Here is some wisdom, which sounds Zen, perhaps a touch impractical, airy and even blindingly obvious, but which is very important, for any musician, to learn, internalise and follow.
The business of playing music, especially improvised music, is all about playing the notes you want to play. You should always play the notes you want to play, and not any other notes.
For example, if you are one of those guitar players that learn to play scales and licks and just trot them out, mechanically, habitually and without thinking, you really aren’t playing. Why? Because you’re playing the notes that your muscle memory wants to play, not the notes you would choose consciously, to convey meaning. You’re just a bundle of nervous twitches and autonomic reactions. It’s not a very musical way to play and your notes are quite involuntary. Many musicians play this way. They’re all tricks and repetition, but no soul.
It’s better to think about the note you would ideally play next, to create a melody or harmony and then to play it, positively and with confidence. If your mind is wandering, you won’t be able to accomplish this. It takes concentration and mental agility, to do it at speed. You’re effectively composing the music in your head, just before you articulate it, through your hands, on your instrument.
This exhortation to only play the music you want to play leads to some interesting questions:
- If you knew the note you were about to play was wrong, why did you play it?
- If it wasn’t going to fit the chord, the harmony, the mode or the feel of the music you wanted to make, why did you let that one note slip through and articulate it?
- If you left the notes you played to chance or to habit, why didn’t you weed out the notes you didn’t really want to play? Did you really want to play them all?
- If you weren’t sure you knew the note you were about to play was precisely the one you wanted to play, why did you play that note?
- If you wanted to play a note, to support the music, or melody, or mood you were trying to create, but hesitated and didn’t, why didn’t you play it?
- If you could hear the music you wanted to play, in your head, but you played something other than that, why did you do that?
These are not incidental questions. These are at the core of what it means to be an improvisational musician. For one thing, this musical mindfulness ensures that you become a very accurate player, in the sense that everything you play never sounds like an accidental fluff, a wrong note or a mistake. Your playing sounds confident, because it is confident. Why would you hesitate to play exactly what you wanted to play? You wouldn’t. Your articulation would always sound authoritative, if you only played what you wanted to play. Even your enharmonic or off key moments will sound musical, in context, if you play them deliberately, because you want to play them.
What you play has to be played with purpose and you have to play only what you wanted to play. Then, no matter how your gig, or recording session, or day goes, you can still say that you spent the time playing exactly what you wanted to play. At the end of a musical career, if you can honestly say you played exactly what you wanted to play, who can argue with you about whether or not your musical career was successful? If people criticise you for not playing what they wanted to hear, that’s ok, because you played what you wanted them to hear.
Knowing the rules of musical theory and composition helps shape the music you want to play, but it doesn’t constrain it. You are free to break all the rules, if that’s the music you want to play. On the other hand, if the music you want to play needs to evoke those conventional forms in some way, or pay homage to other genres or composers, then knowing the rules will help you to play only the notes you want to play.
If you hear somebody else play something that you want to play, then you should learn to play it. If you think that piece of information should form a part of what you play, because you want it to be, then it is perfectly acceptable to incorporate it into your own style. Play what you want to play.
This, I believe, is the key to musical artistry. If you can apply your taste, discernment and musical imagination to creating only the music you want to hear and want others to hear, then connect that to your ability to articulate each note, without error or hesitation, I believe this is the key to translating your musical ideas into a sonic reality that people can hear and enjoy.
This is also why the slavish practice of scales and arpeggios, while good exercise, doesn’t advance you as a musical artist. What counts is the information content. Playing what you hear within yourself and playing that faithfully, articulately and with authority, is what matters.
The right note is the note you wanted to play. Only play the music you want to play. The rest is a waste of your time, as a musician. Nobody wants to hear you play music you don’t want to play. The only thing people will pay to hear you play is the music you want to make.