By Hal Galper

Jazz Educators Journal March 1995

Many students of an intermediate to advanced level have been struggling with the challange of being jazz improvisors for some time. They and their teachers may be frustrated with incremental growth: improvement in performance levels that takes many years of applied effort to “internalize. The subjects under study are generally intellectual and “informational” in nature: the instrument, mechanical techniques, the external processes of theory, interpreting notation, repertoire, and more. Radical growth is also necessary: improvement that is rapid and “sweeping’ in nature. The areas under study are in the realm of states-of-mind (“attitude”) and are internal in nature.

 The techniques for improvement I describe in this article are based on the latest scientific information available about the nervous system, group and individual psychology, behaviorism, neural linguistic programming, psycho-acoustics and anecdotal consensus. They have been proven by their successful application in practice. Both students and teachers can benefit from a clearer understanding of these principles and their applications. I do not intend to de-emphasize incremental work that is an integral part of the learning process; rather, I wish to make a distinction in those areas of the learning process where this radical approach can be applied.


One achieves radical growth through behavioral analysis and modification: once you have identified inappropriate behaviors, you correct the related inappropriate attitudes, conceptions, and perceptions about learning and performing. At this intermediate to advanced level, it is assumed that no one is hurting a student’s performance but the student. The teacher’s function is to get that student “out of the way” of him or herself. By supporting a students belief system-the assumption that most learning and playing problems are not external butinternal in nature-teachers can effect sweeping, radical change in their students. The “what” of things (information) becomes less the focus than the “how” of things (attitude). As mentioned in my previous article, “Stagefright and Relaxation” (IAJE Journal, Fall 1989), this behaviorist theory holds that “‘attitude precedes action,’ … all actions are expressions of attitudes; and in order to change one’s behavior, one must first change one’s attitude.”

 Students’ problems are generally universal. When a teacher recognizes some source of a student’s difficulties as fairly common, the student is apt to state, “I felt that was the cuase but couldn’t put it into words.” This suggests that most students have feelings about their playing problems that they recognize on a sense level but cannot identify. They hold a negative self-image that they are “mere students” and don’t give themselves credit for knowing what is right or wrong with their playing! Suffering from this lack of self-confidence, they second-guess their own opinions. Yet when a teacher correctly verbalizes these intuitive feelings for them, this “rings true” with the student and has a permanent impact on a learned experience.

 According to current scientific theory, one acquires a learned experience when a physical change has occurred within the brain: the creation of a new connection (“dendrite”) between neural pathways. Thus permanently and physically altered, the student departs from the learning environment not the same person he or she was upon entering! An experience learned in this way immediately alters behavior and is never forgotten. Again, this result can be achieved by accurate analysis of a students’ state of mind.


If one accepts the above-mentioned behaviorist theory, then a student’s behavior has a direct, one-to-one relationship with what is going on in his or her mind. A teacher can thus learn to listen to a student, analyse their musical behavior, and work backwards from that analysis to a profound understanding of the student’s inappropriate mental attitude and behavior. There is no hiding-everything is observable. The teacher can then make suggestions that will alter behavior positively.

 Space limitations preclude a complete listing here of problem analysis and solutions; however, a varied sample will suffice to demonstrate the process.

 PROBLEM: The student has trouble practicing.

 Analysis: Analyze the students attitude toward practicing. Quite often, child-like student attitudes-mindless repetition, linear thinking, and/or an authoritarian teacher-student relationship-are unknowingly carried over into adult practicing. While perhaps appropriate for the earlier time, such approaches become inappropriate for adult practicing and are non-productive. For example, an internalized image of an authority figure based on early teachers may lead a student to rebel against that image, causing difficulty in adhering to a practice format. Then, feeling constrained, bored, and guilty for not practicing as recommended, he or she may suffer from low self-esteem and adopt negative attitudes toward practicing. Any person’s negative attitude toward self and music is non-productive: the teacher must examine the cause and turn the attitude around to the positive.

 Solution: Make such students aware of their internalized attitudes; encourage them to realize that the authority figure is outmoded and no longer exists. Have them verbalize what they perceive as their problems. Make them understand they are now their own authority figures: they are in conrol of what and when to practice. Suggest that they know their problems better than anyone else and are in the best position to tailor their practicing to their own needs, creating their own solutions. Students can then substitute their own motivation and intuitive sense of what they need to work on in place of boring and constraining practice regimens. By changing students’ motivation for practicing from being disciplined-based to to interest-based, they will help them grow musically in all other areas as well. The operative philosophy should be “Practice only what you like!”

 This is not to suggest that they should repeat already-accomplished subjects they enjoy playing. Focus on subjects chosen by taste, intuition, and self-interest. As tastes change and grow from year to year, so will the subjects selected by the student, mitigating any concerns the teacher may have regarding being thorough. Practicing is not a matter of imposing one’s “will” over the instrument or music but one of solving the mystery of “how and what do I want to play.” Practicing in this manner becomes more an exciting process of self-discovery than one of discipline.

 Encourage a creative, non-linear, non-goal-oriented approach toward practicing-along with the caution that one should never practice when bored. Only concentrated practice achieves results!

PROBLEM: Compulsive eighth-note playing shows the student cannot phrase or leave space: there is a “forced” quality to their playing.

Analysis: These students have reached a mid-point in their studies where they have worked very hard and achieved a level of expertise wherein they can hear an internal, steady eighth-note line and can articulate most of what they hear. This is because they have achieved the mid-point goal of all practicing: the development of a strong brain-signal-to-hand-response. At this point in their careers, such students actually will have difficulty not playing.

Teachers must move them past this stage to a new understanding: they must first hear everything, be able to play everything they hear, and then play as little of what they hear as possible. The admonition “less is more” is applicable here. Miles Davis was once quoted as saying, “never finish and idea; let the rhythtm section finish it.” Since most students practice “finished” ideas, they have difficulty in sensing the end of a phrase when improvising.

It’s also human nature to want to enjoy the fruits of labor as a reward for hard work well done. Consequently, one keeps on repeating the achievement (the ability to hear and play busier and extended ideas) as a form of immediate self-gratification.

Solution: Compliment these students on their achievement! This is a positive development which has put them in a position to go on to higher levels. However, explain your analysis: they are settling for less by accepting the rewards of immediate self-gratification, actually denying themselves any further growth toward acquiring the ability to phrase.

Ask your students: “Have you ever noticed how many ideas you have when playing along with someone else’s recording?” They should then understand that they already have their own internal resource for musical ideas. Encourage them to be selective in playing ideas based on this “internal record”- as opposed to trying to play everything they hear. Communicate to them that space is an illusion created by the performer: there is always something going on in space that is not being articulated; and that space is controlled by thinking an internal melody or rhythm in that space. Students who understand this will immediately be more spontaneous, playful, and relaxed. They will be relieved now that you have lifted from them the misplaced burden of playing everything they hear.

If students’ “internal clock” is based on the “swing beats” of a 4/4 bar (two and four) or even quarter-note time, compulsive playing can also result. Watch their body motion for excess physical movement-or if they tap their foot or nod their head on swing beats. An explanation and demonstration of playing in “half time” will solve this problem. (See my article “Playing in Half Time”).

Also check to see if students have fears of getting lost or losing momentum if they stop playing. While the student improvises on a given tune, cue him or here to “stop articulating” (but keep hearing internally) ideas while the tune proceeds. Expand these pauses to longer periods of time than the student is used to, getting them more and more comfortable with not responding to every internal signal.

PROBLEM: The student rushes the beat, over-articulates the eighth-notes, or emphasizes them by playing “loud-soft, loud-soft.”

Analysis: This as another holdover from childhood practicing techniques. Teachers of beginners by necessity focus their students’ attention toward achieving clean attacks. This tacitly creates the belief that one achieves the articulation of notes in time by controlling a series of attacks. However, the beginning of a note is only a nano-second long-too short a rhythmic event for the mind to grasp and successfully control. So the student compensates for the inevitable lack of rhythmic security this approach to articulation promotes and thus “pushes’ the beat.

The “loud-soft” articulation comes from the students’ desire to achieve the “hop” they perceive as contributing to the swing of a melody. This attempt is usually habitual and uncontrolled. Their lines do not achieve this “hop” because their melodies are not “spelling out” the chord changes by synchronizing chord tones with downbeats and non-chord tones with upbeats. This technique of “Forward Motion” creates the natural “hop” they sense their lines should have. ( See my series of articles on “Forward Motion.)

Solution: Explain that there is more to a note than just the beginning of it. The focus should be upon what is going on in between the beginning and the end of a note: on duration not attack. There are only two things that can occur in the middle of a note: space or tone. Focusing on duration tends to “grab” the beat, making a melody more rhthymic. The adage “the music is in between the notes” applies in this instance!

Have them try to articulate a melodic fragment using five, discretely different durations (ranging from extremely legato to staccato)-a different duration each time the fragment is repeated. (See Example 1.) To develop control over each of the five durations, request they solo at length using just one of the five at a time.


Once such a student develops some control, the next step is to mix durations on a repeated fragment-then trying to mix on a variety of fragments. (Example 2.) This process makes students aware that the duration and end of a note can be as rhythmic, if not more so, than the beginning of a note. Another way of illustrating a mix of lengths might be listing a matrix of all the combinations of “long-short” articulations one could apply to eight eighth notes, as in a “be-bop” scale (Example 3), then employing a mixed selection from that list.


This same technique should also be applied to variations in volume: have students articulate a melodic fragment using five different levels of volume (ranging from pianissimo to triple-forte)-a different level each time the fragment is repeated. (See Example 4.) Request they solo at length using just one of the five, then mix volume levels on a repeated fragment, then mixing at will.

By suggesting these exercises, teachers can demonstrate that students have been listening to music one-dimensionally: not perceiving these variations in articulation and dynamics that have been there all the time!

Students should also understand the difference between “playing good time” (stating the beat) and “playing with good time”(floating over the beat). Making no judgement as to which is better, ask them if they are aware of the way they want to play time: one way or the other. Some musicians have an instinct to articulate their melodic ideas at one particular place on the beat to create for themselves a sense of rhythmic security, i.e., their rhythmic “center.” These musicians (for example Sonny Stitt) can be said to “play good time.” Others have an instinct to subdivide the beat by articulating their melodic ideas in relation to their rhythmic “center” by making fine subdivisions of the beat. These musicians (for example Sonny Rollins) can be said to “play with good time.

Students who are not aware of this latter instinct in subdividing will feel constrained by attempting to articulate at only one place on the beat and may assume they have bad time. Those who try to float over the beat and feel uncomfortable may also come to the same mistaken assumption. Assure them that they probably have excellent time but are trying to do something that is unnatural to them. Suggest that they let go and stop trying to play at just one place on the beat, letting the melodic line fall wherever they feel it is comfortable for them. Only in this way will they gain the confidence to be accurate subdividers.

PROBLEM: Some beginning improvisors have practiced diligently, achieve a good sound on their instruments while practicing, and have acquired the ability to play their eighth-note scales up to speed. Yet in a performance context thet tend to play short, over-articulated ideas (half and whole notes), they are unable to play their learned scales while the rhythm section is playing a compelling beat behind them, and their sound becomes “pinched” and doesn’t project.

Analysis: This problem occurs because such students are unaware of how quickly one must think while playing: not just the intellectual thinking that is involved with practicing, but the intuitive, “by ear” kind of thinking that performance demands. They incorrectly assume that the thought processes in practicing are directly applicable to the performance situation. Many students are not aware of their intuitive abilities and lack confidence in this area.

Solution: The beginning student should understand the different mentalities involved with practicing and performance: things are not used in the same way they are learned! Explain that the practicing mentality is an intellectual process that is too slow to use during performance, that the intuition and the ears can make musical decisions at a speed much faster than the intellect can. Often these decisions are so quick that the performer is unaware of their occurrence.

In order to create this awareness-and to give students an understanding and confidence in their ability to think intuitively-try the following experiment. Request such students play a mid-range long tone, with the metal of the horn “buzzing.” Point out and support the fact that they have the ability to play with a good sound and have demonstrated this ability to you and themselves. Next, ask the student to play (by ear) at a medium tempo with no accompaniment an eighth-note “be-bop” scale appropriate to D7 (D Mixolydian ascending and decending from root to root, with the added half-step between the flat seventh and the root), then a G7 and an F7 scale in the same manner. Once they have accomplished this, point out that they have the ability to play their scales in tempo and have demonstrated this ability to you and themselves.

Then ask them to play these scales in a performance context (with either a rhythm section or a play-a-long record). The Sonny Rollins tune “Pent-up House” is an excellent format for this experiment. Have them play the scales (as in Example 5) at a tempo at about a quarter note = 192.

Repeat this exercise for as many choruses as possible. Students will subjectively perceive this tempo as too fast to use their intellect and will be forced to use their ears and intuition to accomplish this task-do not let them stop! If they appear frustrated, encourage them that they can accomplish this challange, that mistakes are OK and not a reason to interrupt. If they lose their place, call out the scale roots at the next change in the tune and encourage them to jump in again. Remind them to play with the good sound they know they have.

Students should then divide the scales into consecutive, four note Mixolydian scale groups (without the “be-bop” half-steps) and play these (by ear) ascending and descending in tempo without the rhythm section. They can then play these groupings (by ear) over the rhythm accomaniment in any order at the same tempo. (Examples 6 & 7.) Again, remind them that mistakes are OK!Finally, the students should play with the rhythm section without thinking of the exercises-just moving their fingers at will in an eighth-note manner. At this point, the student will perceive the subjective reality of the speed at which an improvisor has to think intuitively! This accomplishment will give students confidence in their ability to play by ear. (Note that our goal here is not to promote the mindless rambling of ideas but rather to provide an unconfident and less-experienced player the realization of what is yet required as well as the confidence in his or her existing skills.)

An Expansive Opportunity

Many more instances where behavior modification can be applied exist. I hope that these examples will lead to an additional and helpful mind-set for many teachers and students. By adopting the corrective approach and developing the ability to perceive and analyse problems in the manner described above, teachers can enjoy an more organic involvement in the rapid growth of their students.