The Soloists' Brain

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by angus99, Oct 2, 2008.

  1. angus99

    angus99 Member

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    NPR had a piece this morning on how human brains really aren't good at true multi-tasking. According to brain researchers, what looks like multi-tasking--reading something while texting--is really our brains focusing on each job discreetly and extremely quickly. They say we really don't have the ability to truly focus on two jobs at once that require the same thinking processes.

    At my relatively early stage of learning the instrument, improvising solos is something I don't fully understand. From where I sit, it looks like a great improviser is doing AT LEAST half a dozen things at once--keeping time, picking out notes that work, bending, sliding, hammering on or pulling off, muting, phrasing, anticipating what's coming next, etc.

    Not talking about the muscle memory that allows even learners like me to play a set pattern that someone might actually recognize. I'm talking about invented-in-the-moment solos (and, I suppose, jazz comping?).

    So are good improvising soloists the exception to the rule on multi-tasking, or are they just able to compartmentalize extremely quickly and make it sound fresh and interesting? When you guys are soloing, how do you manage all the information that results in music?

    Thnx.

    angus
     
  2. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    I think the process is consistent with the findings of that study - lots of discreet quick flashes on moving targets, plus a lot of the things you list are really more integrated into larger activities than the separate listing of them might suggest.

    Also keeping in mind, as you hint, "improvisation" is not necessarily about "soloing"
     
  3. decay-o-caster

    decay-o-caster Member

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    If you break down the activities involved in, say, texting someone on your phone (one of your multi-tasking examples), you could make it sound like there are dozens of processes happening there too. "...Bending, sliding, hammering on or pulling off..." are all consistent with making note choices, keeping time, and anticipating. Not that it's exactly the same thing, but for someone who's been playing for a little while, a lot of that stuff IS ear/muscle-memory and tightly integrated into the activity. So it's not necessarily something separate - the hammer-on or slide up is all part of the note choice.

    What practicing gives you (among other things) is the ability to integrate more and more of the separate domain tasks into a single uber-task, if you will. That leaves some brain power available for other parts of the improvisation.

    Sadly, lots of us get by on sheer muscle memory and tightly integrated stuff and not enough on composing in the moment...
     
  4. angus99

    angus99 Member

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    Great answers--thank you both. I really look forward to getting past the "thinking-about-each-discreet-step" phase.

    I've found the worst thing I can do is mentally dwell on a mistake--everything goes out the window when I spend more than a nanosecond on an error ("why did you play that? what the hell was it? what should it have been? you are so freaking lame . . . " you get the idea.)

    angus
     
  5. JSeth

    JSeth Member

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    First of all, I wouldn't believe everything you read!!!

    Interesting to note that "conscious" thought runs through the nervous system at approx. 3-5 meters per second... pretty quick, right? (Turns out that registering pain - ie. a stubbed toe - takes the same time...)

    Subconcious thought (or intuitive or unconscious, whatever you want to call it) runs through our nervous systems at 80-100 meters per second... approx. 20 times faster than when you "think" about it!!!! Probably why so many musicians and athletes say they "just go unconcious" when they're performing... and why, when we're learning something new, we tend to be slower and less efficient at whatever endeavor.

    For me, the absolute best it gets in soloing is when I'm just SO into the tune, the groove, the feel that what comes through me, what I hear in my head, just flows without regard to scales, notes, patterns, etc. Same thing when I'm playing my best golf, by the way - I just kind of think about where I want the ball to go and it goes there!

    Relaxing, having fun, focusing on what I want (intention) and feeling are my keys, in music and in life...

    Yep! It's a crazy old time/space reality, ain't it?
     
  6. angus99

    angus99 Member

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    You wouldn't??!!! So all those years at the newspaper taking everything at face value were a waste of my time??!! :rolleyes:

    I've heard that from others -- and I'm really not doubting you at all, here -- I used to pitch and when I had my stuff, it seemed zen-like and effortless. I really would like to hit that zone with guitar, but it feels miles from where I am.

    Thanks.

    angus
     
  7. dewey decibel

    dewey decibel Supporting Member

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    Along with what JSeth is saying, another way to put it might be -keeping time, picking out notes that work, bending, sliding, hammering on or pulling off, muting, phrasing, anticipating what's coming next- that's all stuff that's concentrated on when practicing. When actually playing I find that I'm usually pretty focused on just one thing.

    Also, what might seem like pure improvisation most likely isn't. I often compare everything to speaking- when you speak you're stringing together words and sentences, and you put them together in ways you have before. You use things you know work. It's more the timing and context that changes. Same with improvising.


    But I did realize something from that post- one problem I often encounter when playing jazz is shifting from the improvised sections into the more non-improvised sections. What I mean is going from something where I'm not thinking about fingerings, notes, etc, and then going to a section/melody/vamp that I have learned wrote where I need to think about those things. I often stumble in these spots.
     
  8. decay-o-caster

    decay-o-caster Member

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    The nice thing about the zone is that you can find it at whatever level you've reached, if all the stars align and you've lived a good life and so on. I have only really had it happen a limited number of times, but it has been at wildly different skill levels in my guitar playing life. You have to have some comfort with the physical aspects of playing, but once you do, you can play out of your head whoever you are. It's just that some people's out of their head is a different place from others'. It's unbelievably, intensely satisfying whoever you are, though.
     
  9. angus99

    angus99 Member

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    Again, this is all hugely helpful, folks. I'm one of those people who--if it doesn't come totally naturally--has to get some basic grasp of how it's supposed to work.

    Thank you one and all.
     
  10. JonR

    JonR Member

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    Especially not on the internet...
    ;)
     
  11. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    Whenever I've hung out with a great improvisor, not necessarily hotshot soloists but real improvisors, one thing that's always struck me they have in common was a very quick and agile mind - no detail gets past them and any tangent can lead anywhere else...it's impossible to not imagine these qualities in direct relation to their music
     
  12. darth_vader

    darth_vader Member

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    The best way I can describe this is that it's a bit like a spiritual epiphany. One day you'll be feeling like you're struggling to do all these things on guitar, then suddenly it will all come together and you'll realise that you can do so much that you didn't think you could. Of course it's always an uphill battle, even for the best players, but you have to stop every once in a while and take the time to appreciate how far you've really come.

    I'll second what has been mentioned before - the only way to get truly great at improvising is to practice until everything except note selection becomes second-nature. When you've got all the technique under your fingers and it flows effortlessly, all you have to worry about is where you're going next, and then you don't have to worry about it at all - it will just flow out by itself.
     
  13. mike walker

    mike walker Member

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    Driving a car. THink about the different processes at work. They all come together to get you from A to B. Eventually, when thoughts of clutch, gears, signals, correct speeds, road signs, mirrors, braking, pedestrians, traffic, traffic lights, etc etc have gone, you can, argue with the mrs, sing the freebird solo, talk on the hands free phone, listen to your philosophy tapes, tap new rhythms, be so deep in thought that you don't remember the journey, improvise vocally over different sequences, learn italian.
    The brain is amazing.

    Mike
     
  14. JamonGrande

    JamonGrande Supporting Member

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    To my knowledge there has only been one cognitive theory of improvisation that is applicably robust (can be applied to most any genre or musical situation), proposed by Jeff Pressing (who unfortunately passed away in 2002). It was interesting at both local and global levels as it accounted for decisions made on a sound by sound basis (or note by note if you like), and for "ecological" factors such as performance environment and cultural norms. (Damn even that's loaded with cognitive jargon).

    Without getting into the details of it, there is so much happening when one improvises that reducing the analytical scope to hundreths of a second begins to ignore so many other factors and processes that are equally important. His diagrams of the process can be pretty daunting to account for this.

    With that in mind, the improvisational moment occurs in a conceptually complex "present" moment. Being in the "zone" isn't a single flash of a neuron, but a pretty involved process. Understanding the whole network is more practically and analytically useful for us than understanding one node of the network.

    But than I have no doubt there are neuroscience types who would disagree with that last part for sure. They love the brain and that's cool and all, but I think our bodies and our surroundings (including our fellow musicians) are thinking just as much for us.

    joe
     
  15. Jon

    Jon Member

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    They way I view it is that improvising on your instrument should be the same as whistling/humming an improvised solo over the same piece of music - you are semi-consciously choosing what notes to play and how to phrase those notes by hearing the sounds in your head and reproducing those almost immediately. You are not really thinking about breathing or the muscle control required to make the sound, or allowing your 'whistle muscles' to dictate what you play by zipping through physically familiar patterns.

    This is an ideal state though - easier said than done, but at least it gives you some kind of goal to reach for. To achieve the ability to forget about the physical restrictions of playing and focus on reproducing the music you hear in your head comes from extensive physical practice on the instrument. The ability to hear creative lines in your head comes from a lot of listening and ear training.
     
  16. dewey decibel

    dewey decibel Supporting Member

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    Great example.



    That's the thing, there is no supposed to, it works different for everybody. You've got to find your own way to some extent. It doesn't seem like this when playing at home by yourself, but after a couple gigs with a band and an audience it will really make sense.
     
  17. JonR

    JonR Member

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    I've had exactly the same experience with jazz pros I know. Even in normal conversation, you feel like they're one jump ahead - looking for an angle that might interesting, exciting or (just as often) amusing.
    I'm pretty intelligent (at least according to IQ measures :rolleyes:) but I always feel dumb (or slow-thinking) next to them, and not just in a musical situation.

    Easy to think they were always that way, but I think it's a mental process that can be trained. The more you think creatively, "out of the box", the more natural and quick it becomes.

    Maybe jazz is a way to make yourself more intelligent? ;)
     
  18. dewey decibel

    dewey decibel Supporting Member

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    I definitely think you can develop it. Why? Because if I hang out with those guys for more than a night in a row I start to catch up to them. Part of it is because with jazz it's self that's how you look at things- I think of the term "thriving on a riff". You take a little idea and see how many different ways you can do it/say it, and see where that leads you. It almost turns into some stream of consciousness sh!t. That's sort of the nature of jazz.

    But then the other side of it is who you're with- I've found that being with any group of people that are creative and good at what they do and do it in a group have this sort of thing going. From musicians, filmmakers, artists, etc to carpenters, a close knit kitchen staff, a well run hospital wing- they all have this going on to some extent. I think competition has something to do with it.
     

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