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Inside Out, Part One

In first of a two-part series of columns, saxophonist and educator explains how to internalize music in order to better improvise

Mel Martin

Do you really know tunes as if you owned them, do you really know all of your scales and intervals, do you really know harmony, rhythm and melody? If not, then you haven’t correctly used the process of internalization. This is something that we have used every day since we were born. We could not walk, eat or do any of the thousands of physical and mental functions that we need to survive. It is said that the best lessons are learned the hard way. This means it is the internal process of learning that is most significant. This is what “sticks.” It is always an amazing event to me to witness students expecting to be able to play an instrument, read music, and improvise even basic musical structures. To hear all of the parts in a group being played, know where all of the harmonies are going and generally navigate in deep musical waters yet have not fully internalized all of the skills and techniques necessary to play well. It seems that the basic requirements of learning to play are applied late and, often, too little. Players often are unprepared to take their abilities to a creative level, as they haven’t internalized the techniques of their chosen instruments or those of the music. Learning technique is more than just playing exercises out of a book.

The “process”, as we shall term it from here on, is often feared and even avoided. True musical instrument technique is the result of gradually processing all aspects of study. In learning the twelve basic scales, students are often unable to get through all of the keys. One way that helps is to break down each component section and drill until accomplished. For instance, simply practice only half of the scale and work through the octave as evenly as possible. The same applies to any troubling passage. Breaking the phrase into its components and drilling is the first step at internalization. This process continues until all aspects of playing an instrument have been explored and learned. The same principle needs to be applied when learning to improvise. There are so many micro-events that occur that, unless thoroughly drilled and absorbed, it is impossible to stay focused on the creative aspects of music making. Instrumental technique needs to be entirely instinctual. The most basic step in learning to improvise is internalizing melodies and song forms. This is important because “the song is the thing!” When improvising, everything evolves from the song. A great melody cannot be improved upon. Lee Konitz advocates a method known as “Ten Steps to and Act of Pure Inspiration.” This is where a song is played very slowly and deliberately ([email protected]) for ten choruses and each succeeding chorus is a variation on the melody. It is an exercise in restraint, an investment in the song. This is the best way to learn any song, even a bebop line. It will become immediately apparent what part of a song has not been internalized. The original Downbeat article and description of this method can be found on my web site.

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