In two recent posts entitled “How to lift solos (and actually learn something), part 1” and “How to lift solos (and actually learn something), part 2”, I introduced the idea of different levels of thinking. Here’s a quick recap in case you haven’t read those articles yet.
Common things like 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 Light bulb
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 previous installments of this article, we looked at the first two levels. Let’s take a look at the third level.
Adapt and Create
This level of thinking is about becoming so familiar with the conceptual information that you’ve extracted in the second level of thinking that you’re free to reach new creative heights by turning it into ideas of your own. You do this by adapting that lick, pattern, scale, idea, or song in as many different ways as possible while keeping the core conceptual content intact.
This is where, having done your dissection, you put everything back together and turn it into something new (to you)! It’s not enough just to deconstruct an idea and tear it down to its foundation; you have to rebuild it again and then find a way to make it work for you creatively. You can do this in a number of ways, but my most commonly used strategy looks like this: Think of a lick or idea that you’ve transcribed (or learned in some other way) and analyzed thoroughly. You know the notes, rhythms, and other basic details like the back of your hand, and you’re aware of the conceptual information on which it’s based. Now it’s time to get creative, and you can do that in the following ways:
Change the beginning, and keep the middle and ending the same.
Change the ending, but keep the beginning and middle the same.
Change the middle, but keep the beginning and ending the same.
Change the beginning and middle, but keep the ending the same.
Change the middle and ending, but keep the beginning the same.
Change the beginning and ending, but keep the information in the middle the same.
Change everything, but keep the overall conceptual framework the same.
Do all of the above over different harmonic forms.
Do all of the above over different rhythmic forms and time signatures.
Combine it with other concepts and ideas.
Does It Always Apply?
To be realistic, not everything that you practice needs to go through all three levels of thinking all the time. Some activities exist to build basic mechanical skills on your instrument. Brass and woodwind players do certain activities to build their range. Pianists do certain activities to encourage dexterity and independence in each hand and finger. Many of these exercises are little more than repetitive tasks that produce muscle memory and build a certain level of technical skill.
I suppose you could dig into why they’re effective at producing the desired result and then adapt them to come up with new exercises that accomplish the same purpose, or adapt them to suit whatever your particular needs are with maximum effectiveness. That might be highly worthwhile, but I doubt that you’ll go through this process with every activity of this kind that you practice.
However, there are certain things that you always should take through all three levels of thinking without fail. These are the items that target the creative aspects of your musicianship, like activities that deal with melodic conception, harmonic conception, and rhythmic conception.