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Q&A - How quickly should an improviser advance?

Hi David,

I'm currently practicing the IFR exercise Seven Worlds and I'm not sure how much time I should spend in each harmonic environment before advancing to the next. Is there any guideline?

Thank you for all your support.


David's response:

Hi Mike,

This is a great question because it lets us talk about what "advancing" in your music practice really means. My personal view is that this would be a great moment to let go of this kind of thought altogether. The question itself actually destroys your music practice, because it pulls you out of the music and gets you thinking instead about mundane things like practice schedules and artificial deadlines.

I would offer you an alternative view of the situation. I would argue that any guidelines about how quickly you should advance are inherently dishonest, because musical growth is not a linear process. You're going to keep having new insights about this harmonic material for the rest of your life. The deeper you go, the more vivid the world of harmony becomes. And you'll notice things you never saw before.

For example I might feel like I "know" the 2nd harmonic environment pretty well. But then when I hear Miles Davis and John Coltrane create beautiful works of art with these sounds in their improvisations on the tune "So What", I realize that there is still so much more that I can learn. The possibilities are literally infinite, and part of learning to enjoy your music practice is learning to be at peace with this infinity.

drawing of a metronomeThe idea of a linear timetable doesn't really make sense in the arts. Musical learning is not just a linear accumulation of knowledge. Musical learning is actually a very subjective and creative experience, because you're the one who needs to decide what's important, what catches your attention, what you find especially beautiful.

And while it's true that there are some things we can only learn by spending a lot of time in one particular harmonic environment, there are other things that we can only notice after leaving that harmonic environment behind and moving on to another one. Imagine eating nothing but apples your entire life, and then suddenly discovering an orange. In that moment, you understand BOTH apples and oranges much more deeply.

What this all points to is that there is no objective measure to say when you should move on from one set of sounds to another. What I have tried to do with Improvise for Real is to lay out the sounds of modern harmony in an organized way so that you can explore and discover them for yourself. But it's not a one-way trip. Your journey through these sounds is not going to be a straight line.

It's much more like a buffet table filled with all different foods. It's going to take you a while to get to know all of the different foods on the table. But there is no way for me to say how long you should enjoy one food before trying another. These are simply the sounds of our musical culture, and they will continue to surround you for the rest of your life. So I would encourage you to just focus your attention on whatever sounds seem the most interesting and beautiful to you right now. When you've explored these sounds thoroughly and you're craving something new, that's the right moment to move on to the next harmonic environment.

Happy exploring Mike!