Preparation: The Key to Spontaneity?

Monday I was dissatisfied with the lecture I gave. It wasn't awful; no, mediocre would be more like it. So for my last couple of lectures I pledged to do more prep work.

Thus, for today's lecture, I spent perhaps a couple of hours going over and sprucing up my Powerpoint presentation on Adam Smith. And I was very happy with my lecture this morning.

"So what?" you may think. "That is supposed to be news?"

It wouldn't be, except for the fact that... what I wound up talking about was very different than what I had prepared to talk about. Yet it still seemed to me that the preparation was essential to the improvement in performance. It was as though, knowing I had my prepared material down, I felt perfectly free to improvise. But on a day when I hadn't prepared a "canned" lecture as well, improvisation would feel like desperation: it would be strained all of the time.


  1. Anonymous8:13 PM

    That is kind of how jazz works. You prepare by knowing the chord changes, what scales can work with those changes, and what can be modified or substituted. Then, when the time comes to actually play, you pretty much forget what you practiced and just go with the feeling of the moment, all of the rest just kind of follows. Sometimes it works, other times it is pure magic, and then others are a total trainwreck.

    It seems to me that it is a mixture of preparation and then forgetting that preparation when the time comes to perform. Even though the preparation isn't part of the actual performance, it is still key to being able to, freely and without inhibitions, play some really great stuff. The preparation makes you feel more confident, like something that you always know that you can fall back on. A safety net.

    1. Yes, yes, Joseph, you have nailed this just right!

    2. "...when the time comes to actually play, you pretty much forget what you practiced and just go with the feeling of the is a mixture of preparation and then forgetting that preparation...Even though the preparation isn't part of the actual performance..."

      I realize certain people within jazz will never agree on this, but as a jazz musician and educator (and a fan of improvisation in general), these kinds of statements just make me groan. Improvising is never and can never be separate of your preparation, your preparation is precisely what makes your improvisation possible. Attributing improvisation to some magic or voodoo "of the moment," something beyond a person's skill/experience, is silliness.

    3. This is totally threadjacking, but why have a blog if you can't threadjack at it?

      Eric, have you played with Willie Martinez?

    4. Anonymous2:17 AM

      Eric, I understand your sentiment, but possibly I wasn't as clear as I could have been.

      Yes, the preparation is what allows you to improvise effectively. I certainly didn't spend years of my life practicing for no reason, I did it to train my mind and fingers to be able to know what works and what doesn't given a certain set of criteria. However, when I improvise I am certainly not just running through scales and chords, I am using the ingrained knowledge of my training to be able to create lines spontaneously. I am not thinking in terms of intervals, keys, substitutions, etc; instead I am thinking about what sounds best or feels best in that particular moment and setting, and that will change from moment to moment. Certainly there are lines and licks that come out as a function of habit, but I often find the goal is to break those habits.

      You're an educator, so I am sure that you know that people conceptualize music in different ways. Some people are better at remembering patterns, or mental images of those patterns. Others work better by using intervals for both a reference point, and to know where they can go from there. Still others think in terms of purely written music. I am kind of the oddball, because I am mildly synesthetic. So, I tend to hear and think about sounds as colors or pictures. Though, I obviously also read and know where each note is on my instrument.

      A lot of this also has to do with the medium, or the instrument, that you're using. For instance, on the guitar it is often easier for people to remember the shapes and patterns rather than the actual notes. I found this way of thinking helpful early on in my training, but I obviously had to further my education so that I would know what note I was on, and what intervals were near that note given a particular key. But when I improvise, I am not actively thinking about these things, I'm just going with the flow, wherever that takes me.

      I don't wish to portray myself as a great musician or anything. I mean, I am relatively good, and I can play just about anything, but I am certainly not great. I've been playing bass for 22 years, but I still can't walk the darned thing (at least not well enough to back a jazz band). Yet, on the guitar I can play whatever it is that I hear in my head. Even so, to this day I still consider myself a bassist who just happens to play other instruments.

      BTW, I never attributed improvisation to magic or voodoo. However, one cannot escape the fact that improvisation is an emotional expression, and that often it is best to use the feeling side of one's mind. To me, that is the entire purpose of music: to feel.

    5. I'm not a New Yorker, in fact I've only been there a couple of times for the Vision Festival. So alas I've not crossed paths with Martinez, but as New York Afro-Latin musicians go I am likely the biggest Bobby Porcelli homer you'll ever meet.

    6. Anonymous4:52 AM

      This is off topic, but related to what I was talking about regarding how people conceptualize music.

      For the life of me I cannot hear chords. I mean I hear it, but I cannot hear it as a collection of voices played in unison. Instead, I hear only one voice of the chord, usually a major or minor 3rd. However, with some extended chords I will hear the extension first instead of the 3rd (esp. with 7th chords). With add or sus chords, I hear the addition/suspension first. Aug and dim chords are pretty random, it depends on the root.

      This posed quite a problem early on, because I had to really try in order to hear the other voices. It was almost like trying to focus one of those 3D pictures, or trying to focus on a small object that's really far away; you can almost see it, but not clearly. I think that this is why I originally played bass, because I could hear every note.

      Over years of practice I have been able to allow my brain to hear those other voices of the chord, but instead of hearing them in unison, my mind instead arpeggiates them. So, whenever I hear a chord, I still only hear a single voice at a time, but to me it actually sounds like an arpeggio. Depending upon the tempo, they are usually in 16th or 32nd notes, though back in the day they were much slower. Strangely, I can tell the difference between a chord that my mind naturally arpeggiates vs an actual arpeggio, because they have different colors (well, more of a different shade or tint of color).

      Like I said, early on this posed a real problem. However, after having practiced for many years it actually turned out to be quite beneficial, especially when improvising. As soon as somebody plays a particular chord, I first see a color or picture telling me the character of the chord, then each voice kind of shines out depending upon where I am within the key. If what I am playing causes the colors that I see to turn black, white or grey (it almost looks like images of random newspapers flashing by at a really high frame-rate), then I know that I'm doing something wrong.

    7. I ask because Willie is my neighbor and fellow parishioner.


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