On Musical Expression and Playing Freely

Bass Face by melanie m

Photo by melanie m

Q: I’ve been wondering about what people really mean when they speak of “music as a language,” and how this applies to improvising. When I take a solo, I feel like I’m just running the same patterns over and over again and never really doing anything different from song to song. What thoughts do you have about this?

A: This is a topic I’ve long thought about.

I think that many of us don’t realize that there are steps to take beyond learning the building blocks of the musical language. I’m speaking primarily about speaking freely within the musical language… playing freely and with musical expression. The kind of playing that goes beyond just hitting the changes and nailing my favorite lick over a chord progression.

Much of what I’ve focused on has to do with internalizing the building blocks of this language. Chord tones, chord scales, learning licks and patterns that work over changes, etc. These are all akin to learning what it is to conjugate a verb, or how to use proper tense when speaking of something in the past as opposed to the future. I hadn’t really realized (for the longest time) that this was just the beginning with regard to real improvisation. Just because I’ve learned how to speak properly doesn’t mean that I have anything to really say. My mistake has been one of not thinking more deeply about music and what self expression is really about. I’ve gotten pretty good at navigating chord changes, reading charts, and so on, but I haven’t practiced playing freely and really letting go, musically speaking.

Maybe this sounds familiar.

There are times when we feel we can do no wrong. In fact, when we feel “in the zone”, we’ll even try to play things that shouldn’t work, but we can always hear how to turn it into something interesting. When this happens, we hardly have to think, our fingers seem to know what to do on their own. There are no “wrong” notes, and playing music becomes effortless.

This happens to me maybe a few times a year. The rest of the time, I’m doing mathematical algebra – playing patterns, playing licks and moving chord by chord from the head. It still sounds good but it lacks that special something. It’s the difference between enjoying someone’s company vs. being completely in love. There’s a magic that is hard to define, but you know exactly what it is and when it is or isn’t there.

What I’ve come to believe so far is that I haven’t spent enough time fearlessly exploring completely free expression and improvisation. That means playing freely and without constraint in an effort to explore where I exist within music, from moment to moment. This is likely also why many of the players that I love always seem to have either been self-taught or learned by ear. Some of us learn to play music from the inside (the sound of what we do and how it affects the sound we are a part of). Others learn it from the outside and work our way in (learning the rules and math of it all and then applying logic to our note choices). The masters have often fully explored both sides and can operate on many different levels.

I will stop students when I hear them commit to something that sounds “off” to my ears and ask them to explain why they played it. I often get an answer like, “well, it’s a dominant chord, so I thought the b7 would sound good there”. I’ll ask if they thought it sounded good “there”, and all too often they will say, “I don’t know. I guess. It should work, right?”.

I will sometimes explain why that note didn’t quite work on a technical level – i.e. “it was a strong resolution point and you played it too low in register for it not too clash”. But most of the time, I will start to turn the topic into one of listening to yourself within the context of the music objectively. Some of us don’t think to really listen to what we play and what it does to the music.

Always try to listen as a third party, as if you were in the audience. Imagine what you want to hear and then try to play from that perspective.

Doing this requires us to have many things internalized first. The more we are thinking, the less we can listen. But if we have the building blocks of language internalized, than we can put more attention towards what we are actually saying.

This thinking part is the problem that gets amplified in scholastic settings, I think. We get hammered with theory, analysis and transcriptions, and when it comes time to play, all we can think is: arpeggiate that chord, land on the 9 there, chromatically approach this chord, but let’s go for that substitution we’ve been working on… Okay, I’m playing too many chord tones… switch to a linear, scalar approach for a while… oops, I should’ve resolved that. Okay, try and turn that into a motif… move the pattern diatonically upwards and land on that #11, and so on.

This type of thinking is useful, but can by no means be the end of the story. It leads to solos and accompaniment that, while perfectly fine, often gets forgotten immediately after.

Personally, I aim to hit people in the chest with my groove and hit them in the heart with my melodies. I don’t care as much about hitting them in the brain. In order to do that, we need to operate from a place of oneness within the music and, to do that, we need to be very sensitive to it. We need to listen and react accordingly.

I’ve come to think of it as having a conversation with the song. When we play from the head, it’s almost like we are reading a speech. Even if it is a very good, well rehearsed speech, it will never have the same impact as it would if somebody really pays attention to where we are coming from and reacting according to the natural flow of our conversation. In order to play from the heart, we need to listen and react. We may start a line but decide to change direction because of a rhythm the drummer just played in place of just playing what we set out to regardless of what happened around us.

That is having a small conversation within the song. That is a small part of the magic.

Now, how do we shed playing art, not notes? Good question… let me know if you figure it out! I will say this, though: perception and perspective alone can have broad consequences with your music. Just simply try listening to music with a different ear. Try playing it and come from a different place. Let yourself go and react to things musically, whether or not you’re sure how it’s going to play out. We need to take risks, fall on our face once in a while, explore what worked and why, explore what didn’t work and why, and keep pushing our limits.

Play with an open heart and an open ear. Practice technique, practice scales, practice chords, and then practice just playing.

Practice space and phrasing.

Invent musical games where you have to react to something musically in a new way. Explore music with a childlike wonder and fearlessness. See what happens. You never know where it may lead.

But by all means, go for it.

Readers, I’d love to hear about your path to playing more freely. What’s worked for you? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Louis

    very good answer. Struck home with me.

  2. My drummer and i play “the game”. He’ll play a lick somewhere in a tune and next time around I’ll play it with him… or vise versa. Definitely fun to do in club settings or in the practice room just jamming. Could be a fill transitioning from verse to chorus or something as simple as accents here and there in a song. Plus… when the other person messes up it gives you bragging rights… till the next time haha.

  3. Henry

    I think one way I have sometimes achieved what you’re talking about here is to really try to focus on the music as a whole and not on your individual part. I am trying to get my brother/drummer to be more reactive when playing with other people. We have a little “game” where one of us starts with playing and the other one joins and we come up with some idea. Then we try to transition to a different idea, thus creating an A and B section. Then we just go back and forth between the two a few times with little changes, different dynamics, solos, etc. It makes for some fun jams.

  4. Dale bryan

    One of my favorite teachers was an old guitar player Sal Gentile (I think I spelled his name right, been awhile lol) said something that really stuck with me. “We’re teaching you all this scale and theory and such so you can forget it. We’re gonna open your skull, dump a bunch of shit in and you’re going to over think it. Always remember this is music, not math.” I try and think melodically when is solo with a breath here and there like a singer. I also try and put on some music I don’t normally play and solo over it. Great piece Damien!

  5. Great article Damian. One of the things I’ve found valuable with students (and seasoned players who haven’t soloed much) is the 2 fold approach. Learn the scales, chords, arpegios, etc., in all keys and all inversions to the point where they are second nature. Then listen to music – any and all. Then create some backing tracks from very easy to difficult. Listen to them and sing an improvised riff. And do this more and more. Then it will come down to – if you can sing it, you can play it (although in our case, we may be singing 1-2 octaves above the bass). The singing doesn’t have to be great – just relatively close to the pitch. After decades of trying every method for both students and myself, I’ve learned this way is probably the best overall.

  6. The ‘music as a language’ analogy has many levels to it. But it still gives all kinds of insight.

    The best verbal conversations have a certain amount of silence along with the dialogue. Also, many important verbal conversations don’t necessarily require a ton of vocabulary. This is a hard lesson to learn but it’s the truth and it rings true in music. Personally, it took me learning how to play 5,000 notes (for a musical context which doesn’t actually exist-SuperMegaFusionDeathCoreSalsa) to realize the power of one note.

    One thing you can do is record what you’re doing and trying to figure out what the verbal equivalent of your playing is. Are you a poet or an auctioneer? Are you the guy who tells the same jokes at a party or are you the person who just rolls with whatever folks are talking about and inserts humor spontaneously? These kinds of things can inform your playing and break you out of ruts.

    Another thing you can do is practice the thing that makes you just spit out the usual stuff…only don’t allow yourself to use any musical devices like that while practicing over it. For example, I used to really hate soloing over any kind of funk-fusion tune that’s around 130-145 bpm because it’s really easy to get into the trap of just playing tons and tons of 16th notes. (I blew many chances to communicate something of any artistic value this way) So I would practice grooves and soloing over that feel and only allow quarter notes and eighth notes. They could go over the bar line, happen on upbeats…but no division smaller than an 8th note was allowed. And sure enough, with some practice and some restraint it broke me out of the rut I was in.

    This is one of the most best topics to address because getting a handle on this stuff is what leads you on the path to finding your musical identity. Great question and a great response from Damian!

  7. Steve Carriere

    Lots of good stuff there, Damian. I’ve had this happen once in all the years I’ve been playing – at least at the level you seem to be talking about. I was playing a tenor sax solo in college while on tour at small town high schools – recruiting and all. Anyway, I was playing over some pretty basic changes, blues/rhythm something like that. Anyway, for some reason it was happening. We played through the form many times. at one point the director had the rhythm section quit so it was just me, then he added in bass, then everyone, and then the band for the shout at the end. I remember at one point getting scarred because I didn’t want to blow it. I was almost shaking by the time it was over. When we got on the bus, the director (and my sax teacher) said nice solo. That was about all you could get out of him. The rest of the band was a little more excited.

    I have had some “nice rides” since then, but that is probably “the one” for me.

  8. Dickie Ogden

    Hey Damian, when we were playing together, did I give you the book “The Inner Game of Tennis”? I have given it to many of my band mates over the years and your article reminded me to give it to my current band mates this holiday season as well. To me, it is mandatory reading for any musician and addresses exactly what you are talking about. There is also an “Inner Game of Music” but the original was the tennis book and that is the one I worship. Dig it. Rock on!

  9. Another thing to consider is writing songs. This will open your ears up to another level of playing. Writing a bass line for a song, improv or soloing on bass is great. Now try writing an entire song on bass or even learning other instruments if you feel so inclined, it will change your bass playing for the better I think. This will allow you to step out of your role and viewpoint of just the bass player.

  10. I do think that, more than anything, musical expression is my main goal for bass. To play freely and expressively, to where what I feel is what others hear, is what I want to do more than anything. I think the more “words” I add to my musical vocabulary, in terms of playing technically correctly and proficiently, the better I will be able to express myself until one day it will just click. How do we shed playing art, not notes? I think it will just click if you keep at it long enough.

  11. Partick R Nolan

    Articulate, inspiring, thoughtful and just plain fantastic. It is a breath of fresh air to read a response that is as objective as yours regarding a musical dilemma that is usually tackled subjectively by others. Seriously well done.

  12. Brian Weiss

    Great description of the process. I remember when I was about 10-12 years old my piano teacher telling me that I was playing the notes fantastically, now I needed to play them with feeling – and my little head nearly exploded. Lol. It’s interesting for me, as a musician, to see how my playing and approach vary between say the piano, which I was formally schooled on from the time I was about age 7 to 16, and the guitar, which I picked up on my own around age 12 and never had any formal training on. I always feel like I have to really work hard at breaking free of being mechanical on the piano, while with the guitar, it’s exactly like you described – it’s like having a conversation with the music and the players. The foundation definitely has to be there though, no matter what the instrument or style of music, or approach for that matter – and it has to be something that you don’t have to think about – and man, it just flows out near effortlessly sometimes. What’s even more spectacular is when you can groove with players that are all part of the same conversation, conversely, it’s never more frustrating than playing with guys who have no idae what you are talking about. But it’s ok, it takes time and practice to learn that repeating notes on a page is just scratching the surface of the limitless possibilities of creating music – I’ve had to realize that I have my own voice, musically, and if I really want my playing to touch people and become more than just notes strung together, that’s what I need to let loose.

  13. Exactly! Groove is in the heart!

  14. jake

    This was a well needed article. Something that refreshes your mind and how music should be played when you’re playing it not studied as you’re playing it.

  15. “hit them in the chest with my groove, and the heart with my melody.”