Reading Between the Dots

One of the commonest exercises in  jazz improvisation methods is the transposition exercise. You are given a lick or an arpeggio, usually in the key of C, and you are required to practice it in all twelve keys. The assumption is that this will help you aquire fluidity in all twelve keys. The problem is it doesn’t “work” for everyone. So let’s look at four students confronted by this exercise and see what’s happening…

Andrew takes one look at the exercise, “gets the idea” and turns the page in search of another exercise where the transpositions have been written out.

Barbara can sight-transpose chromatically, that is, she can mentally add or subtract a fixed chromatic interval (number of semitones) to or from the written note and play the exercise as if it wasn’t there.

Charles is a bit slower. He transposes by degree. Each note is identified as a certain degree of the written key. He then plays that degree of the target key. He is apt to falter when he sees an accidental.

Deirdre has invented her own method. From the written page she extrapolates the interval of each note change (up a minor third, down a fourth) and transposes by merely changing the starting note.

Ask any successful improviser (or better still, ask yourself!) which of those four students has “improvising talent”, and the answer should be obvious. Note that I haven’t said a word about ear training or playing by ear. Many classical musicians can hear frequency differences to within one Hertz and still can’t improvise. The only difference between A, B, C, and D was their approach to the exercise. What Deirdre nailed instinctively was to isolate the intervals that make up the melody.

Another student with a problem is Ernest. Ernest’s pet phrase is “Ah yes, but is it music?” Or “Is it valid?” He has lived so long worshipping musical geniuses, usually classical composers,  that he automatically assumes he is not authorised to play anything not written by them, let alone something not even written at all!

Most people have heard of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) which in the last forty years has become something of a proprietary cash cow for its initiates, and gets easily confused with Scientology as a result. Among other things, it goes about finding the shortest pathway to instilling (or installing) a skill or change of behaviour. One of the hardest things the jazz teacher has to confront is the student who has too much reading or muscular skill on his instrument and tries to adapt those already mastered skills to cracking the improv thing, instead of going back to square one to build a new skill. I call these the “classically chained”. Because we always prefer what “works for us”, one of the greatest obstacles to acquiring a new talent is having an analogous, hard won talent already!

MOVES exercises are written in intervallic notation in order to leave the player no choice but to replicate Deirdre’s approach, regardless of what level they may have attained with other musical skills. My Shortcut to Improvising Fluency is a workbook for all musicians, that makes sure you work on your melodic autonomy, or the ability to play what comes into your head with the ease of singing in the shower. Note that a “shortcut” is not a time warp or wormhole that gets you there in no time without effort. It is just the shortest path between point A (where you are) and point B (where you want to be). So if your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, don’t keep climbing. Get the Shortcut!

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

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About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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