A couple of years ago I wrote a post with a title very similar to this one, and although I don’t intend to repeat the content of that piece here, the concept is important enough that I wanted to include it in this “Essential Concepts” series. The main thesis is this: successful brass playing is never a matter merely of correct mechanics. There is a more intuitive musical element that must be present at all times. My favorite category for thinking of this is that of “song.” My best playing occurs when I subsume all of my efforts at playing under this very simplest of musical concepts, approaching even the most challenging works with the same basic approach that one would use to sing a simple folksong, hymn, or even nursery tune.
Let me use a recent example. While I have always dabbled in jazz and popular music despite being a primarily classical player, my usual role in big band gigs and such was to play the lead books and leave the improvised solo work to others. In the past few years, though, I’ve worked to improve my improvisation skills, a task made considerably easier with the advent of resources such as the iReal Pro app. This past week I played in a small combo for a charity event and played a solo on nearly every tune, and received a number of compliments on my work. Although this would surprise my younger self, I’ve become pretty comfortable as an improviser, at least on the standard Great American Songbook types of tunes.
So what changed? Besides improved opportunities to practice as I noted previously and the cumulative effect of 20+ years of listening, a change in my approach to improvisation really made the difference. My early attempts at improvisation as a young college student were essentially exercises in harmonic analysis. I made extreme efforts to read the changes correctly and play all of the “right” notes (whatever that means in this context). The results, as you might expect, were usually stilted, uninteresting, and fraught with tension as I worried about making “mistakes.” As I’ve gotten older my approach has become much more like composition or songwriting. Instead of worrying so much about analyzing the prescribed chords, I try to come up with interesting tunes or phrases (or “licks”), or maybe even melodic or harmonic variations on the main melody. This approach delivers better results that are more pleasing to the listener, as well as more fun for me. Essentially, I’m playing “songs” over the changes when I improvise now.
But this approach does not only work in jazz playing or improvisation. All music benefits from the approach. I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous posts the need to move as much of the physical activity of playing to a subconscious, intuitive level rather than making these the subject of constant and intense thought. We really do want the mental process of playing to be as much like singing as it can possibly be. The result, even in fundamental exercises or challenging “technical” works, is a relaxed, expressive, enjoyable performance for all involved .
Everything you play is (or should be) a “song.”