (Summy-Birchard Company) George Kochevitsky’s impeccable scientific research on how the mind and nervous system function when playing music, proved that all music is played by ear! That you can’t play anything until you can hear it first. In scientific terms he’s talking about is developing a strong brain-to-hand signal. Kochevitsky proved that if the signal from the brain is strong enough, the hands will do anything to get the sound out.

The process of Faking It is implemented by bringing these highly developed internal processes to the bandstand and just “going for it” with out worrying about making a mistake. During a recent study by neurological researchers at the University of Tubingen, Germany, Dr. Gabriela Scheler, a former violinist with the Nuremberg Philharmonic Orchestra, said “the findings suggest that professionals have ‘liberated’ their minds from worrying about hitting the right notes. As a result, they are able to listen, judge and control their play…”

Learning how to Fake It can’t be learned in the classroom and practice room. It can only be learned on the bandstand, doing it over and over, performance by performance, until you get it right. It’s a process of experimentation and trial and error. The player is constantly trying to train and use these inner processes through the direct experience of using them.

My first experience with Faking it was during my early student years. I’d take commercial music gigs to make the rent, playing weddings, dances, Bar Mitzvah’s. The tunes we played for these occasions were the classic standard songs. As I didn’t know enough of them to play them all by memory I’d bring my fake books with me to the gigs. Unfortunately, the tunes segued from one to the next and the band leaders never gave me enough time to look the tunes up. They’d usually say “Fake it kid, fake it. You’ll learn it in a couple of choruses.” By listening hard to the bass player, or if you were lucky, a guitar player, you’d eventually learn the tunes by ear.

Practicing is work directed toward developing internal processes. Playing is learned through direct experience, applying these internal processes until they work for you on the bandstand.


Historically, the practicing attitude is linear, intellectual, goal oriented and mechanical. The playing attitude is just the opposite. It is holistic, process oriented, and intuitive/emotional in nature.


Seven of the major internal processes that one must develop are:

  •  A “vivid” aural imagination,
  • The ability to concentrate in a highly focused and uninterrupted stream,
  • A sense of musicality
  • A musical vocabulary
  • Rhythmic sycncopation
  • Physical Control
  • Emotional Control

Aural Imagination

“First, learn how to hear everything and play everything you hear, then hear everything and play as little of it as possible” (HG)

When I ask my my class to raise their hands if they ‘re having trouble playing what they hear in their ears, for the most part, they all raise their hands. The truth is that they hear what they want to play but the don’t hear it vividly, in an intense manner. They hear it pale as: Do-be-do-be-bop, instead of: DO-BE-DO-BE-BOP!

A TV documentary showed Dizzy backstage after a high school concert talking to some budding high school musicians. Trying to make his point about the degree to which vivid hearing must be developed, he sang the above scat syllables first softly (Do-be-do-be-bop) then very loudly, shouting (DO-BE-DO-BE-BOP!)

This brings up another concept that bears much contemplation to understand: What’s going on in your head comes out on your instrument on a direct one-to-one basis! There’s no hiding. Everybody plays exactly the way they hear. If you want to change the way you play you have to change the way your hear. You can’t have an action without a thought that proceeds it. Consequently, all actions describe a person‘s thought processes. To change one’s actions, one must first change one’s thought processes.

Kochevitsky’s point about hearing was further confirmed by a later experience.

While touring with the Phil Woods band, I was in my motel room very early one morning, packing and getting ready to get into the van for a drive to our next gig. The TV was on to the morning kids show Mr. Rogers. The great classical pianist Andre Watts was his guest. As I was on my way out the motel room door with suitcase in hand, I heard Mr. Rogers ask Andre ” Well Andre, how do you play music?” I thought this a very interesting question and paused at the door to here is response. He said ” it all depends on the vividness of your imagination and how intensely you can concentrate.” I was stunned as his answer was exactly the same as Kochevitsky’s conclusions only stated in humanistic rather than scientific terms. What he means by imagination is “Aural” imagination. It depends on how intense the aural signal is in the ear.

I had the good fortune to have studied piano technique with Madame Chaloff (jazz baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff’s mother) while living in Boston in the late 50’s, early 60’s. She used tell me “Hal, technique is in the brain, not in the hands.” “Yeah, sure,” I’d respond, “then why are my hands so slow?” It wasn’t until many years later, after my research on how the mind and nervous system work together that I finally became convinced of her argument. To prove her point to myself, I tried an experiment: Someone had sent me a bootleg Italian recording of air-checks that Art Tatum had made when he was in his early 20’s. Tatum, being young and showing off, was playing the fastest piano I’d ever heard. I put the record on and listened to it for three hours straight. Immediately afterward I went to the piano and started playing. For about a half hour I was playing as fast as Tatum. As I continued on for another half hour my playing got slower and slower until I was back to my own technical level. What had happened was that by listening so long to Tatum playing fast, I had put the sound of playing fast in my ears. It was at that point that Madame Chaloff’s point became a revelation; Tatum didn’t have faster hands, he had faster ears! How fast you can play depends on how fast you can hear. Everyone has an upper limit of hearing speed that they work on extending over the years.

In another perfect example of the power of musical imagination, Oliver Sacks, in his article “Prodigies“ (The New Yorker Magazine, Jan. 1995) sites the well-documented case of Blind Tom, a slave child born on a southern plantation in the mid 1800’s. “Tom would listen intensely to the colonel’s daughters practicing their sonatas and minuets on the piano.” At four years old, when sat the piano he’d repeat what they played note for note, at speed! Realizing this unique talent, he was subsequently sold to a promoter who took the child on tour. “At eleven, he played before President Buchanan at the White House. A panel of musicians who thought that he had tricked the President, tested his memory the following day, playing two entirely new compositions to him, thirteen and twenty pages in length; he reproduced them perfectly, and without the least apparent effort.” The point here is how could he do that without any musical training? It is too easy to dismiss this as only another case of an idiot-savant. If we accept Kochevitsky’s premise that all music is played by ear, then the only conclusion one can come to is that the child’s aural imagination was extremely highly developed. This kind of hearing is commonplace among the great musicians.

Entrepreneur Todd Barkin told me a story about jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal that further illustrates this point.

While Ahmad was visiting Todd in his office one day, he played a Bill Evans recording of his composition “My Story.” Much impressed, Ahmad had Todd replay it three times. A week or two later Todd and Ahmad were hanging together at a piano and Ahmad played the song from memory with Bill’s exact changes and melody. As Todd related to me, “it’s only got a million sets of changes to it!”

Jazz pianist Red Garland was purported to be able to memorize a song after three hearings of it.

The ears (hearing) have their own independent way of working. Their own dynamics and tendencies that can be used and manipulated to your advantage. Practicing and playing without understanding how the most basic tool of your art works is inefficient and largely nonproductive.

It is a commonly mistaken conclusion that improvising musical ideas is a matter of a making series of conscious decisions like:” I think I’ll play this, and now I think I’ll play this, and now I think I’ll play this” and on and on. This is just not possible. Conscious decisions of that type are to slow to use during the process of improvising. How many of you have practiced a musical idea and then tried to interject it into a solo while playing to find that it completely stops your solo? Conscious decision making is an intellectual process and is too slow to use while improvising. Decisions about what to play when are made on an intuitive level, the intuition being able to make decisions at a speed approximately 20,000 faster than intellectual though. They are intuitive decisions made on the level of your “stream-of consciousness,” which occurs at a rate of speed to rapid for conscious thought.

Mitch Haupers, in his article “The Musician Mind,” (Berklee Today, Summer 1994) quoting from Howard Gordon‘s “Creating Minds “(Basic Books 1993), makes a clear distinction between two kinds of thinking; intelligence and creativity. “…intelligence and creativity are not the same. Intelligence is measured in terms of convergent thinking – the ability to give the ‘correct’ answer on an IQ test – while creativity stimulates divergent thinking – the tendency to respond to problems by searching for a wide range of possible interpretations.”

There is only one way you can play a musical idea…..because you have to! The idea lives so intensely, so “vividly” in your aural (ears/hearing) imagination that your compelled to play it. Your hands have no choice. They are compelled to respond to the intense brain signal. It is compulsive behavior in its finest form.

When practicing music ideas we tend think that it is the idea itself that we are trying to learn when in actuality the idea functions more as a tool to develop the more sophisticated process of vivid aural imagination. It’s not the idea itself that is important, it is the effect that practicing the idea has on the process of hearing vividly. It is not the practiced idea you take to the bandstand with you, it is the process of vivid aural imagination you take to the bandstand as a performing tool. You don’t want to improvise using only practiced ideas anyway. You’ll find it extremely boring and mechanical. Your goal is get on the bandstand make up ideas you never practiced before and hear them so intensely you are compelled to play them.

Man’s imagination is the most powerful tool in the universe. It is the source of all civilization. For example:

Someone, sometime in the far past, decided they were tired of sitting on cold, hard rocks and wondered if there was a better alternative they could come up with. The concept of the chair was invented. The inventor tried to first imagine what a chair would look like and imagined a two-legged chair. After getting black and blue from falling of the thing, the inventor imagined that adding another leg to it might make it more stable, and it did. Seeking increased stability, the inventor further imagined adding a fourth and then a fifth leg, through trial and error concluding that four legs did the job. At each stage, from conception to realization, an overall goal was imagined followed by imagining the incremental steps to achieve it.

Nothing created by mankind exists without it being first imagined. Some eastern religions even go so far as to postulate that the observable universe is actually a product of our imaginations. No matter the art form, harnessing the power of your imagination and concentration are what being an artist is all about.


People switch mental states thousands of times a day with out realizing it. One minute you’ll be aware of everything going on around you, the next minute you can switch to an introspective, self-absorbed state. Sometimes you have to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, as a juggler would have to do. Mental states can be eventually controlled and mastered to be used as tools of your art. Concentration is a mental state.

In the human organism, “work” is measured by the amount of calories one burns during a task. A scientific study compared the amount of calories burned by someone digging a ditch for eight hours to that of a classical cellist playing a three-hour concert. They both burned the same amount of calories yet all the cellist was doing was sitting and moving a bow back and forth. The ditch digger’s work was physical. The cellist’s was concentration. Concentration is the “work” we do as performers. You’ve had the experience of having practiced very intensely for and hour or two and finding yourself exhausted afterward. There’s no denying it. It’s work.

Unawares, we are developing concentration when we practice. Concentration comes in more than one form: narrow, wide and distracted. Exercising control over these types of concentration and using them as tools is another of your goals. Not only does a practiced idea shape one’s hearing, it also develops your ability to concentrate. This ability, like vivid imagining, may take years to develop.

Narrow Concentration

Narrow concentration focuses on a narrow point, as in meditation. How many times, while playing, has your mind drifted off to think about what your old lady said to you earlier that day? Or what your dog did that afternoon? Your flow of concentration is interrupted. You can concentrate, but only in spurts. What remains to be developed is the ability to concentrate in a continuos uninterrupted flow.

When practicing a particular musical idea, we are focused narrowly on that idea, focusing in a manner excludes all extraneous thoughts. Our general awareness of things around us recedes until the idea is the only thing we are aware of, becoming almost all consuming. In that way were are, without realizing it, practicing narrow concentration.

Wide Concentration

This type of concentration is used when playing in a group so the player can listen to the group sound as a totality, listening to oneself last. I became aware of this type of concentration during my stint with trumpeter Chet Baker, my first “big time” jazz gig, in the early 1960’s.

Chet was a master of playing soft and swinging hard, a rapidly disappearing art. It seemed that I could never play soft enough to satisfy Chet, especially when he was singing. I’m a rather large person. Big arms and hands. I would try everything I could to play softer but nothing seemed to work. Finally, one night on the bandstand of the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, Chet got his point across. It was Saturday night and the club was packed. The audience was hushed, the with a blue spotlight on Chet. He was sitting on his trumpet case, microphone in hand, singing a ballad. At about the bridge to the tune (I think it was “I Fall In Love To Easily”), I hit one chord an iddy bit too loud. Chet stopped singing, turned around, pointed at me and yelled “you’ve got it Hal!” Everyone in the club turned around. All of a sudden I had 200 pairs of eyes looking at me!

Back in my motel room later that night, I went over the experience and realized a basic truth. We spend a large part of our time doing individual work on our instruments. We become subjectively self-involved with our own individual musical concerns. Without realizing it, we bring that self-involvement to the bandstand with us, the result being we‘re only thinking about our own role in a group playing context. I realized that that’s what I had been doing. The next night on the gig I decided to listen to myself last and listen instead to the whole group first. The light came on! By listening only to myself (narrow concentration) to control my volume, I had nothing to relate my volume to. By listening to the whole sound of the band (wide concentration) I could finally hear myself in relation to the total sound the band was creating and adjust my volume accordingly.

Distracted Concentration

Distracted concentration is focusing on something other than music to, in a sense “get yourself out of the way of yourself.” I stumbled onto this type by accident while playing a solo piano gig one night in a restaurant. The piano was on the floor at the same level as the diners. A blue-haired old lady approached the piano and started talking to me while I was playing. While we conversed I happened to notice what I was playing. I was playing stuff I never had practiced before! As the ideas flowed smoothly from my hands my reaction was “gee, I didn’t know I knew that,” or “man, I didn’t know I could play that!” New ideas were just pouring out. What was happening was that I was letting the music come out. Not “trying” as hard (See more about “trying” in my article on Stage Fright, Relaxation and Energy) as I normally would. As pianist Roger Kellaway said in the March 2000 issue of Gene Lees’s Jazzletter, “You are told in the arts that you have to get out of your own way.”

This refers again to the subject of “work” and what kind of “work” we do as performers. The reader may never have been told this: playing music is supposed to be easy! Most of us think it’s supposed to be hard to play, but truthfully, you can’t play music well if it’s hard to do. If you can’t do it easily you can’t have fun and project that feeling of fun to your band-mates and listeners. Anything you can do to make the music easier to play is okay. It’s not, as often believed, cheating to make it easier.

Most students over-work when they play. I have, in my private teaching, quite effectively turned my over-working students on to this way of concentrating by having a conversation with them while playing together. They may not get as much of a personal reward as usually experienced (see the article Stage Fright, Relaxation and Energy) from what they are playing but they do begin to get the point about the disastrous effects over-working can have on one’s performance level.

This concept of distracted concentration was later reinforced by something saxophonist Sam Rivers said to me. I was at his apartment one day and he was walking around the house playing his horn with the radio, TV and record player all playing at once. I asked him why he was doing that? He said “it helps me to concentrate.”

A Sense Of Musicality

This sense of musicality, what I often term “the big picture,” is achieved by through a pervasive understanding of how the all various elements of music relate to each other as a whole! Through a complete and intuitive understanding of musical relationships or “how things work”. For example: How harmony relates to melody, how harmony relates to rhythm, how melody relates to rhythm, how these aspects relate to form etc., to name just few. It is another aspect of our musical development that grows without our awareness. It is this understanding of “how things work” we take to the bandstand with us that allows us to improvise cohesive musical statements that make sense. This aspect of a musician’s mental state is more completely explained in the article on The Development of Style.

All practicing is directed toward the developing the inner processes of vivid hearing, focused concentration and sense of musicality. These are the most basic fundamental tools we take to the bandstand with us when we play. There are others but these are the most basic.

A Musical Vocabulary

“I keep one hand in the present and one hand in the past.” Dizzy Gillespie in an interview with Mike Longo.

There are many ways to learn how a player conceived their ideas. One is to have a complete grounding in the theoretical aspects of jazz music so you can understand everything they are playing. The other is to work backwards to an understanding of a players concept by copying their solos. Note that I use the word copying not transcribing. By copying I mean playing the solo, by ear, over and over again until it is memorized. In that way can the rules of music be learned through experience rather than theory. The operative philosophy being that if it sounds good, the rules must have been used correctly.

Jazz educator David Baker once stated: “If you copied and learned one bebop head a month, in all twelve keys, for twelve months, you’d have enough of a jazz vocabulary to improvise successfully.”

One thing about rules: All rules are optional, their use depending on the situation of the moment. When a rule becomes inoperative then another rule becomes operative.

All the great players I had the good fortune to apprentice with over the years played by ear. They also learned their vocabulary the same way. They could not describe what they were doing theoretically. This often brings up the question of “did they know what they were doing?” The answer to that question is the definition of the word “know.” There are two kinds of knowing, the intellectual kind and the intuition/hearing kind. The former is self limiting, the latter has no boundaries. The ears and the intuition always “knows” more than the intellect.

This is a music that has historically been learned by copying. By imitation, handing information down from generation to generation by the oral tradition. Copying gets you directly into the sound and feeling of the music without any intervening intellectual theories. So then, what use theory? The one limitation of copying is that you learn only what you copied. It can be one-dimensional. Theory can be a valuable tool for expanding what you copied. In other words, copy first, theorize and analyze second. The limitation of theory is that it is intellectual. This doesn’t mean that the two processes are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they support each other quite effectively. The problem is the over-importance that is given to the intellectual over the intuitional side of the coin. (See my article on “The Development of Style” for an in-depth discussion of how to develop your own jazz vocabulary).

Since its inception, one of the most predominant aspects of jazz music has been the acquisition and expansion of a common musical vocabulary by it’s players. This common musical vocabulary allows us all to play together and communicate with each other because group jazz improvisation, in it’s truest sense, is conversational in nature. One cannot have a conversation, musical or otherwise, if we don’t have a common language. You can’t have a conversation if one person speaks English, another Spanish, another French, another Japanese. Only by absorbing the history of the jazz vocabulary can one communicate with other members of a band.

A case in point: I once had a student who, after studying with me for a year, went off on his own to practice and absorb what he had learned. A year later he called me to play a gig with him. The guys were okay, the money good and he offered to drive me to and from the gig. In the car, on the way back we were rather silent until he asked me “so, what do you think of my playing?” He wanted and evaluation of how well he had absorbed his lessons. I said ” Man you play great. You’ve developed your own, original vocabulary. The problem is that it has none of the aspect of the traditional vocabulary in it and I didn’t know how to comp for you. That’s okay with me but you should call players to play with you who have a similar vocabulary or learn the traditional vocabulary.” On and off over the years we’ve played together and his knowledge of the jazz vocabulary has increased dramatically. I assume he did so because he couldn’t find other players with his vocabulary.

For the same reasons of a common basis for musical communication, one has to learn the jazz repertory of compositions that are part and parcel of it’s history. The jam session, an integral component of the jazz education process, is founded on the principle of a common and extensive knowledge of jazz standards as well as the Classic American Standard.

Rhythmic Syncopation

The most pervasive difficulty western jazz students face is a true understanding of rhythmic syncopation. According to Dizzy Gillespie, in Mike Longo’s interview with the master, this difficulty stems from the difference between the African and western concepts of rhythm. “…the African concept of rhythm is polyrhythmic and we are mono-rhythmic.” Mr. Longo clarifies Dizzy’s statement: “Poly-rhythm is a combination of several independent rhythmic melodies that agree vertically as well as horizontally. That is to say that even though these are horizontally independent melodies, they also mesh with each other from a vertical point of view, in what would seem like a form of rhythmic harmony.”

As children, in western society, we are taught to learn time as being executed as a series of quarter notes. One can’t play western music without mastering quarter note time. It is the first musical element we must learn if we are to be able to read and perform western music. We eventually become conditioned to conceive all time as being played in this manner.

There are many aspects of childhood musical training we bring into adult musical behavior that, although practical for the young musician, become impractical for the adult jazz musician. The assumption that feeling jazz time is a matter of feeling time in quarter notes is one of them. (See article on Playing In Half-Time)

Quarter note time is unsophisticated and mechanical, what Dizzy calls “clock time.” Rhythmic syncopation is sophisticated and complex, what Dizzy defines as “human time.”

It was the African invention of syncopation that transformed western music into jazz. It was a rhythmic innovation. Yet, rhythmic syncopation, the musical element that makes jazz, jazz, is the least understood aspect of jazz music. Syncopation is the life blood of the music. It has magical qualities. Of all the inventions of the human mind none can be found comparable. Syncopation is a unique construct that allows individuals to be part of a group experience while at the same time retaining each participant’s individuality. In most group endeavors it is usually either one or the other, either part of a group with a consequent loss or individuality or the opposite, where one retains their individuality to the detriment of the total group experience. Only in jazz music, through the concept of rhythmic syncopation, do both successfully coexist. Syncopation will be discussed at greater length in the chapter on Jazz Rhythm where I’ll be quoting at length from Mike Longo’s book “How To Sight Read Jazz And Other Syncopated Type Rhythms.” (Only $14.95, catalogue # 1005, 1-880-232-6796 or send a check or money order to: Consolidated Artists, 290 Riverside Drive, Suite 11-D, New York, NY 10025 or on-line at: Another must is Mike’s interview with Dizzy. Only $6.00 and it is revelatory!

I learned syncopation at the feet of the masters, by playing with them, hearing how it should go night after night, doing my best to emulate it. Until I discovered Mike’s book, I had been depressing my classes, advising them of the challenge they face trying to learn jazz rhythm. That the only way they could learn it was the same way I did, through experience. Unfortunately for them, the masters I learned it from are dead and, because of the demise of the apprenticeship system, their disciples are not in a position to pass it on to them by the oral tradition. But there is hope. In this book, Mike has preserved the rhythmic legacy of Dizzy Gillespie and found an effective method to pass this legacy on.

I had the good fortune to spend a week with Dizzy when he was a guest artist with the Phil Woods Quintet in the 80’s. I was never the same after that week. All Dizzy talked about for that week was rhythm, rhythm, and more rhythm. When the inventor of the music puts so much emphasis on one particular aspect of jazz, I got the point, that jazz is, at root, a rhythmic invention. If you don’t understand the rhythm you don’t understand the music.

Mike Longo’s book is a must for everyone who pretends to become a jazz player. It should be on every jazz musician’s book shelf and a part of every jazz department’s curriculum!

Physical Control

Musicians are athletes of the fine muscles. Controlling finger actions, lip actions, breathing actions, all require the development and control of the fine (smallest) muscles. Excess body motion during has a disastrous effect upon your control of these muscles. The goal of a performer is to be physically “quiet.” Take a look at some of the videos of the masters performing. Notice how little they move. (At this point someone usually brings up the case of Keith Jarret. Well, when you can play like him you can move like him!) The point being, you don’t hear “the body” in the master’s playing. Overuse of the larger muscles slows your reaction times and makes your playing “heavy.” (see the article Stage Fright, Relaxation and Energy )

Emotional Control

Rather than repeat myself on this subject see the article Stage Fright, Relaxation and Energy


The ability to improvise is a natural built-in human process. We do it, intuitively, all the time, mostly without thinking about it. At it’s most basic level it is problem solving and so is jazz improvising.

Predictable and Unpredictable Elements

All art is the projection of an illusion created by the artist. Journalist Gene Lees quoted his first painting teacher as saying “Art is a process of elimination.” For a music that is learned through listening and imitation, this creates certain problems for the student of jazz as 90% of what is going on in a performance is not being played, is being hidden from the listener. One of the illusions that jazz musicians create is that of “space.” There is no such thing as space, only the illusion of space, created by the player leaving out most of what can be played. The use and control of space must be as organic as the use and control of the musical sounds that occur within that space.

In any improvised event there are organizing factors that give the event form and content. In jazz it could be anything from one note (a pedal tone) to a scale (a mode) or a set of structured harmonies (chord changes) that must be used. What ever the organizing factors are they are predictable, mutually agreed upon by the group and hidden from the listener. The commonly heard question “How Do They Know Where They Are?” is a prefect example of this process. The group knows where they are because they utilize the agreed-upon common factors that organize the music. The listener doesn’t know where we are because to show these factors to the audience would destroy the illusion that we are making it all up on the spot. Musicians spend the most part of their student years learning how to internalize and use these predictable elements on an intuitive level.

The predictable elements may vary in number and complexity. For the most part they fall into four categories: Rhythm, Harmony, Melody and Form. These elements are internalized by each performer and are used as guides by each individual player. The internalized elements repeat in a continuous flow of rhythmic, harmonic, melodic and form information that are utilized for content and inspiration. Because of their predictability, these elements allow performers to know where they are at any particular moment, and can be used to understand what may be coming up in the future.

From this point of view, the growth in sophistication of jazz music from it’s inception to it’s current state could be defined by it’s continuous modification in the degree by which it’s organizing elements are not being articulated during performance. By how much of these elements are not played but left out! This is confirmed by the above Dizzy quote.

Mathematics and Elegance.

Mathematics and music are intimately related. Mathematicians use the term “elegance” to describe the beauty of a mathematical formula that is basically simple but has infinite possibilities for complexity. If an idea or concept appears complex, one is looking at the results of it’s potential for complexity not it’s basically “elegant” simplicity. In other words, if an idea appears complex, you’re looking at it wrong. To understand any complex process it must be reduced to it’s most simple and elegant form. To the student, jazz improvising appears complex and hard to do. The truth is, one can’t play unless the processes used are simple and easy to use. Can’t have fun if it’s hard to do. The reader may have never been told this but playing must be easy to do it well.

Internal flows of musical information are another additional set of basic performance tools we take to the bandstand. these being the basic elements of melody, harmony and rhythm.

Douglas Hoffstader, in his Pulitzer prize-winning book “Godel, Esher and Bach,” unwittingly and between the lines, clarified how an improvised experience is organized. It is through the internalization of the predictable and semi-predictable elements of the theories of melody, harmony and rhythm. These elements are practiced until they become second nature. They are the organizing factors of an improvised event and as such are never played. Only the unpredictable elements of an improvised event are ever heard by its audience.

Not wanting to jump the gun on the theory of melodic improvisation, a short digression into that area might demonstrate this elegance.

Every chord has four basic chord-tone (for this discussion we will not consider the higher functions). ( See the section on Melody and Embellishment in my fothcoming book “Forward Motion).

Contrary to current improvisational pedagogy, improvising a melody is not a matter of synchronizing scales with their matching chord symbols. It is facilitated by utilizing the possibilities of guide-tone melodies that are inherent in the passage of a series of chords and their chord-tone from one to the next. What pianists generally describe as “voice leading.”

For example: If one bar of music contained a II-V series chords for two beats each, the chord-tone of each chord would fall on 1 & 3 of the bar. Any chord-tone of one chord can go to any chord-tone of the next creating 16 possibilities of chord-tone moving from one to the other. (A II-V-I can have over seventy possibilities of chord-tone motion!)

For example: The 3rd. of one chord can go the 5th of the next, to the 7th of the next to the root of the next. It is the possible combinations of these guide-tone melodies created by the simple device of a chord having four basic tones that gives the concept of melody its elegance. Any of the chord-tone may be connected to each other using any combination of the four components of tonal melody: Scales, Arpeggios, Chromatics and Intervals larger than a fourth.

(For the purpose of the following discussion we’ll use the format of the classic AABA song format in four/four.)

Meter: In this case, fixed at four quarter note beats per bar.. The development and expression of the potential unpredictable complexities (subdivisions, permutations, super-impositions) inherent in the meter are organized around this predictable element.

Melody: In this case fixed but subject to infinite possibilities of alterations.

Harmony: A fixed set of chords, predictable, simple and constant, repeating internally, chorus after chorus. Each containing four basic fixed chord-tone of which any chord tone can lead any of the four other chord-tone of a following chord with an infinite possibility of choices. (See the chapter on Forward Motion)

Form: For example: AABA, predictable, simple and constant, repeating internally, chorus after chorus. The improvisor, however, endeavors to disguise the form by playing through the form’s resolution points at the end of each section and chorus thereby superimposing other forms over the set form.

Though in essence elegantly simple, each individual element combined together increases the potential for complexity exponentially. If one played every possibility inherent in these elements you’d have cacophony. Consequently, through the training of one’s intuitive selection process, most of the possibilities are left out. What is eventually articulated on an instrument are the intuitively selected unpredictable choices one made while wending through the predictable elements of a song.

To be completely understood, the process of jazz improvising must be considered from both, the point of view of the individual improvisor as well as the improvisor as part a group event.

“It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you leave out” Dizzy Gillespie

Through practice and training all four predictable elements are molded into a combined flow of internal musical information. Graphically it might look something like this:

However one does not play every possibile element. The soloist strives to play as little of it as possible! In this case the graphic might look something like this: (The vertical Lines indicate elements that are actually being played)

When playing in a group situation, the above elements of each individual are synchronized by mutual agreement. (For example, when a player gets lost it means they’ve either lost the thread of their own internal information flow, their own internal components becoming unsynchronized within themselves, or they become unsynchronized in relation to the group’s flow of internal information.)

Notice that in the individual player, the flows of information have a horizontal aspect. Also note that when playing in a group the flows also take on a vertical aspect. These aspects might be best visualized by looking at an orchestral score. The staffs for each individual part move in a horizontal motion. When looking at the combined staffs of all the parts they take on their vertical aspect.

Each individual part is polyrhythmic and polyphonic within itself. In the group context the music takes on a polyrhythmic and polyphonic character as in a fugue. The best example of this is the manner in which Dixieland bands improvise as an ensemble.


Where does musical inspiration come from? Nothing mystical or romantic in the answer to that question.

Have you ever noticed how many ideas you have when playing along with a recording? It’s because the players are stimulating your musical imagination, inspiring you to play. However, when the record stops, so do your musical ideas.

One of the goals of practicing is to have established internally, uninterrupted flows of musical information(rhythm, melody, harmony and form). These information flows eventually become the internal resources from which the improvisor derives musical ideas. If you run out of ideas while playing, it means that these internal resources have gaps in them.

In the truest sense, one of the improvisor’s goals is to internalize their own recording from which to draw musical ideas!

When the point in your musical self-education arrives that you have developed vivid hearing (a strong brain-to-hand signal), the tendency will be to play everything you hear. You become, for lack of a better word “notey,” without phraseology. Notey players are those who didn’t take playing by ear to the next level, hearing everything but playing as little of what you hear as possible. It is human nature that, when you’ve worked hard to achieve a certain goal, it is rewarding to want to keep on doing it. However, there’s an old truism that is applicable to this problem: “Everything you learn has the potential to become a trap.” The key to avoiding this trap is to know when to cut something loose, to stop working on it.


To achieve a level of phraseology you have to practice breaking up what your ear is telling you what to do.


The solution to being notey is to then begin to stop thinking melodically and begin thinking only rythmically. One of the traps of contemporary education is to overly focus on the melodic aspects of improvising. You can test this deficiency by singing only the rhythms to the melody of Bird’s “Confirmation” in a monotone. Without notes. Try it with other bebop heads as well. You may encounter difficulty in doing so. You’ll then see how well you know them.


However, that melodic work is not wasted, it needs to be used in a different way than it was learned. Which brings up another truism: “Everything is learned one way, then used in another way.”


Dizzy once said: “I think of a rhythm first, then add a note to it.”


An improvisor can begin to change the way they hear by thinking solely in a syncopated manner. A practical way to learn how to syncopate is to take the rhythms of as many of the bebop heads you know and try applying them to other tunes like “Autumn Leaves“ or Stella By Starlight.” You’ll notice what I consider one of the most important lessons you’ll have to learn: that the rhythms pick the right notes out from your internal flow of melodic information!



When new musical information is acquired, it affects and alters old information. The old information is still there but in an altered state. As children we have to learn the basics of quarter-note time and where the notes are on the instrument. As we grow musically, the newer information is “layered” upon the old and changes it. For this reason, adult practicing should not be linear, as if certain musical aspects have to be developed before you can go on to others. Don’t practice when your bored! You won’t learn anything. Concentrating your efforts too long on any one particular musical aspect will create boredom. Skip around from one concept to another. It doesn’t make any difference what you practice, there is no particular order in which to practice musical ideas. Although we talk about the different aspects of music in a separate manner, internally, everything is connected together! When you improve in one area, it affects all the others, globally. You improve in all other areas as well.


As case in point from my own personal experience:


In the fifteen year period before I joined the Phil Woods band, I had been focussed on developing my pentatonic playing. However, I was born into the post-bop era. All my models were beboppers. I wanted to play bebop and worked hard for decades to do so. But hadn’t been playing it for those fifteen years before I joined Phil’s group.


If there ever was a bebop band it was Phil’s. When I first joined them, I was still into my pentatonic playing and I could hear that I wasn’t fitting in to the band’s musical style.


One night, before a concert at The Bottom Line, I was sitting at my kitchen table, ruminating over this particular problem. I realized that I had been approaching the bandstand with a preconception (playing pentatonics) of how I was going to play. Taking preconception to the bandstand is part of the self-teaching process but it must be kept under control. However, there’s a time to be working on your new stuff and a time not to. I had learned a lesson a long time before this, that, one should never approach the bandstand with preconceptions. It lowers your creative abilities. Kind of puts you into a conceptual box. The most successful creative attitude to apply is “what comes is what’s happening.”


So, I’m sitting at the table and I said to my self; okay, tonight, I’m just going on the bandstand with no idea what-so-ever of what I’m going to play. I’m just going to push those little black and white things up and down and see what happens.


Much to my surprise, when I started playing, all my old bebop influence came out. The revelatory thing about this was—my bebop playing had improved as if I had been playing it for those last 15 years!


I rest my case.



Learning how to become a jazz improvisor is a life-long task. There isn’t enough time in life to practice everything. You’ll always miss something and have to go back and learn it. It takes dedication and patience and you’re never done with the process. There are also not enough opportunities to gain bandstand experience playing with you betters. It’s a battle that is constant.


Pianist/mentor Jaki Byard, once offered me a peace of Castenada-like advice when I told him I was thinking of making my first trip to New York City. I think it applies: “Hal, get your shield and your spear and go to there.”