Jazz and improvisation at Finchcocks


There’s a special event coming up that I’d like to introduce—I’m participating in it as the course leader.

The event is a workshop on improvisation at Finchcocks in Kent from 6 through to 8 July. It’ll be an intensive, fun hands-on weekend for anyone and everyone interested in the art of improvisation. No prior experience in improvisation required! Enthusiasm, really, that’s all that’s needed!

For beginners and advanced practitioners!

While, it’s true, we’ll work with what some might call high-level concepts, the course is in the category of no-improvisation-experience required. Actually, the premise from which we’ll work is we’ll move back and forth between the so-called high-level on the one hand and no-experience required, on the other.

But should’t beginners start at the beginning and shouldn’t advanced practioners start wherever they may be? Perhaps.

Othe other hand, we learn only when we try something new. So it’s helpful for beginners to see where they’re going—that’s why the higher level stuff—it’ll be new for beginners. Conversely, it’s rewarding for experienced improvisers to return to basic concepts—to see them anew with fresh perspective.

Or we could say:

Take in the new and the unknown as best as you can. When possible use different lenses for second and third looks at what you already know.

Improvising, ears, listening

So, what will be do in the course? How can anyone be learn or be taught to improvise?

Here’s one path we could explore: Consider that with pre-hearing we conceptualise what we might play BEFORE we play it. In that case we—very simply and with as much ease as we can muster—play what we hear.

But it also happens that sometimes we pre-hear what we’d like to play but, for one reason or another, we don’t or can’t follow up to play what we’ve conceptualised. In that case, we switch to a post-hearing mode. In other words, we respond to what we’ve just played instead of initiating something new.

In theory, it’s that’s all simple. We make a musical statement and follow it with a related statement. Or we ask a musical question. Then we give a musical answer. In all cases, we do the best we can without worrying about right and wrong notes.

That’s in part because the right notes are self-evident. But wrong notes—that’s where things become really interesting.

That’s because a wrong note can lead to something unforeseen, an emergent moment we might call it. That emergent moment can, in turn, lead to an improvisation that doesn’t follow the path we thought we had first place.

In practice, yes, all described above requires practice. But that’s also one of the hidden secrets of improvising, which is decide how you’d like to improvise and then practice towards that your goal.

The question, as regards to a goal, will always be:

What do we want our music to sound like?


Tthere are six or so gorgeous and well-maintained instruments at Finchcocks. As we practice the arts of pre-hearing and post-hearing and playing and responding we’ll very likely find that each one of those pianos has its own individual voice.

Given then that every piano is an individual with its own character and strengths, we’ll be look for the gorgeous sound that’s unique to each instrument. That gorgeous sound, acccording to the character of each individual instrument, will literally waft out of those six pianos.

That’s a lesson in of itself. That lesson, in particular, is improvisation can be about how we organise sound. Or, we could say:

Hear and consider sound first and all other things later.

Right and wrong notes

Let’s say something further about the role of right and wrong notes and scales and chords and all other such things traditionally, usually, and often covered in books about how to improvise and play jazz:

Tha something further is: Again, we’ll focus on sound first. We’ll come back to that because with sound as a first priority then we can look at how notes—or rather, sounds—interact with each other.

It’s at that point we’ll very likely notice that, yes, there are notes in many circumstances we’ll use more commonly than others. But along with that observation we may also see the notes we don’t commonly use aren’t wrong.

Rather, it’s just that they need more care and perhaps more preparation. That means, in turn, that all notes are available to us but how and when we use any note has to do with context.

In other words, a book may tell us that this scale goes with that chord. But that’s only part of the story.

The stories and the storied

It’s only part of the story because it’s also true that

great improvisers—think about Miles Davis as one example—often played a questionable note or notes. But great improvisers, like alchemists, also transformed so-called questionable notes literally into gold!

I had a conversation once with Dave Holland. He’s one among many of the great bass players in jazz. It happens as well that he’s from the UK and played with Miles Davis among others.

I had the very fortunate job of writing a review for a newspaper about the solo bass concert he was about to present. Among things Dave Holland told me that evening where that all of his tours with the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock were very special.

I asked him why and he said—and here I paraphrase—because that conversation was a long time ago:

There was no such thing as a wrong note when he played with Herbie Hancock. Rather, Herbie Hancock just accepted whatever notes Dave Holland played. Right or wrong had nothing to do with it!.

Here’s a great profile of Dave Holland: https://www.ft.com/content/81e593be-bd8b-11e7-823b-ed31693349d3.

The sum of the parts is greater than the whole

If you’re interested in participating in the course, don’t hesitate to send me questions about what you’d like to see addressed or what you’d like to learn. I’ll also be available over the course weekend to offer private coaching to anyone and everyone who’d like to take advantage of that particular option.

Meanwhile, it’s true:

Combine basic concepts and the outcome will no longer be all that basic. Rather, the outcome may be the music we hear and that we want to improvise.

What’s next? Experience?

After the course, naturally,, we’ll continue to improvise using concepts from the course as a guide or a framework. And we’ll use other things we’ve all learned elsewhere. And what we’ll find over time is tha with the actual doing of something, of anything—experience makes a difference.

There’s irony there because in fact we get experience from experience. Or, another entirely different way to say that is we improvise to learn. Did I mention: If you book one of the remaining course seats Finchcocks is offering a 20% discount?

For more info or to reserve a place in the course, visit Finchcocks’ web site.