Understanding the process of learning piano improvisation

“Practice licks.”

“Don’t practice licks.”

“Play everything in all 12 keys.”

“Stay with one key for a while until you’ve mastered it.”

“The Real Book is great!”

“The Real Book is terrible!”

“Start by improvising with scales.”

“Start by improvising on chord tones.

Hey Improvisers,
Let’s begin by taking a deep breath.

It’s been about 5 years since I’ve watched any YouTube “musical advice” videos, but earlier today I couldn’t resist.

I was enjoying the film of Miles Davis playing “So What” from an old TV show, and YouTube recommended a video on the right side of the window caught my eye. It was one of those “5 mistakes that beginning jazz musicians make” videos, and I thought, “OK, I’ll check it out for a few minutes.”

The video was fascinating to watch. It featured a veryfasttalkingmusiciantalkingveryfastwhilenotleavinganypausesbetweenwordsandfunnilyenoughhedidntleaveanypausesbetweenhisimprovisedphraseseither.

He basically gave 5 specific pieces of advice about how to practice as a beginning jazz musician.

My piano teacher Billy Taylor, who played with Charlie Parker and was a jazz great himself, told me that we learn improvisation in the same way that we learn language. Over the years, I’ve seen that the answers to musical questions become self-evident if we rephrase them in terms of how we learn language.

Translated into advice about learning to speak a language, some of the pieces of advice on the video would go somewhat like this:

Only use nouns at first.
Begin by memorizing phrases and string them together to create sentences, instead of creating your own sentences based upon an understanding of grammar.
It’s better to learn words by ear, instead of reading them on the page.

The situation becomes clearer when we think of it like this, right? There wouldn’t be anything wrong with any of these ideas if we incorporated each one into a larger understanding of learning jazz (which, after all, is a language.) But to make these into blanket statements and tell people you’ve never even met to “do this” and “do that” will end up lead countless musicians astray. Some of them will waste years of their musical development.

Here’s my advice to you:

When you hear someone tell you to “Practice licks,” for example, dive deeper by asking yourself questions like these:

What is the role of learning licks?
What are 3 specific benefits I’ll get by learning licks?
If I only have 30 minutes of practice time per day, is the time I spend learning licks replacing the time I could spend on becoming a fluent improviser?
If I do have time to practice both fluency and licks, how can the use of licks enhance my improvisational fluency, instead of making me into a musical robot?
What licks should I practice?
Do they need to be the same licks everyone else learns?
What if I learned some licks from my favorite improviser?
Will I benefit more by learning individual licks or an entire solo?
Will I improve more by learning the licks by ear or by reading them off the page? Or both?

In my opinion, I’d be very careful before I take unilateral advice from anyone who is spitting out quick sound bites on a YouTube video. Are they really taking the time to craft advice that’s for you personally? Are they framing their advice in a way that helps you make smart, informed decisions based on an increase in your musical understanding? Are they investigating the learning process in a way that takes different learning styles and personalities into account?

The video I saw really got me thinking about how we learn jazz as a language, and I hope you’re now thinking about this too.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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