Here’s a tip for when you’re trying to improve your improvisation but you’re stuck: Learn to play like you’re moving through molasses.
How do we improvise? We try to hear something that will sound good and then we play it. Or, if our ears aren’t up to the task yet, we may try to think of something instead. Either way, the process of conceiving of an idea and executing is not instant. It may come to be extremely fast, but it still takes time, and the less familiar the idea is we are attempting, the more time it takes to realize.
What happens when we can’t figure out the idea in time, and the beats and the chords are forging ahead? One of these things:
- We play it late.
- We play it wrong.
- We ditch it and play something familiar instead.
To paraphrase an old saying:
… Pick any THREE.
The choice is pretty clear. If you practice the wrong notes or play with bad time, those things will never improve. So if you’re trying to get comfortable with new ideas, the only option is to give up the fast tempo. At first, anyhow. We can first achieve mastery at a slower tempo and gradually build up speed.
Slow it down
If you’re having trouble improvising at 160, bring it down to 100 instead. Or 60.
You’ve probably thought of that already. It’s pretty obvious.
But have you done it right?
Here’s the key: It has to sound weird when you do it. If not, you’re doing it wrong.
The whole point is to have extra time to conceive of what you want to play and to execute it. So you need to go after the same ideas at the slower tempo that you would want to play at the faster tempo. And that sounds strange. Because what’s idiomatic at a faster tempo is not idiomatic at a slower tempo.
Suppose you’re soloing over the blues and you’d like to be able to play something like this:
If you’re not succeeding, you might decide to try it slower, at 80.
What does a blues sound like at 80? Maybe something like this:
Here’s the problem:
- Example (B) isn’t just slower than (A) — it’s very different. The goal is to practice faster and faster until we can play (A)… but if we speed up (B) it won’t sound anything like (A).
- (B) is just as hard to play as (A). The decreased difficulty of the slower tempo is negated by the added complexity of the phrases… and then some. It’s got double time, looser phrasing, and any number of other things not present in (A).
It’s a safe bet that if you can’t play (A) you won’t fare any better at (B). And even if you could it wouldn’t prepare you well for playing (A).
So if you shoot for (B) you’ve taken the gift of more time and squandered it. It’s like someone who moves into a bigger house because he feels cramped… but winds up filling it up with unimportant stuff and being just as cramped as before.
What you need to do is to improvise at the slower tempo as though you were playing faster. It sounds very different—something like this:
Example (C) is nothing you would ever hear in an actual performance. But it is exactly what you should be practicing on your way to (A).
Why do we go astray when we play slow?
Nobody would knowingly shoot for (B) thinking it will someday turn into (A). The problem is that when we put the metronome at a slow tempo we automatically try to play something like (B) because that’s the kind of thing we’ve heard played at that tempo.
Get used to what (C) sounds like. Learn to listen with special ears that hear slow lines and understand them as though they were being played faster. It’s a whole weird idiom unto itself that you’ll never make use of except in the practice room. But if you can develop those “ears” you’ll avoid the pitfall of slipping into (B), and stay focused on the task of playing (C). At that point, all you have to do is keep practicing and increasing the tempo until (A) becomes natural.
We discover jazz superpowers when we make the world move in slow motion.
Breaking out of a rut
Do you ever reach a point where everything you play feels like the same old stuff? Slow motion jazz is the perfect antidote. If you can sound respectable soloing at 180, you might not realize how tapped your resources are at that tempo. Bring it down to 120 and a whole world of creativity may open up to you… as long as you play slow-mo and not idiomatic to the new tempo. Once you spend some time doing that, you have options: Either take some of the ideas you discover at the slower tempo and consciously apply them to a faster tempo… or just enjoy your new abilities at the slow tempo today and recommence a hair faster the next day.
Some Easier Examples
In the example above, I was using the “slow motion” technique to work on improvising eighth note lines. Improvising those requires a fair amount of prior experience—listening, transcribing, theory and the like. If you’re adequately prepared, eighth note lines are a perfect skill to tackle using the tool of slow motion improvising. But if you’re not, you can still apply the ideas to simpler tasks.
For starters, there are ways to create eighth note lines that don’t require as much experience. Here’s a chorus of eighth notes at 140 using just bebop scales. Not an improvisation per se, but it has the general feel of one, and requires a bit of some on-the-spot thinking to connect the scales.
And here’s a version in “slow motion” at 80, where an inexperienced player might have an easier time thinking through the scales and the connections.
Here’s an example that’s less systematic and uses more space.
First at 180:
… and then at 80:
Now go put on your slow-mo cap, zen out, and improvise some fast lines slowly. If a blues isn’t your level, try it over a two chord vamp… or over “Countdown”! See if you can stay enough in the right frame of mind that you’re not even tempted to play stuff that you would play at the slow tempo.
And let me know how it goes!