The Challenge of Jazz Improvisation – Right Brain or Left Brain?

ImageI started to take Clarinet lessons a few years ago, and so it seemed a logical (?) step to now try Jazz Improvisation. It seemed to make sense to stretch my ability a little further and improvisation appeared to offer lots of creative possibilities for me. I hasten to add that this was just one of the new endeavours that I had decided to embark upon now that I had left full-time employment. The flexibility of being self-employed presented me with the opportunity to do a variety of things that heretofore were difficult to fit into that limited time available outside work. I had a romantic notion that improvisation would be a free-flowing, relaxed, laissez-faire sort of playing. That’s how it looked whenever I saw Jazz musicians apparently just going with the flow and making it up as they went along.


I got a big shock. Four weeks of lessons went by and the clarinet was still in the case. We were spending our classes looking at music scales. Yes….scales. It was like learning a whole new language. I was used to Major and Minor scales; actually I mostly just read the music and played away. But now I was suddenly thrust into the realms of Aeolian Scales, Mixolydian Scales, Phrygian Scales…… It sounded like something from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, a fantasy land where scales had a whole new meaning. I began to realise that jazz improvisation had very defined constructs within which everything else had to fit. Mathematically speaking there were formulae and rules. What sounded free-flowing actually followed patterns that had a particular mathematical beauty to them.

So, my left-brain was settling into learning these mathematical formulae. Being an engineer I was very enthusiastic about the possibility of having formulae at my fingertips that would allow me to be a brilliant jazz improviser. Of course I had hit unwittingly hit the nail on the head. I literally needed to have this at my fingertips; I needed to be able to play automatically and not mechanically. So, my left-brain would have all of the mathematical stuff that set out the patterns but the right-brain would have to actually control the instrument.

If you’ve never played a wind instrument, perhaps I should just explain a few things – just to flesh out what I’m trying to explain. Take the clarinet. If you take both hands then nine of the ten fingers are used to actually play the instrument. They either depress keys or cover/uncover sound holes. The only digit that gets off scott free is the right thumb which has the task of supporting the instrument and keeping it in place. The other fingers have to be positioned accurately in order to get a proper sound. For example the little fingers on both hands can each press four different keys, each producing a different sound when selected in conjunction with the other keys. Being a wind instrument there is also the breath to be taken care of. One’s breathing controls the tone and volume of each note. One cannot actually see where one’s fingers are on the keys so the instrument is played via touch and hearing. So, it is really a right-brain activity to put all of this together and allow one, as a musician, to just play without having to think about the mechanics of it all.

My experience so far is that jazz improvisation takes it to a new level. I’m now at the stage of conscious incompetence – I know I’m pretty useless at the moment but I understand what I need to learn and i have my moments of revelation. It’s a great workout for the brain, rewarding musically and emotionally. I understand that the foundations need to be laid before anything can be built – so I practice my scales and patterns in order to make them automatic. I also have to train my ear to listen and decipher what’s going on in jazz performance. My initial frustration is turning to enjoyment.

I’ll update on my progress in later posts as I want to share with you, in the meantime, the variety of other things I’ve decided to try.

Next Up….film photography (a move away from digital)


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