How to Practice Simplicity

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Sometimes the best melodies are the simplest ones.

The less you say, the more each individual note stands out.

Miles Davis lived out this musical philosophy every night on the bandstand, and we can all learn a lot from how he makes the most out of the fewest notes. 

Check out this track “Jean Pierre” from the album We Want Miles.

Notice how simple his musical propositions are, and how much impact one note alteration has on the meaning of each phrase.  His lines are almost nursery-rhyme like in nature, being so easily recognizable and repeatable. 

Because of this, even the slightest change in tone, phrasing, or harmony can intrigue the ear of the listener.

One way to explore this concept for yourself in a live gig situation is through the exploration of melodic quotes.  Now when played obviously, melodic quotes can be a little cheesy. 

Check out this video of “the lick” to see what I mean.

Instead of plopping and dropping a quote so people will easily hear it, try disguising a quote so it is barely recognizable, if at all. 

The Process:

  1. Pick a recognizable melodic quote.
  2. Play it throughout the night as much as possible, but you must alter it melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically with the goal of sneaking it in.
  3. Leave out notes. Add some new ones. But keep coming back to that quote as your musical “source” for the night.
  4. Listen to the effect each minor alternation has on the meaning of the phrase.

The ideas you generate can act as spring boards to new areas of improvisation. 

Forcing yourself to adhere to this strategy will open your ears and your fingers up to new, simple melodic possibilities that might never have been discovered otherwise.

I hope this “Disguised Quote” method can serve as a tool to break you out of musical homeostasis!

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