English: University of Texas at Austin wordmark.

Most of my thoughts on improv go into my other blog, Improv Insights, but this is a lot about horn; I was just asked a question in an email by Jacob Schnitzer, an undergrad horn student in the studio of Patrick Hughes at UT-Austin. He wondered about the role of jazz in a horn player’s experience. Here’s what I wrote back:

Image of Austin, Texas


The topic of classical improv is a very deep well. It has vast
possibilities in the development of technique and musicianship and in
pedagogy at all levels. What stops most people is the old definition:
improv = jazz = bebop = no way. It stopped me for decades, and I
played jazz guitar! It’s like saying conversation = auctioneer chatter
in Chinese. But redefine it (to continue the language analogy) as talking with
friends about stuff that interests you and suddenly there are no
barriers and the idea of conversing is easy, irresistible, fun, and
really useful. I love jazz, and think that every minute spent on it is
a minute well spent, but I am interested in learning ‘selectively’
from it – using jazz’s way of thinking about chords and scales
(terminology, labels, etc) but not being committed to the style or
repertoire. Use the jazz’s player’s ability to understand music, to
think in music, and willingness to explore the instrument and music,
to experiment and see what happens. To think rather than just recite.
We don’t have to give up anything, but we can add new dimensions to our
musical world by starting to make our own music, develop our own
voices. Warning: the stages of acquaintance with improv often go like
this: this is scary I’m not going to do it I might play a wrong
note….. this is scary ok I’ll try something it’ll probably be
terrible and I’ll be humiliated ….ok I tried it; it was scary but
you know it was sort of fun at the same time I’ll maybe try something
again…. that was fun and easy hey I didn’t die…. what happens if I
try this…. hmmm, that gives me more ideas; let me try this with my
friend, ok you play this and let me try stuff over it…. this is
really fun and interesting and I tried it on this problem I’ve been
having and things started clearing up and then I tried it with my
young student and they had fun and the hour went by really fast…. I
never knew I could play so much stuff without looking at the page
before…. this is great how come nobody ever told me about this and
how come they don’t teach this from the very beginning…. this gives
me a lot of ideas that I have to try out I’ll eat dinner later….

And so on. Jazz is great, but don’t let it stop you by being the only definition of creative music. Use its procedures with other more comfortable styles. Adapt the method to
what you are currently working on. Play a little alone and a lot with
others. With improv you can play with any other instrument, any level.
It’s like suddenly being able to speak 14 languages. Kinda cool.


Now to wipe some egg off my face: in my original post, I confused Jacob Schnitzer with Felipe Vera, the horn studio TA and a DMA candidate. My apologies! They don’t call it short term memory for nothing, although if I had just thought about it for, oh, eight seconds, I would have probably gotten it straight. One thing I did get right: Felipe was and is a very interesting guy and I really enjoyed our conversation into town from the airport. I wish we would have had more time to talk while I was there – Felipe is a very sharp guy and indeed very curious. Felipe, I hope you forgive me for the mixup and that we can continue our talks via email. Thanks again for the ride and the great conversation.

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