Making Things Up
I’m sitting down to write about the practice of practicing after a long hiatus in which I mostly…played! It’s been wonderful to get out of the practice room and (carefully) attend in-person music events: jams, gigs, camps, festivals and performances.
My beautiful routine of writing and practicing has been upended for at least a year, but I am inspired by many ideas and people lately and I promise to write about them more often!
Here’s a thought for today:
Many of us would love to be able to play music with variations. You may hear a great player adding ornaments, changing the melody by a few notes, adding harmony notes, or changing the chord progression. I don’t want to scare anyone by calling this “improvisation” — even though that’s what it is.
Improvisation sounds like something made up out of thin air. Having studied jazz piano for over 10 years, I can confidently report that there is truth here, but that improvisation is also based on focused practice of a certain set of skills. Improvisation (whether it’s three notes or three minutes of free jazz) represents maybe the coolest aspect of our musicality, where we fuse and funnel the left-brain rational effort and directed thought with the right-brain access to the limitless well of creative energies. Yes, improvisation is made up out of thin air. And it’s also not.
I once asked the great pianist André Previn how it was that he was able to play at such a high level in both classical music and jazz. Did he have to practice differently? He said, “I approach them exactly the same way.”*
Another idea I often think about is attributed to jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker. A friend took a workshop in which Brecker said, (and I’m paraphrasing,) “Practice your scales, your licks, your ideas, but don’t worry about trying to force them into your playing. When the time is right, they’ll show up.”
If you’re champing at the bit to be able to insert a personal element into your playing, you need to find a way to work that into your practicing. Just spend a little time on it every day for six weeks, or here and there for a while. Then when you’re on the spot, playing with others, don’t give it any concern. Just play the music as it comes from your heart. Let it happen in its own time.
Put It into Practice
If you’re looking for ways to work on practicing variations, alternate versions, or improvisation, here are a few places in Best Practice where you’ll find specific techniques:
106 — Wild Takes
130 — The Dotted Quarter Swap
134 — Free Play
41 — Simplifying a Tune
50 — Sing
151 — How Does It Really Go?
153 — Checkerboard
*I thought I was such a genius for asking this question. It turned out numerous interviewers had asked the same thing, and Previn responded the same way every time.
Judy Minot is a musician and the author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.
Judy has played and practiced piano since she could reach the keys, training in classical playing until age 16. She now plays traditional music in various settings on a number of instruments, and gives workshops and classes on Best Practice ideas all over the U.S. and virtually.
Judy spent her working life in broadcast television and digital marketing. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the martial art of Kokikai Aikido.
For more information visit: www.judyminot.com/bestpractice
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