How to lift solos (and actually learn something), part 2
In a recent post entitled “How to lift solos (and actually learn something), part 1”, I introduced the idea of different levels of thinking. Here’s a quick recap in case you haven’t read that article yet.
Common things like solo transcriptions, melodic patterns, diminished and whole tone licks, arpeggios, triads, scales, and all other kinds of similar ideas benefit you most if you engage with them at the higher levels of thinking.
What do I mean by that? Well, you know the musician who knows every Charlie Parker solo, but only ever plays Charlie Parker licks? He does that because he’s only ever processed that material at the lower levels of thinking. Compare him with the musician who has taken the time to deconstruct those same licks on a conceptual level and is able to play in the style of Charlie Parker without actually reproducing any of his exact licks.
This idea echoes the philosophy of jazz trumpeter Clark Terry as quoted at the beginning of this article. It’s also inspired by an educational theory called “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” which is far too in-depth for one little blog post, and far more complex than what I’m presenting to you here. However, if the idea of different levels of thinking intrigues you, then I recommend that you check out Bloom’s theory further.
For our purposes, I’ve broken the learning process down into three basic levels of thinking:
2. Locate Your Lightbulb
3. Adapt and Create
You need to go through all three levels of thinking if you want to learn an idea in a true and complete way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who learns anything truly and completely always goes through all three levels of thinking whether he’s intentional about it or not.
You can’t proceed to the higher levels until you’ve dealt with the lower levels, but it is possible to deal with the lower levels and then neglect to move on to the higher levels. That’s why it’s so important to understand how the process works. Sometimes you can progress through all three levels very quickly, so that you barely notice them, and other times it takes far longer. Regardless of how much time you spend on each stage, the process is always the same. It applies to learning things like jazz improvisation and composition, and it also applies to learning through-composed repertoire in a way that allows you to interpret it freely and masterfully.
In the first instalment of this article, we looked at the first level of thinking. Now, let’s take a look at the second level.
Locate Your Lightbulb
In my mid-twenties, I decided to transcribe the Charlie Parker solo from the bebop tune Ornithology. I transcribed a lick that sounded really great to me, but which I didn’t understand at all. I had no idea why he played the notes that he played, and I couldn’t figure it out, no matter how much I thought about it.
Sometime later, I was fortunate to have a lesson with Vancouver saxophonist Mike Allen, and he helped me to understand the theory behind the notes. I finally understood how it was constructed and why it made sense, and in that particular instance, it formed a watershed moment in my development as a player.
This level of thinking is about going beyond the notes, rhythms, and basic mechanics of a particular idea to extract the root conceptual ideas upon which it’s based. I chose the words “locate your lightbulb” very carefully for two reasons:
The word “lightbulb” communicates the fact that this is about making new discoveries. Every lick, pattern, scale, idea, or song – no matter how simple – has something new to offer with regard to your creative development, so the learning process is never complete. It doesn’t have to be new to the world, it just has to be new to you. However, you have to show up with a willingness to find it, which brings me to my next point.
The word “locate” communicates the fact that this process doesn’t just happen naturally; you have to be deliberate about it. You have to take that lick, pattern, idea, or written solo into the operating room and dissect it, and then you have to find and extract something of value that you can take with you.
How do you do this? Every musician would give you her own unique answer, and ultimately, you have to find your own best methods of discovery. You can probably think of a few (or a lot) right now, but here are some ideas to get you started:
Identify chord-scale relationships.
Look for arpeggios, triads, and other intervallic patterns.
Look for melodic and rhythmic patterns.
Find all the non-harmonic tones and determine why and how they work.
Look for symmetry in how an idea is constructed (i.e., parallel intervals, repeated notes and rhythms, etc.).
Look for connections to other ideas, songs, or licks (i.e., borrowed or even quoted material).
In the case of improvisation, look for connections to the melody.
In the case of melodies, look for connections to other parts of the same melody (i.e., melodic development), or even the melodies of other songs.
Consider how things like tone, dynamics, articulations, and other stylistic nuances influence and change the sound of an idea.
Notate the idea so you can see it on paper.
Transpose it to other keys.
Play it on a different instrument, especially the piano.