On Musical Expression and Playing Freely
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.