The Two Hal’s: Hal Galper and Hal Crook on Practicing Improvisation

Jazz pianist Hal Galper talks in this masterclass about the illusion of the piano (or any other instrument) being the “instrument.”  Galper talks about the real instrument is the musician himself/herself.  Check out what he says in this video.

In this video Galper asks the audience, “How many of you think you have trouble playing what you hear?”  He responds to the audience members who agree with that by telling them, “Well, you’re all wrong.  You are playing exactly the way you hear.”

The approach that Galper advocates in this video is remarkably similar to Arnold Jacob’s “Song & Wind” approach, for those of you familiar with that.  It emphasizes a strong “brain signal” in the hope that the mechanics of playing the instrument will take care of itself.  He uses the example of practicing a lick and then trying to throw it into a solo.  Galper says it’s difficult to do this because you’re “thinking.”  He then demonstrates how to improve your mental image and translate that into aural results using a pianist from the audience as an example.

As far as the student demonstration goes, I’ve also written a little bit about the psychology of masterclasses before here.  Such demonstrations are great for making points, but it’s actually quite easy to get excellent results like this, regardless of what instructions you’re giving the student.

I have mixed feelings about this approach.  On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with practicing this way.  In fact, since this is our goal during performance it’s essential to practice with all your attention on your aural conception and let the music realize itself out of that.  However, it’s easy to create a false dichotomy out of this approach in ignore the detailed analysis that is necessary to fix mechanical or technical details.  I see these things as being two sides of the same coin, not an either/or approach.  It’s easier for an advanced musician to use Galper’s approach, who has already spent a great deal of time working on instrumental technique, ear training, and music theory knowledge.  Case in point, I play a little jazz piano, and I certainly “hear” what I want to play quite strongly, but often times my piano chops are insufficient and my fingers just don’t go where I want.  The problem isn’t that my mental conception isn’t strong enough, it’s that my technical abilities aren’t (yet) up to the task.

For an alternate approach that takes a more balanced view, I recommend trombonist Hal Crook‘s book, Ready, Aim, Improvise! Crook’s method is to break down improvisation into details and work on a single thing at once for a period of time, and conclude each practice session forgetting completely about the technique of improvisation and simply letting the spirit and mood of the music take you where it wants to go.  Here is a quote from Crook that shows the difference between him and Galper.

Due to the intricate nature of improvisation, many plyaers choose to disredgard the voluminous data available and take what I call the “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach to soloing.  Essentially this is when you close your eyes, open your ears, blow your horn and hope for the best.

This approach has certain obvious advantages over “thinking” about what to play, since there is so much to think about.

Crook elaborates some, echoing much of what Galper stated in the masterclass video above.  He then explains in more detail the disadvantages.

As an exclusive method of practicing improvisation, however, the “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach has serious limitations because of the considerable chance element involved.  In other words, maybe your hearing and intuition will produce something new and valuable today which you can learn from, but maybe it won’t.  With a practice method so non-specific in its objective and so determined by chance, there’s no guarantee you wont be “spinning your wheels” for a long time before something positive happens. . . The “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach is right for performing, but the “Ready, Aim, Fire” approach should be used for practicing.

In my humble opinion, too many great musicians emphasize practicing performing when they should also be emphasizing how to practice in such a way that the details are ready when the aural conception is all you want think about.  I’ve noticed that it’s almost always the greatest musicians who overemphasize not thinking.  Perhaps this is because such players have already mastered their instruments and working out the mechanics of playing is now a waste of time for them.  On the other hand, they must be doing something correct, so it’s worth our time to pay attention to what they have to say.

What do you think?  Am I picking too many nits with Galper?  I’m basing my thoughts here on a single video that is excerpted out of context from the rest of his masterclass, so perhaps he qualifies his talk some more in another part.

David Rumpler

I think all things being equal, the more deeply you’ve absorbed a musical idea, the better you’ll play it. However, just being able to sing an idea (a pretty good indication that you’ve absorbed it) is probably not by itself enough (unless of course you’re a singer!). I’ve found this to be particularly true of piano, which I started playing about 15 years ago. I used to think that “hearing” by itself was enough. Now I know, at least on the piano, learning one’s way around the instrument is equally important. Mathematical analysis of course can add an additional layer of meaning. In the end however, I think that developing the ear, and learning to access one’s unconscious are the primary skills necessary for becoming a jazz player. If it’s just mathematics and moving one’s fingers, it might as well be played by robots.

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