Inspiration vs. Intellect in Improvisation

Hearing vs. Seeing – Trusting Your Ear

After a standing ovation concert with Clifton Anderson’s Quintet in Schenectady, NY the band went back to the hotel to have some food, drink and cool off before the evening was done. A friend of Clifton was asking saxophonist, Eric Wyatt, and myself questions about how to learn jazz and improvisation.

It made me think about some the biggest challenges I went through and what my students have to go through to be able to get a handle on the experience of jazz improvisation. I’ve noticed that when we go to school almost everything we’re taught relies on memorizing something or seeing something. In math, writing, science, reading, history, etc. almost all the information input is originally presented as visual (funny enough except for foreign language and even that is 90% visual at the beginning – looking at words, reading them and writing them out). I experienced as a teacher (bass teacher, band director, or teaching workshops) that most of my students had almost a complete disconnection with being open to sound as a way of learning something or as a reliable information input.

So the biggest challenge for the student learning jazz improvisation is how do you get to opening up more of your ear and trusting yourself with what you are hearing? You can learn all the scales and chords you want but at the end of the day that’s only the mechanics, that’s not the music. The most important part of the music is what you can’t see, what you can’t write out. Even if you write out the notes you can only approximate how that particular passage is played. Even with the all the correct notes on paper the “right notes” are only about 25% of the music that you’re trying to make with those notes.

I’ll never forget the moment I learned to stop thinking and just trust my ear. I was at a period where I was practicing about 2-4 hours a day depending on the day in addition to performing and going to music school. I was playing all the right notes but I wasn’t really making any music yet. One Sunday afternoon I was on a church concert with a jazz quartet. The bandleader, saxophonist Leonard Hochman, was known in the Boston area (I was at Berklee College of Music at the time). We had rehearsed the music earlier that week and everything in the concert was going well and smoothly. Then near the end of the concert we played an original composition that Lennie had recently written. The chart (sheet music) was a little hard to follow and the piece was new so we barely knew it. Somehow at end of the saxophone solo I got totally lost trying to read the chart and I didn’t know where we were. Then the bandleader turned around and said “bass solo”.

I freaked. But of course taking the advice of the old deodorant commercials –  “Never let them see you sweat”. It was a sold out concert with about 150 people or more in attendance at the church and all eyes and ears we on me. I didn’t know where we were. And there was no backing out. The chart was useless to me at that point and the guitar player started to accompany my solo. I had to listen to my inner inspiration and to the guitar player to figure out what to do. I couldn’t stop, thinking about it wouldn’t have done anything, there was nothing on the paper to analyze or think – I didn’t know where we were. So it was the guitar player, me, a sold out house, and my inspiration – that was it. So I played. I don’t know what I played. I played what I heard for the first time because there was nothing visual to follow. At the end of the solo it got a huge applause.

We did one more song and the concert was over. I was totally embarrassed. Before I had a chance to apologize to the band, people were coming up to me and saying that bass solo was the best moment of the whole concert. One after the other, compliment after compliment, and even the band members were saying saying, “Wow, I’ve never heard you play like that. You outdid yourself!”. i admitted to the guitar player I was totally lost. He turned to me with a smile and said maybe I should do that more often.

Lucky for me the song was a ballad. As it turned out I had played it perfectly or at least I had covered my mistakes extremely well. That moment made me think. That was the first time I trusted my ear. My ear was so much better than what I would have played if I knew where I was. My ear was on a completely different level than what I was normally doing when I “knew” every note that I was playing. I took the guitar players advice. I tried to find more moments of going with the ear and not thinking. My playing completely opened up.

It’s a fine line because you still have to follow the music and play the “right notes” that go along with the music. But what happens is you get heightened inner instincts so you can “let go” more often. Over time music-making becomes an interplay of thinking and non-thinking/sound-only inspiration. The less you can think and still follow and be in the music the better. This takes time. This takes listening to a lot of recordings too. This takes bandstand experience. This takes letting go in the practice room too. I doesn’t happen overnight. But it can happen and little more every night and every day.

Trust your inner ear. Refine the “grey area” that you’re hearing in your head into the notes on your instrument. Always listen. Listen to recordings, listen to the other band members on the bandstand, and listen to yourself. That’s where the music is. It’s not on the paper. The paper can help but it can never really give you the music. And at the end of the day the audience responds to the music, not the notes 🙂

Keep listening and practicing!


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  1. What a wonderful journey! Thank you for sharing this experience Paul in such a personal and touching way, it made me think about listening and opening up all over again.

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