Some thoughts on improvising and practicing, by way of the late great Howard Roberts
July 8, 2011

Written by Doug Perkins

One of the things I have been doing lately is helping to plan the reunion of the original Musician’s Institute students and teachers (‘77-‘94) in Hollywood in March of 2012. In doing so, we put up a FaceBook group and people from all around the world have been posting really interesting things. One was a scan of a page written by the late (and extremely great) Howard Roberts, one of the schools founders and one of the few real genius’ I have met in my life. They are his thoughts on the process of improvisation and have mounds of nuggets to chew over when you think about your own playing, see what you think:

“It should be clearly understood at the outset, that the art of improvising is a continuous life study, just as with ear training one cannot reasonably expect to read a book, attend a class, etc., and walk away with the ability to improvise satisfactorily. The principles of improvisation are not complex. To the contrary, these principles embody the use of simple but very specific musical devices, (e.g. scales, intervals, arpeggios, a small collection of licks, etc.) all of which could be compared conceptually to a hammer, saw, nails and boards. Complexity comes from compounding the simple. This may mean that in the beginning of your studies that you have not yet acquired enough of the basic tools to play what would be to you, impressive solos. Do not be intimidated into covering this up with flurries of fast notes, etc., if your available knowledge is limited in a way that could create empty places in your solo. This is just fine, silence is golden, and such silence nicely underlines the specific area of knowledge, thus outlining the work to be done.”

It’s hard to pick out one particular concept there, but this one really stood out to me: “Complexity comes from compounding the simple.”  I’ve always said that I’ve never seen anyone do anything hard to do on the guitar, they just do very easy things very, very well. Whenever student brought in something they said was very hard to play, invariably I would find that they were trying to play it in a way that WAS hard to play, but I could hear that this was NOT how the musician they learned it from played it – they did it a very easy way, but usually the student didn’t yet have the fret board knowledge to be able to find alternative fingerings or pickings to make it playable for them.

But the point Howard is making here is that, like things that seem physically hard to do but are actually simple movements done efficiently and accurately without mistakes, a great improvised solo is made up of a lot of building blocks that are in and of themselves very simple. Yes, the whole in it’s structure is impressive and maybe intimidating when we think about trying to do it ourselves, but I’m sure all of us have had the experience of listening to the playback of something that we’d recorded long enough back in time to have forgotten and heard friends ooh and ahh in wonder, and we are actually sort of impressed ourselves because enough time had passed where we are able to hear it close to the way a first time listener hears it as well. We don’t remember how we felt at the time, if we were nervous or there was a player on the date that was intimidating to us, we just hear the end result. When we start to listen analytically, we can probably hear the building block licks, ideas, etc, and we’ll say, “oh, that’s just this or that”, but in reality that is all any solo really is, simple things that hopefully make sense going together.

Someone told me about a musician they knew whose I can’t remember who was touring with Michael Brecker and was on a plane with him and having an insecure moment and saying to the late great master of the saxophone,  “Sometimes I feel like all I am doing is putting together licks”, when Brecker shocked him by saying “That’s it – that’s exactly what I do!”. Does that mean that Brecker did nothing in the moment completely off his ear? Not at all, but most of his licks he made up were from things he heard as he was practicing and as such they were likely to come into his ear / head again – that’s a lot of the pint of practicing licks in the first place. At least to Brecker, his licks were all made up of simple easy to remember concepts and phrases just lick everyone else’s.

One of the things that I try to do when I am improvising is  – believe it or not – not try to play too good. That might sound crazy, but I have learned that my natural tendency is towards the complex anyways, so if I don’t try to push myself I will not get in the way of what my mind will naturally come up with. When I do push too hard I will probably damage the musicality of the solo, so I’ve learned to recognize that “you’re dancing on the edge” feeling and pull back to something simpler at that point.

So all this is to say that it’s important to not look at improvisation as being “hard to do”, because that can psych us out from doing it to the natural best of our abilities. Slow down, practice perfection and not mistakes, let things come naturally, and always remember that tomorrow is another opportunity for improvement, if we will just believe in our gifts enough to go back again tomorrow and try again. Learn to enjoy the process of learning and don’t save that enjoyment for the end result performances ,and that enjoyment will start to always come out every time you play.

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