How many times have you heard musicians lament, “If I could only play what I’m hearing in my head I’d be amazing.” It is a common theme amongst improvising musicians, and one that has a concrete solution. The question is not if you can play what you hear, but whether or not you have the time and patience to bring what you hear into being. Sound like a bunch of existential malarkey? Not at all…
Don’t Let Your Fingers Do the Talking
Many musicians build their musical vocabulary using the trial and error method. We put our hands on the instrument and…go! While this certainly has its place in the creative process, it’s not necessarily the best way to develop meaningful ideas. Our fingers will generally find the path of least resistance, especially in the early stages of learning an instrument or style when the time spent playing isn’t balanced out with an equal or greater amount of listening, (more on this later). We find comfortable pathways to move around the instrument, which are then reinforced by repetition. This can lead to extremely bad habits, especially if what’s being reinforced isn’t musical or includes poor technique.
So how do we minimize the role of the fingers in creating vocabulary, and maximize what’s going on in our heads? It’s a matter of training your fingers to play what you hear, and not hearing only what your fingers already know how to do.
Steady and Slow…Really, Really Slow…Wins the Race
When we are performing, we don’t have the luxury of slowing things down for a difficult section, or backing up to take another pass at that lick we just flubbed. Music in an art form that is expressed through time, and to some extent must be practiced in time. Practicing with a metronome or drum machine is essential in developing good time and feel, especially if you make it as challenging as possible, (see Tyler Mansfield’s article on this site). But that is how we practice vocabulary, not how we build it.
Slowing the process down to zero on the metronome levels the playing field considerably when it comes to the creative process. At this tempo, anything you can imagine playing on your instrument becomes immediately possible…you just have to put the time into creating it. With no tempo restrictions, we can thoughtfully compose superb solos, licks, concepts, and techniques, which then become the foundation of our practice. It can be very time consuming, and depending on how much virtuosity you are writing into your practice it may take many months or even years to fully realize what you are working on. However, in the final analysis you will achieve your goals much faster, eliminate countless hours of wasted practice time, and create music that is yours. There is nothing that resonates stronger in our playing than that which we have created for ourselves.