The search for balance is everywhere in our lives. The human condition is best expressed when things are in balance. This includes our emotions, our physical condition, our work and home life, the list goes on and on. We seek balance in the small details of our lives as well as in the big picture items.
I have noticed that the music that I appreciate the most, the music the touches me most, is music with the same balance. A balance of rhythmic complexity with rhythmic clarity, a balance of harmonic simplicity with harmonic density, a balance of melodic sparseness with melodic intricacy, and so on.
The Composer’s Balance
Balancing all these various musical elements is the composer’s primary job, and it can be a delicate dance. A complicated melody may best be accompanied by more simple and open harmony. A dense rhythmic pattern may overwhelm the listener when paired with an equally busy melody.
You get the idea.
As a composer, I make many of these decisions by instinct, and make some by careful analysis. But since composing is not a real-time endeavor, I have the luxury of stepping back to gain perspective. I can put a composition that I’m working on aside, go out and take a walk, and come back later with some new objectively and look at it with new eyes. Or, rather, ears.
The Improvisor’s Balance
An improvising musician has to make all of these same choices and decisions, but has to do it in real-time, in the moment. This is the real challenge in learning to improvise. You must train your brain to react quickly, to analyze the musical circumstances around you and adjust accordingly. Is the drummer playing a busy pattern behind your solo? Perhaps you will need to play fewer notes, or more sustained phrases so that the music has balance.
Having said that, sometimes your reaction to the other musicians will be to reinforce what they are doing, to take it to the next level. If your drummer is playing a tons of notes, and your respond accordingly, the music may indeed benefit, and on top of that, your musical relationship with your drummer will improve because you have, in effect, validated what he has played. You have said “Hey, a lot of notes, that’s a good idea! I’m going to do that too!”
When a group of improvising musicians gets together and listens to each other and responds positively to each other’s musical choices, you have the formula for some exciting music. There is no better feeling than the exhilaration of creating something spontaneously with others, to walk that line together, to take a chance and see where it leads.
Of course, this gate swings both ways. I have experienced numerous times where I have perceived that my musical choices were being ignored by the other musicians I was playing with.
It’s not a great feeling either, partially because it is a passive-aggressive denial by the other players. It’s not like they will stop playing and say, “Look man, I just didn’t think we should have gone to double-time at the bridge, sorry.” That conversation doesn’t actually happen. And really, it is not all that practical for it to happen because all this is going on in real time, on the fly as you are playing.
This may be the preeminent skill you will want to obtain as an improvisor. You want the ability to react instantaneously to the other musicians, without any preconceived notions or ego influencing your decisions. If you can acquire that kind of mental flexibility, along with the willingness to let the music go anywhere it wants to, then you are in for a wild and fun ride.
Build the Foundation
But this ride isn’t free. The cost of admission is that you must learn your chords and scales and how they fit together. You must learn the improvisational language of the great jazz masters. These tools will eventually go into your subconscious and inform who you turn out to be as a creative musician. So – come on, let’s get to it.
Learning that stuff isn’t that big a deal, just commit to it. Do a little every day and you’ll get the info you need before you know it.
Combine that info with your own emotions and passions and there’s an improvisor that we all want to hear!
Gordon Goodwin is a GRAMMY and Emmy award-winning composer, arranger, and performer. He leads Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, the critically-acclaimed ensemble made up of LA’s finest musicians.
Goodwin’s scoring and orchestration is heard in many films including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Get Smart, National Treasure, The Incredibles, Remember the Titans, Armageddon, The Majestic, Enemy of the State, Star Trek Nemesis and even Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes.
As a composer, arranger or performer, Gordon has worked with Ray Charles, Christina Aguilera, Johnny Mathis, John Williams, Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Brian McKnight, Quincy Jones and many more. He has also conducted world-renowned symphony orchestras in Atlanta, Dallas, Utah, Seattle, Toronto and London.