Tag Archives: Kenny Werner

using improvisation to increase your self-confidence and tune in to your own musical voice

Improvisation can sometimes feel daunting, even to the best musicians. Questions like “where should I start?” or “is what I am playing any good?” are indeed uttered far too often, when in fact there is no right or wrong… Everyone is capable of improvising (we all do it in speech for example), but even so, blockages often remain when put on the spot in a musical situation that requires “in the moment” creativity. So how does one go about asserting her/himself musically?

Drop all forms of self-judgment and self-criticism

If you chose to walk the path of true freedom in music, you’ll quickly realize that most of the work is of a psychological nature rather than a musical one. Sure, it’s still a great idea to practice on a daily basis and by all means, I encourage you to do so! But instrumental technique should only be viewed as a means to expressing yourself, not as an ultimate goal: virtuosic display is only relevant when backed up with a good story, a message, earnest feeling and emotions… No one really wants to hear a continuous string of loud and fast notes void of meaning…

The good news is: regardless of your technical ability on your instrument, you can always channel that heartfelt storytelling into your music. Don’t judge yourself, play with conviction, and drop all self-criticism. Often, what might initially be a “mistake” can turn into a beautiful thing: in his book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch talks about how oysters eventually make pearls out of grains of sand that inadvertently fall into their shells…

Don’t try and play anything groundbreaking

I remember Greg Hopkins, professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music, telling the class something along these lines: “Don’t try to be original. Write what your hear and you will be original.” The same goes for improvisation, and the “less is more” approach is definitely recommended to begin with: simple ideas are often beautiful! Play few notes with strong time and feel and let the music come to you. The more virtuosic stuff will come naturally after a while if you stay humble and committed to playing what you actually hear (as opposed to running scales up, down, and sideways just because you theoretically know that they fit a given chord…)

Let’s have a look at a practical example: a seven note scale (such as the major scale) is sometimes too cumbersome for beginner improvisers to use, so breaking it up into two tetrachords (groups of four notes that usually span the interval of a fourth) can work wonders. Spend time exploring and internalizing each tetrachord (C to F and G to C in the case of the C major scale for instance). With four notes at your disposal, there is still a lot to do… Remember that your melodic motives can go up, down, or be a combination of both. Repeated notes are also an option. Generally speaking, being creative with the rhythm is a great starting point when the range of useable notes is limited. Experiment with different limitations and find your freedom within the boundaries that you set for yourself.

Establish rituals

In his book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within, jazz pianist Kenny Werner explains how to establish a direct connection from your true self to your instrument using four guided meditations (also available in audio format for convenience). I thoroughly recommend them as a ritual that will relax your body, calm your mind, and give your self-confidence a boost.

There are plenty of other things you can do on a daily basis to help you on the path to musical freedom, that don’t even require purchasing a book, or using any accessories or instruments. The great Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke emphasizes the importance of three themes in his Letters to a Young Poet: childhood, nature, and friendship. Spend time recalling places, events, and the emotions and feelings of your childhood in great detail. Improvisation is akin to child play… And for fresh inspiration, wander in nature and socialize with dear friends. I might also suggest regularly remembering your dreams and writing them down or sharing/discussing them with somebody (a person you can trust). All these activities will dramatically improve your creativity and general well-being.

In the end, it’s all about being open and having fun tapping into the great subconscious “pool” of musical ideas. Taming the ego and being able to let go of all preconceptions and expectations are crucial parts of the process. The journey can be a rough ride, but it is absolutely worth embarking on. True magic will happen along the way. You will no longer play the music… Become the instrument and let the music play you!

References

Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.
Werner, Kenny. Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet.


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using audio files as play-alongs with Audacity

Advantages of practicing to a loopable track

It goes without saying that the benefits of practicing really short passages of music, very slowly, and repeating them a great number of times, are prodigious (languages are also learnt more efficiently in that fashion). Imitation, repetition, and using an incremental process (starting out with a small bit of information and later adding other small bits, step by step) are key practice habits when it comes to your musical success.

These habits will help you “get into the zone,” or in other words will lull you into a soft meditative state conducive to deeply internalizing the music, feeling it in your whole being, sometimes to the point where you can almost sense that someone — or something — is playing the music through you, and you are just relaxing and observing… But I digress a little!1

The point is: this blissful state of “non-doing” in music can be reached by any of us, whether collectively within an ensemble, or when playing/practicing alone at your instrument. And in the latter case, a nifty little loop can come in quite handy! Playing to a click track/metronome is of course also a tried-and-tested method, particularly when aiming for steady tempo, solid groove, and genuine feel2. But there’s nothing like an audio loop to enjoy the added benefits provided by the external musical stimulation, and the inspiration that arises from it (short of playing with other live musicians!)

What’s in a good loop?

In my experience, both with students and in my own practice, the loops that have yielded the best results present the following characteristics:

  • they are relatively short in length (1 to 8 measures or a section of a tune at most);
  • focused on a challenging (though not insurmountable), or, to use another term, unfamiliar passage of music (trust me, after repeating it for a while it will become familiar, and that’s exactly what we want);
  • set to an adequate tempo, most likely on the slower end of the spectrum (one of my professors at Berklee had some words of wisdom about that: “if you bulls#*t slow, you’ll bulls%$t fast!”)

In my lessons, I make a point of detecting specific passages of music students may have difficulties with. I then prepare loopable audio files (in WAV format, because converting to MP3 tends to add undesirable gaps of silence to the tracks, which in turn makes the loops lopsided) corresponding to these passages for them to practice with. All that is needed then, on the student’s end, is a simple app if they’re going to use their phone for playback (Loop Player does a great job on Android), or a piece of software if they’d rather use a computer. In the latter case, I thoroughly recommend familiarizing oneself with Audacity.

Getting started with Audacity

Audacity is a great little piece of software that will enable you to set a tempo you are comfortable with and play the file back as many times as needed, at the same pace and with no interruptions. So before you delve into the blissful state of non-doing in music, let’s take a closer look at a few simple, technical steps that will get you started in no time:

  1. downloading Audacity;
  2. opening an audio file with Audacity;
  3. setting the track’s tempo to your practicing needs;
  4. looping the audio file for playback.

1. Audacity is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux from the Download page on audacityteam.org.

2. To load a specific audio file in Audacity, just drag it into the empty blue/grey area (a white “+” sign in a green circle will appear as you hover over that region). A warning will then pop up prompting you to choose an import method. You can select “Make a copy of the files before editing (safer)” so that if you make changes and save them, the original file will remain available as well.

3. Select the whole audio file (on Mac, hit cmd + A) and go to Effect > Change Tempo…. The “Change Tempo” box appears providing you with three alternatives: Percent Change, Beats per minute (good if you know the original bpm of the track, which you can also figure out using http://a.bestmetronome.com/), or Length (seconds). Don’t forget to tick the box in front of “Use high quality stretching (slow)” for better results.

4. Finally, choose Transport > Play > Loop Play (or hit shift + space) to launch the play-along.

As Kenny Werner reminds us: don’t forget to stop playing when you feel you’re loosing focus and concentration. Take your hands off/put down your instrument, take a deep breath, get back into the space, and try again!

Enjoy and see you online at your next lesson 😉

Notes

1 If you’re interested in digging deeper into the subtle spiritual realm of musical practice, you can read a whole lot more about it in Kenny Werner’s classic book Effortless Mastery.

2 If you’d like to learn about the different types of metronomes (and the key features to look out for when choosing one), this exhaustive deep dive on the topic will definitely do the trick!

References

“The Best Metronome.” Beginner Guitar HQ. 2021. <https://beginnerguitarhq.com/best-metronome/> accessed 20 February 2022.

Werner, Kenny. Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within. Van Nuys: Alfred Music, 1998.


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