Richard Middleton
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"Playing from the Inside Out"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, October 2002.

Once you've developed sufficient skill on your instrument, it's easy to "let your fingers do the walking" and play all the familiar licks, riffs, and chord progressions that you know. Your hand knows where to go, everything sounds good, and people are smiling at you — life is good. But, after a while, you might get the feeling that you're on auto-pilot, that it's your hand that's playing, not you. This experience is common among intermediate musicians, who, having mastered the basics, are eager to learn to play with more intention.

What I mean by playing with intention is having a more direct, spontaneous, and creative connection to the notes and ideas you're playing — what I call "playing from the inside out." To do this requires a shift in approach. You have to think of the music as occurring first and foremost in your mind — your instrument is only the means by which others can hear it.

This shift requires a deeper musical awareness and accuracy of perception, both of which ultimately boil down to ear training: if you can recognize the notes and intervals you hear in your mind, playing them becomes much easier. In essence, you have to "tune" your mind, calibrating your inner, subjective experience of pitch with the outer, objective pitches on your instrument.

One way to test how accurately you perceive pitch is to do a simple exercise called pitch matching. Play a pitch in the middle-to-lower range of your instrument (but not too low). Play it several times so that it rings continuously. Now let the note decay, and imagine that you hear it continuing to play in your mind. Now imagine your own voice producing the same pitch. Don't sing, just hear your voice in your mind, perfectly in tune with the pitch that you played on your instrument. Now sing the pitch out loud. How close are you? Are you dead-on? Are you higher or lower than the original pitch? Check it by playing the pitch on your instrument again. Sing the pitch while you play it, and see if your voice is in tune. If not, "tune" it like you would a guitar, sliding it up or down as needed until you are in tune with the pitch of your instrument.

Some people nail it the first time, but most have to work at it a bit at first, especially if they've never done much singing. Try this exercise with different pitches, higher and lower in your range. The point here isn't tone, or breath support, or even beauty — this isn't a vocal technique exercise. The point is to use the voice as a means of checking how "in tune" your inner ear is. If you can hear the pitch clearly enough in your mind, then chances are very good that you will be able to sing it roughly in tune. The more you do this exercise, the more accurate your inner ear will be (and, as a fringe benefit, your voice will get a beneficial workout as well).

If you still find it difficult to match your voice to your instrument, you can try doing the reverse — match your instrument to your voice. Sing a steady tone, any pitch you like, and see if you can find it on your instrument. For those who feel particularly "vocally challenged," this is a great variation on the pitch matching exercise, for it allows your voice to lead rather than follow. Yet you still exercise your inner ear, because you must be able to hear that pitch accurately enough to determine whether the pitch you play on your instrument matches it or not.

(An excellent companion exercise to those given here is one I call the Melody Game. I've written about it at length in other Victory articles, so I won't get deeply into it here. Briefly, it's an adapted form of solfeggio, in which you learn to recognize and sing the tones of the major scale, then use that ability to "decode" melodic patterns and tunes using scale tones. For more about the Melody Game, see the articles dated January 1999 and November 2000.)

Now let's put your developing ear training skills to a different use, in an exercise I call "letting the ear lead." Pick some scale that you're familiar with — major, minor, pentatonic, blues — it doesn't matter what it is, as long as you can play it without two much hunting and pecking, and you're familiar with its sound. Play a tone in the scale, and let it sustain. Now, in your "inner ear," see if you can hear what tone comes next. Higher? Lower? Nearby? Far away? See if you can hear that tone clearly in your mind, then find it on your instrument. Now listen in your mind for the next tone and find it on your instrument. And the next... and the next.

Perhaps you hear a favorite bluesy lick in your mind. That's fine — go ahead and play that. Perhaps you hear a few in a row. That's fine — go ahead and play them. The trick is, however, is that you must first hear it in your mind before you play it. Don't simply let your hand run around the fingerboard or keyboard on auto-pilot. Hear each note, each lick, each chord in your mind before you play it.

One way to ease into this exercise is to do a variation I call "playing it as it lays." It's a little like golf or billiards: each new idea you play has to begin with the last note of the preceding idea. That is, if you play a lick that ends on a C, your next bit of melody has to begin with C. This makes it a little easier to "let the ear lead," because the first note of your next idea is already known, both internally, and on your instrument.

It's important to understand that the idea here is not to be "original," but to be spontaneous. It doesn't matter in this exercise if you play licks that everyone else plays, if you play melodies that you've heard before, if everything you play sounds derivative. What matters is that you're playing with intention. That is, you're consciously choosing each note, each phrase, each lick — hearing it in your mind before you play it.

Many of the improvisers you may admire often play material that is anything but "original." It's all inherited and recycled from something they've heard or played before. What makes their playing exciting is that they're combining these "unoriginal" bits in a spontaneous way, in the moment, each idea a response to the one that came before, each played with presence and intention.

Paradoxically, it's when you let go of the need to be original and just pay attention to what you're doing that surprisingly original ideas occur to you, unbidden, as a natural response to what's happening. You don't have to "think them up," they just come. And if your inner ear is developed enough, you can catch them and play them when they do. Ultimately, this process happens so fast that it's not so much that you hear it before you play it, but the hearing and playing merge into one experience. Enjoy!

Copyright 2002 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).