We get better at the things we practice, and we sound like the things we play. That’s all we have. Everything beyond that is concepts and emotions which we either use to interact with our circumstances or allow to toss us around in the rough waters of decision making.

“Don’t go to far from the melody when you improvise.”

This is great advice, if you want people to hear the melody in your improvisation. But why does it feel like there’s some moral imperative that we stick to the melody? Haven’t we all heard some of our peers, feeling high and mighty, say something like “Yeah he’s pretty good but he plays too many notes, not enough of the melody”?

Certainly there is value in referencing the melody of the song on which you are improvising. The melodic material is accessible to an audience, it requires a certain kind of clever awareness, and it seems to create a cohesive link to the rest of the music. This is how one looks at improvisation through the lens of pop-music sensibility. (That’s also not a slight against pop-music)

Playing the melody is a method, not a virtue. The same goes for playing at a certain volume, or at a certain speed, or in a certain key, or with a certain level of complexity.

I know that if I play close to the melody, at a somewhat loud volume, in the key of B, with only a few complex passages, then I’ll fit in very well with a certain type of Bluegrass band on a certain type of Bluegrass song. All of those factors change with every different group of musicians, style, and choice of material. One genre’s apparent standard of musical propriety isn’t going to apply equally everywhere.

Do not mistake other people’s tastes for morality.


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