Developing Musical Instincts: Internalizing the Music

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As promised, here’s another installment in my “Developing Musical Instincts” series, which is basically a discussion on some important and often times overlooked concepts.  As I’ve stated before, there is so much more to becoming a great musician other than your time spent in the practice room.  There’s a lot of other variables that are involved in the whole process.  I have many other writings regarding this and will continue to put my opinions on this matter out there.  Too often we get caught up in the “bells and whistles” and forget about the “meat and potatoes!”

What sparked this topic for me today was something that happened to me this morning.  I was playing drum kit at a church and was sight-reading the charts.  We didn’t have much time in rehearsal to really work on the last tune, and the chart I had was just a condensed piano part.  Thus, it was really hard for me to decipher, since I wasn’t familiar with the song, what style the director wanted or what type of groove was appropriate.  He couldn’t really explain to me in detail what he wanted, but he vocalized a couple of off-beat accents that the piano was doing, saying that this was what he was hearing.  As soon as he sang this, I was able to play almost exactly what he was wanting to hear.

A little bit later I thought about this and it reminded me of something that Steve Jordan said in his DVD “The Groove is Here.”  First off, if you don’t have this DVD go buy it as soon as you can.  If you don’t know who Steve Jordan is, go look him up and listen (you’ve actually already heard his work on a ton of records)!  Steve is one of my favorite drummers, and I think that this DVD is amazing and chalked full of sage musical advice and inspirational drumming.

Steve was speaking about internalizing the music, and he showed a clip of a clinic/masterclass that he was doing somewhere.  In this particular lesson, he had someone that was attempting to play a syncopated drum beat behind the kit.  At first, the student couldn’t get it.  Then, Jordan had the whole class sing the groove, including this student.  Suddenly as soon as he sang the groove correctly, he was able to play it.  What was different just one minute before that?  The mind was in a different place.

Sometimes we have enough musical background to look at a piece of music and be able to play exactly what’s written without thinking much about it.  This is just from basic pedagogy.  However, I know that we’ve all been in a place before where something, whether it be a particular rhythm or maybe remembering some musical phrase, just trips us up.  No matter how hard you look at the page, not matter how slow you try to play it, it just isn’t working out.  That’s because you’re most likely trying to rely too much on muscle memory.  Often times muscle memory is a great ally, but other times it can be a great adversary!  Ironically, for muscle memory to truly perform its function, it must first be recognized and solidified in the brain.

So singing a particular groove or melody or harmony is the key.  Once again; simple concept, but one that is often forgotten.  It’s a different way to look at things.  I wish I would have had this concept when I was a younger teacher.  I remember some students getting tripped up on some particular rhythms.  In my attempt to get them through it, I would have them slow it way down and just keep doing it over and over until they get it.  Sometimes it’s good to just work on the beat or two that is causing the problem, then put it all together.  Although these are still viable teaching methods and concepts, I’m curious as to how much time I would have saved both of us if I just would have had them sing the parts?!?

Therefore, when I say “internalizing” the music, it’s all about hearing it in your brain first before it goes through your hands and feet.  I’ve heard this concept called the “mind’s eye” before.  Many say that it’s impossible to be a great improviser without being able to first hear the music in your head.  I agree with this.  You may not be able to sing along note for note with what you are doing, but you need to be able to hear the phrasing, rhythm, and melody before you’re even executing note one.  This comes about through many methods, including practicing and listening.  (Check out my P.O.P. approach to being a well rounded musician blog that talks about the importance of integrating listening, practicing and performing all together to make yourself a stronger musician)  It’s about singing to yourself, whether audibly or in your head, along with music that you’re hearing or just “practicing” in your head without anything else going on.

In conclusion, I want to once again reiterate that I’m never advocating the absence of good old-fashioned ‘wood-shedding’ in your practice room.  My charge, rather, is that you need to always consider the extra-curricular elements that go along with all of this stuff.  It’s like the kid in marching band that can’t play in time because they cannot march in time.  The two go hand-in-hand.  It’s like 70% of the young students that miraculously are able to play something once you actually make them count and think about what their hands are doing.  It’s about listening to as much music as you can and constantly striving to take at least one thing away from the experience.  Total immersion = total internalization.  What are some ways that you internalize or think about how you are playing?

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One Response to "Developing Musical Instincts: Internalizing the Music"
  1. 07/02/2011 06:04


    One of the best lessons I learned at GIT was that if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it. If your brain doesn’t know exactly what to tell the rest of you to do, you’re just guessing, really.

    And the fun thing about this is that once you get into the habit, you will know how to play things before you ever actually try them out…..

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