How well do you know where they go?
Knowing where the fingers go seems like a simple concept. Of course you have to know where your fingers go. You’re stating the obvious again, let’s move on to something more useful.
But wait. Hold on a second. I have a question. How slow can you play that instrument of yours? I’m not interested how fast you can play. Show me how well you know where your fingers go. Take your time. I’ll wait patiently for you to get ready.
Ready. Go ahead. Oops you made a mistake there. Sure you can start over. Whoops. Another botched note. I know it’s never wracking to play in front of somebody. No big deal. Play something easier. Play the easiest thing you know, and play it slowly.
Yes I know it’s hard. Can’t do it huh? You know why? Because you don’t really know where your fingers go. When I say know where your fingers go I mean every little itsy bitsy tiny nit-picky detail. If you hope to play any piece of music you’ve got to know what you’re going to play before hand. I mean know it stone cold solid.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh yeah. Well what about people who improvise? They don’t know what they’re going to play. They make it up as they go along.” Ok, fair question. I’ll answer that question with a question. Do people who can type, type the same sentences over and over exactly the same way? Every single time? No. Instead, they know their way around the keyboard well enough that they can just type their thoughts as soon as they come to them.
A computer keyboard is quite a bit smaller than say a grand piano but the mechanisms are the same. A jazz pianist has spent years getting to know their instrument well enough that they can communicate with the piano in the same way a typist can. They have a thought, and their fingers react. Instead of using words, our pianist is thinking sounds.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck has to say about improvisation. “Just because they’re improvising doesn’t mean they’re making it all up out of nowhere. It’s based on everything they know how to play, and the sounds that they like…interspersed with coming up with good guesses of things that might sound good because of how well they knew the (banjo) neck and learning how to recover from a new idea with style.” (Masters of the 5 String Banjo. Trischka, Wernick)
Jazz Guitar master Joe Pass described improvisation as “like a language. You have a whole collection of musical ideas that you’ve accumulated through your musical history.” (The Genius of Joe Pass. Video) Music is not unlike words you know in your vocabulary. How well you know those “words” is based on how well you’ve practiced.