Yoko talks about learning to improvise
“Mr. B.G.” (written by Yoko in tribute to Benny Green)
I’m sure when I first started playing piano at the age of four I must have been improvising because I had no idea how to read music. I didn’t know what a scale was. I didn’t even know middle C. I remember playing all day long because I just loved it. I wish I could remember what I was playing at that time, or even better, I wish I could hear it.
I have a lot of jazz harmony knowledge, and my perfect pitch allows me to hear everything, but there is something to be said about just knowing the music in a mechanical way. I’ve studied all the jazz theory. When one of my Berklee students asks me what I’m playing, I can demonstrate but I also have to be able to explain the concept and theory behind it. You have to know your scales, keys, chord scales, modes, tensions, substitute chords, reharmonization, etc. I agree it’s all useful and necessary knowledge to be able to improvise.
When it comes down to real improvisation, I always think the most important thing to do is transcribing solos. This is the one thing that I know that has helped me the most. I’m not talking about playing a solo already transcribed in a book, I mean actually transcribing it yourself. It’s a difficult process at first. There’s a learning curve though and you get better at it the more you do it, which I think is part of what helps you to improve at improvising.
I recommend for pianists to transcribe both right and left hands. I hear lots of pianists who have obviously taken note of the right-hand single lines the masters of this music have played, but the left hand is often wrong. It’s really important to have the left-hand chord voiced in a way that supports the tonality of the right hand improvisation, and the same goes for the rhythm and timing. If any of these aspects are off, it can clash. The right hand is the focus of most pianists when it comes to
improvising, but I really try to focus as much on the left hand in my teachings. I think it’s necessary to make the whole thing work.
You can’t just go out and play transcribed solos that you’ve memorized though. That’s not improvising either. When I first started I used to take a standard tune and transcribe a lot of different pianists playing the same song, like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and even horn players like Charlie Parker. Then I would write out a solo with 2 measures of Oscar, 2 measures of Bill Evans, 2 measures of Charlie Parker, then 2 measures of myself. I actually wrote down my own improvisation. I would do this in a random order.
Eventually the transcribed solos were being taken over more and more by my own improvised phrases. For me, it was a great way to learn the necessary vocabulary. When I first started improvising, I had nothing to say myself because I had a limited vocabulary. Going through the process of transcribing — figuring it out myself and writing it down — filled my ears with phrases and a vocabulary that stuck with me. I think I became a better improviser because I had a lot more to say.
Wow, perfect pitch, that explains a lot. It is said that if you want to be a great or very good tennis or golf player, that you have to start at a very young age, perhaps as young as 3 or 4 years old. Do you think that it is the same if someone wants to become a great or very good pianist? I guess my question is that if someone in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s or 50’s wanted to start playing the piano would there be any hope that they would become good or great, or would they, because of their late start to playing be hopelessly consigned to being just a mediocre piano player even if they possessed some talent and the right hands.
What got me to think about that is they tell people the best time to learn a foreign language other than your own is when you are a young child that way you can master the language by the time you are an adult, and I’m wondering if that is the same for a pianist.
I think earlier is better but a lot depends on how hard you work and everyone is so different. I think sometimes younger musicians are capable of learning complex things because they don’t realize how difficult it is, either way it takes a long time so if you start when you’re 50 it’s going to take until you are at least 70 until you can really play.
Really, this is a very interesting approach to improvisation. Almost to the point that, mistakenly, it could be interpreted as it would never be improvisation any more. Transcribing your improvisations, and those of others, as an exercise to learn your own improvised vocabulary to be able to improvise more fluently is really clever. I am not a musician – though, I can’t live without music, and it seems to me that fluidity is probably the most important attribute of a good improvisation, at least to my ears. Being fluent in whatever you have to say helps a lot for others to understand. Perhaps, this is why it is such an extraordinaire pleasure to listen to you when you play.
Thank you so much for the kind words Ignacio! You say you are not a musician but you can’t live without music, you are exactly the type of audience member I desire! I think music communicates with all living things in ways we don’t yet understand. When I read your words I realized you do understand music in a deep way, maybe even more than some who play instruments. I think you’re right that fluidity is the most important attribute of good improvisation, it has to be graceful and without hesitation. The process I used is a variation on the same theme a lot of jazz musicians have used. Years ago musicians were able to learn directly from the masters on the bandstand like being an apprentice but these opportunities are non-existent now. Many jazz musicians have a hero that they try to emulate then out of that grows their own style. The resounding advice I kept getting from other musicians whose playing I admired was to transcribe solos, the process I used helped me to get inside what those musicians were thinking about when they improvised. I was at a clinic years ago as a student at Berklee where a famous jazz pianist was talking about the necessity of transcription, he warned us if we didn’t it was like wanting to be a novelist and not knowing how to read or write the language.
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