Some thoughts on learning new tunes for improvisation



For the past three years I have been learning improvisational music. Having come from a classical tradition, much of my study has been concerned with how to approach music in a way that is conducive to improvisation, rather than replication of what is written on the page. For example, learning (by learning I largely mean memorizing) left and right hand parts independently allows for later improvisation, rather than left and right hand interdependence in memorization. This is very different than leaning a classical piece, in which the goal is accurate execution of what is written on the sheet music.

Improvisational music comes in many varieties. From free improvisation; which has no pre-written reference, to more traditional jazz; in which the form, harmonic progression, and melody serve as a starting point for spontaneous music making.  In this essay I am offering some thoughts on the latter, that of learning a traditional jazz piece for improvisation.

Learning left and right hands independently
I began memorizing my left and right hand parts separately after reading The Primacy of the Ear, by Ran Blake. As Blake describes, learning each hand alone allows for independent playing in either hand, which allows for easier improvisation. Both melodic and harmonic substitution become more fluid when the materials are learned separately. I begin by learning the melody, and then learning the harmonizations as written in the chart.

Singing the melody at the piano
A second habit that has helped me to learn new music for later improvisation is singing the melody while playing the harmonic accompaniment. Not only has this helped me to play the phrase more authentically at the piano, but has also helped me to learn the melody when playing my other instrument, the trombone. I have been told that saxophonist Phil Woods was an advocate of learning one-line playing by playing and singing the melodic with piano accompaniment.

Listening to multiple recordings with the score
The most important lesson that I have learned from my jazz musician friends is the importance of listening to recordings. The idea of manuscripting solos is a little different from the idea of manuscription in classical training. Although some of the jazz musicians I have spoken with literally write-out the solo lines taken by their favorite musicians, many use the term manuscripting as memorizing the solo line on your instrument through repeated listening. This practice has also enhanced my enjoyment of listening to artists whom I have played their solos.

Writing out my own score
This is another practice that I have learned from multiple jazz musicians. There are some variations as to how folks go about this, but all include writing out chord voicings and harmonic substitutions as a part of learning a new piece. Some do this by ear, others use a lead sheet as a reference. The habit that I have developed begins by hand manuscripting the melody and chord symbols as a two-stave piano transcription.  I then write out my harmonic voicings in either whole, half, or quarter note movement. Later, after I have learned the harmonic material as written in the score, I add my own harmonic substitutions. I do not use these hand-manuscripted charts when playing with friends, only as a way of learning and recording down my ideas. This has proven to help in memorization and reharmonization of the new music I am learning. Writing out a sparse voicing option is useful for comping.

Playing modes and arpeggios of the piece
Lastly, I have gotten into the habit of playing the modes (chord scales) and arpeggios of a new piece in time. This idea was taken from the Jamie Aerbersold method books. It is another great way to become familiar with the chart and free from what is written. It is also a pleasant way to practice scales and arpeggios, by practicing a different piece in each major or minor key.

Making the music my own has been the primary focus in the process of learning new tunes. Learning left and right hands independently, singing the melody line with harmonic accompaniment, listening to many recordings of the piece I am learning, writing out my own scores, and playing the modes and arpeggios of the piece has enhanced my ability to improvise as well as to accompany others. This process is different from that which I used when learning classical music. The nature of the music is different and this requires its own, unique, approach.

Harry Stack Sullivan and Interpersonal Psychology

Harry Stack Sullivan was an American psychiatrist who, along with Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, explored the idea of “personality” as a social phenomenon that emerges from an interpersonal context. Sullivan’s theory was described by Eastern philosopher, Alan Watts, as one of the most promising Western systems of psychology, and described it as a bridge to Buddhist psychology. In this series of podcasts, I introduce the basic theory of Harry Stack Sullivan and discuss its practical value in our everyday lives.

Stack Sullivan wrote one book, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, but kept extensive notebooks and transcripts of his lectures. These notebooks were later edited and published, and are valuable resources to understanding Stack Sullivan’s insights into the human condition. Many of these texts are available at

Stack Sullivan traces the beginnings of habitual reactions to others, in an effort to reduce anxiety and sustain a sense of safety, and demonstrates how those habitual thoughts and behaviors become adult patterns of a self system. For Stack Sullivan, change takes place when we become aware of and replace outdated habitual patterns of reaction with choices that are more conducive to our current, adult situations.

Harry Stack Sullivan founded the William Alanson White Institute, in New York City, which trains psychologists and psychiatrists in interpersonal psychotherapy.

A Theory of Depression: S. Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia

Before describing and explaining Sigmund Freud’s theoretical model for understanding depression, I would like to make some points about theory.

A theory is a working model; a way of conceptualizing a phenomenon that helps us to understand and effect change in ourselves or others. The American intellectual William James described how theoretical models can be useful for understanding while not being real. In this way, a theory can be true -meaning it works, while not being real. An example of this can be found in our everyday treatment of currency. What gives paper currency value is our belief in it, not the paper and ink itself, which is relatively worthless. Its value is symbolic and theoretical, not real. The value of the money is true in that it functions within our society in meaningful way. James shows us that theory can be true without being real. This being said, we can approach Freud’s theory of depression as a model that can be useful in understanding the phenomenon, without becoming distracted by questions that have little bearing on its pragmatic functioning.

In his essay, Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud describes the differences and similarities between mourning the death of a loved one, and depression (melancholia) as it can occur in some individuals. Freud observes that when one mourns the loss of a loved one, sadness is the main feature. When one is depressed, guilt and self-reproach are the main features. This distinction leads Freud to propose a model that helps us to understand the phenomenon of depression.

Like mourning, Freud tells us, depression begins with the loss of a loved object. Freud uses the word object to speak of other people or things that we become attached to. In this way, mother, father, or stuffed animal can all be objects of attachment. Emotionally, the attachment to a stuffed teddybear can be as strong as the attachment to a living person. Loss can be, but is not limited to, death. Loss in this sense can be a disappointment, a slight, neglect, or betrayal by the loved other. This is the first step in the development of depressive reaction: a perceived loss of the loved other.

This other, Freud explains, is usually someone very close to the person, and the loss is typically experienced in childhood. The loss that initiates the depressive reaction might have occurred so long ago that the adult is not fully aware of it. What they remain aware of is the emotional devastation of the perceived betrayal from the other with whom they are attached.

Freud observed that three things take place when we are betrayed by someone we are attached to. First, we try to hold on to that person emotionally, in a way, not letting them go. Secondly, we can suffer guilt for a sense of responsibility for their abandoning us. Thirdly, we often punish ourselves for causing their betrayal. Let’s unpack each of these separately.

When we have an object that we love,  that we are attached to, and that object is lost, we can hold on to that object by integrating it into ourselves. In this way we can introject the other into our own identity and incorporate the other into our own sense of self. This is what happens when a child integrates their parents’ moral codes into what we call conscience. A way of keeping an object connected to ourselves; to keep it close to us, is to identify with it and incorporate it into our own sense of self. This is similar to identification with aggressor, in which  we attempt to overcome a fear of something by become the thing we fear. Put simply, we attempt to hold-on to someone by incorporating them into ourselves.

When someone abandons or betrays us, we can often experience a sense of responsibility for their actions. This questioning of our responsibility for the betrayal is a common characteristic in any loss. The emotional experience of ambivalence, that is, a sense of being a victim of betrayal while simultaneously being the cause of that betrayal, is a central factor in Freud’s conception of depression. We can come to experience anger towards the other for betraying us, while feeling as sense of guilt for causing their betrayal.

At this point, the individual can safely direct their rage and anger towards the other; punishing them for their betrayal, symbolically on their own self. In other words, the hostility is directed inwards, to the portion of the self that has identified with the lost object of love. The experience of depression, in this way, becomes a self-punishment. That part of the self that is the other is punished while the intact sense of self is blamed and punished for causing the betrayal. The depression is a simultaneous punishing the other and the self, both as incorporations in the me.

Sigmund Freud’s 1917 model for depression is not to be taken as the only model, and should not be misunderstood as the explanation for all depression. The model has been useful to some people for understanding their experience of depression. Like all theoretical work, we take it or leave it, depending on its practical value for our own understanding of ourselves.

*The essay Mourning and Melancholia in full-text.


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The Swiss analytic psychologist Carl Gustav Jung described life with a metaphor of the sun. In the first half of life, as the sun rises, we rise in empowerment through gathering; experiences, education, resources, and friends. The focus during the first half of life is on obtaining. At high-noon, what he called the midlife, it is not uncommon to find a switch from the outward gaze to inward reflection. Jung taught that this transition into the second half of life, the sunset, was marked by an increased interest in spirituality, art, and introspection. It is in this midlife that we take inventory of where we have been, where we are at, and where we are going. Whereas the first half of life was marked by accumulation, the second half of life is characterized by dissemination. By the second half of life we have accumulated the resources, experiences, and knowledge needed to nurture the next generation. “Life,” Jung said, “really does begin at forty.” Continue reading