Advice For Improvisers: Stop Approximating

One of the ways I seem to be able to help myself as a musician  (as well as my students!) is to take time to clarify  the details involved in playing music. Sometimes a problem remains unsolved simply because the musician hasn’t addressed one small element sufficiently.

Though of course this is an issue that can hold back musicians in any genre, I’m thinking here specifically about how this affects the improvising musician.

In the last couple of years I find myself going back to deeply examine and practice what might seem to be very basic musical material. For example, I’m getting an even deeper intimacy with my diatonic scales, practicing all kinds of different melodic patterns and their variations. No passing tones, no chromatic outlining, just simple diatonic music in major and minor.

It’s been wonderful for me to discover how much music can be made from just using these materials. In turn, when I improvise on any type of music, whether harmonically based (chord changes), thematic, modal or even completely open-ended and free music, I have found a wealth of beauty and surprise.

Just to be clear, I did spend a good amount of time in the past “mastering” my scales and arpeggios (the diatonic material), but I never went as deep as I could have. And as the years progressed I worked less on these diatonic materials and more upon chromaticism, symmetrical tonalities, intervalic based (non-diatonic) melodies, and so forth.

And that was great! It opened up my thinking and playing to help me find my voice as an improviser (After all, these, too, are essential musical materials).

But as time passed I began to experience some dissatisfaction in my improvising. Through reflection and careful observation, I came to realize that my melodic language was lacking in a certain kind of possibility of colors and melodic shape. For me to address this , I realized I had to go deep into the diatonic language again.

As I began to explore this, I realized that I didn’t have the conception/ear/execution mastery of this material that I really needed. So I started to listen to (and study) great diatonic melodies (lots of Bach!)  and worked on getting some of this material inside of me.

I would find a particular melodic passage that really moved me, then put that passage into all twelve keys. I would also make variations on these melodic ideas, and spend a good amount of time improvising slowly in order to crystalize these new ideas.

I also took time to work on singing and playing ideas that I imagined myself, in order to connect my muse to my instrument. I’m still working on this diatonic material nowadays, but with more complexity (e.g., rhythmic displacement and variation, complex meter, etc.)

The long and short of it is that I’ve gained a certain kind of precision and clarity with this material that I just didn’t have before. In essence, I stopped approximating. Because of this my entire improvisation language has been significantly expanded and enriched.

So, this article isn’t really about the value of doing all this diatonic work. It’s about going deeply into the musical material to gain control over your medium. For me that meant revisiting and deepening my control over diatonic material. I had to stop approximating.

Where do you approximate when you improvise? Is your control of time strong and clear? How about your articulation? Is your sound meaningful and beautiful on each note that you play? Are you stuck in two-bar symmetry as you play? Is your rhythmic imagination rich, or is it still mostly the language of endless eight notes? Do you take full advantage of the range and color palette of your instrument? How broad is your harmonic knowledge?

To go deeper into the music, you must gain precision. This means really being able to control the materials of music. Ask yourself where you are approximating when you improvise, then make a practice plan to bring you into the rich and beautiful world of precision and clarity.

I actually borrowed this “stop approximating” slogan from the great pianist, Bill Evans. Mr. Evans had a remarkable tone, clarity and conception in his playing that always sounded immediate, spontaneous, beautiful, thoughtful and passionate. This was reflected in his approach to practice.

Here’s the video below of him elaborating on this topic. Enjoy:


  1. Steve Peterson says

    This is a great post, one of my favorites that you’ve done (and that Bill Evans clip is fantastic)! This is an issue I think about a great deal. It’s funny that any musician knows that a bad habit in their technique will eventually hinder their playing, but so many ignore that lesson on the intellectual/creative side. I hear so many players these days (I won’t name any names) where a critic will compare them favorably to Mark Turner or Brad Mehldau or whoever, only to find that, though their tone or voicings may be similar, the actual ideas that make the music are a mess. They’re kind of, dare I say, “faking it.” Even in my own music, when I’m pushing toward something new, I often feel myself “approximating” my own music. Though I don’t yet have a clear idea of where I’m going, I can tell that what I’m doing, as in the Evans demonstration, has only a superficial resemblance to the music I want to make. Little by little, that goal becomes clearer, and the more I understand it the less I have to approximate. Anyhow, “approximating” is something I’ve run into in all my students (and certainly in my playing). In a sense, they’re encouraged to do it by teachers – to listen to, say, Charlie Parker or Michael Brecker for ideas long before they even have a solid grounding in their instrument or playing changes. Sorry to be so long-winded!

    • Bill says

      All great points, Steve! It’s fine (I think) to approximate an idea until it crystalizes, but eventually we have to get down to the business of controlling and directing the materials to realize our ideas. Lennie Tristano would have his students listen very carefully to any solo they were going to transcribe to the point of being able to sing it with pinpoint accuracy. Warne Marsh said that sometimes that meant staying with that solo for a couple of months, listening and singing everyday. That’s going deep into the music. As far as my own practice these days, it’s all about ending the approximations and getting to mastery, depth and control. And I mean that in the best sense.

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