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[JRJ 7.

2 (2013) 183-202] (print) ISSN 1753-8637

doi:10.1558/jazz.v7i2.20971 (online) ISSN 1753-8645

Jedi mind tricks:

Lennie Tristano and techniques for imaginative
musical practice
Marian S. Jago
PhD candidate, Department of Music, University of York, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada, M3J 1P3

In the 1940s, pianist Lennie Tristano was among the first to attempt to teach jazz improvi-
sation as an area of study distinct from instrumental technique. In doing so, he employed
a methodology that was considered highly unorthodox at the time and that is still some-
what unique for jazz pedagogy. Chief among these unorthodox pedagogical devices was
the use of visualization and other mental techniques for musical practice and composi-
tion. These methods enabled students to separate imaginative musical experiences from
the habits of muscle memory, while at the same time speeding up the acquisition of cer-
tain digital techniques and developing the musical imagination.
Visualization techniques also served to extend available practice time for students
who lacked space suitable for audible instrumental practice, and to those who were
working day jobs and had limited time available for instrumental practice. Recent
studies in brain plasticity bear out Tristanos intuitive use of mental techniques as a
useful addendum to more traditional forms of instrumental and compositional prac-
tice. Though certainly not the first to emphasize the importance of mental condition-
ing and imaginative practice methods, Tristanos use of them within a methodology for
jazz instruction constitutes a unique pedagogical approach worthy of further research
and discussion.

Keywords: improvisation; jazz; Lennie Tristano; pedagogy

Though not widely discussed, pianist Lennie Tristano (19191978) was

among the first to develop a method of instruction that dealt directly with
the art of jazz improvisation, rather than simply with instrumental technique
and theory (Gitler 1966; Davis 1986; Shim 2007; Chamberlain 2000; Ham-
ilton 2007; Robinson 2011; Jago 2011, 2013).1 In addition to the novel idea

1. Writing on Tristano has been sporadic. Several articles from contemporary jazz
periodicals are well worth reading as they allow Tristano to express in his own words
his philosophy on music, improvisation and the contemporary state of jazz. In particular,
see Metronome (August 1949): 14, 3222; (November 1951): 13, 22; DownBeat (18 April

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184 Jazz Research Journal

that improvisation could be taught in a reliable manner, what made Trista-

nos approach unique was his focus on the performance of jazz as an art
form rather than as a professional occupation. Tristano was concerned
with developing his students into artists rather than (just) professional
instrumentalists, and this philosophy formed the core of his pedagogical
approach. In pursuit of these goals, Tristano made use of unorthodox ped-
agogical devices that included an emphasis upon visualization and other
mental techniques for musical practice. Though certainly not the first to
emphasize the importance of mental conditioning and imaginative practice
methods, the degree to which Tristano made use of them within a meth-
odology for jazz instruction was, and is, a decidedly unique pedagogical
approach. Recently, scientific research into brain plasticity has shown that
many of the techniques employed by Tristano have concrete and verifi-
able benefits (Norris 1980; Denis 1985; Mumford and Clark 1985; Pascual-
Leone et al. 1994, 1995).
Born in Chicago in 1919, Tristano lost his eyesight completely by the
age of six. Despite his blindness, Tristano quickly became proficient at
musical theory, composition and piano, graduating from Chicagos Ameri-
can Conservatory of Music in 1943.2 Tristano began his professional career
in Chicago, but relocated to New York in 1946 where he was named Met-
ronome magazines Musician of the Year for 1947 (Shim 2007: 46). During
this period he began to teach seriously, attracting such notable students
as Warne Marsh (tenor saxophone) and Lee Konitz (alto saxophone), and
opening a dedicated teaching studio at 317 E. 32nd Street in Manhattan
in 1951.3 In 1949 Tristano would record the two earliest examples of free

1956): 3637; (16 May 1956): 1112, 42; (30 October 1958): 17; and Melody Maker (13
November 1965): 7, among others.
The only previous attempt to document Tristanos pedagogical approach comes in
the form of an early music education dissertation (McKinney 1978), and the only mono-
graph dedicated to Tristanos remarkable career comes from Eunmi Shims doctoral work
(Shim 2007). The only other academic publishing on Tristano is by the author (Jago 2011;
Insight may be gained into Tristano and his methodology by reading Safford Cham-
berlains work on tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh (Chamberlain 2000), bassist Peter
Inds autobiography (Ind 2005), Andy Hamiltons recent work on Lee Konitz (Hamilton
2007) and Ira Gitlers well-informed essay from the mid-1960s, which has been recently
reprinted (Gitler 2001).
2. Tristano was also proficient on a number of woodwind instruments, including
tenor saxophone on which he occasionally performed early in his career.
3. In the 1940s, Tristano experimented with teaching via correspondence, and it is
through such exchanges that saxophonists Warne Marsh and Ted Brown, and trumpeter

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Jedi mind tricks 185

jazz for Capitol RecordsDigression and Intuitionand would engage

in ground-breaking experiments in extended studio techniques in jazz for
Atlantic Records in 1955 (Tristano, Atlantic 1224; Jago 2013). Following the
closure of his studio in 1956, Tristano largely retreated from public life, per-
forming and recording rarely; preferring to teach out of his home on Long
Island, New York, until his death in 1978.4 Tristanos teaching methodolo-
gies were in many ways significantly opposed to the predominant peda-
gogical discourse of chord-scale theory later codified by such publications
as Improvising Jazz (Coker 1964), Patterns for Improvisation (Nelson 1966),
Patterns for Jazz (Coker 1970), and How to Play Jazz and Improvise (Aeber-
sold 1978).5 Though outspoken in contemporary jazz media such as Metro-
nome, Melody Maker and DownBeat (see note 1), Tristano did not formally
express his teaching methods in writing.
In assessing Tristanos approach to imaginative techniques for musical
practice, I have conducted an exhaustive survey of the written material on
Tristano (Gitler 1966; McKinney 1978; Ind 2005; Hamilton 2007; Shim 2007;
Jago 2011, 2013, etc.), and have then bolstered this research with a series
of interviews conducted with Ted Brown (1927present), a tenor saxophon-
ist and student of Tristanos during the late 1940s1960s (Jago forthcom-
ing 2015). Additionally, I have engaged in some self-ethnography, drawing
upon my own experiences of having studied under this approach. Lastly,
I have examined research in the area of brain plasticity, paying particular
attention to those studies in which the performance of musical tasks serve
as an assessment model for the efficacy of imaginative techniques on the
acquisition of motor skills.
One of the hallmarks of Tristanos pedagogical approach was the
amount of time that was required to progress under a system not based
upon the acquisition of instrumental skill as an end in itself, but as a means
to improvisational fluidity. Tristano submitted all prospective students to an
interview process, and made it clear that he was only interested in accept-
ing those students who were willing to commit to a minimum of one years

Don Fererra, came into contact with him. Though Tristano seems to have abandoned
such methods, it should be noted that in later years Lee Konitz was known to teach via
4. There has been a recent upsurge in interest surrounding Tristano. Saxophonist
Mark Turner is an outspoken admirer, as is pianist Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus who has
written about Tristano, Konitz and Marsh on his online blog, and has recently studied and
performed with Lee Konitz.
5. Along with much of contemporary jazz education.

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unbroken study.6 Such a policy stood in contrast to the more prevalent con-
temporary practice of informal apprenticeship and on-the-job instruction.
This commitment to an unbroken series of lessons, in conjunction with
Tristanos emphasis upon artistic practice over immediately useable pro-
fessional skills, required that those studying with Tristano reject a great
many professional opportunities of the time, such as employment with the
touring dance-bands still active in certain areas of the United States. Such
employment would have taken a student out of town for weeks or months
at a time, thereby preventing the regular and concerted study that formed
the heart of Tristanos pedagogical process. Further, the acquisition and
use of musical skills for the purpose of making a living was not a priority for
Tristanothough the mechanics of music were important, they were impor-
tant only in so much as they provided the means through which the artist
could find expression. As Lee Konitz recalled in an interview,

He [Tristano] was a musician/philosopher I didnt know, as yet,

[when he began to study] anything about the music as an art form.
But [Tristano] felt and communicated that the music was a serious
matter. It wasnt a game or just a means to make a living; it was a life
force (Kastin 1985: 1).

As a result, studying with Tristano required a commitment to certain

artistic ideals that made earning a living through music somewhat prob-
lematic. Though high-profile students such as saxophonists Lee Konitz
and Warne Marsh were able to avoid holding day jobs for much of their
careers,7 many of Tristanos students worked at non-musical jobs to pay for
their lessons and subsistence in New York. Perhaps most famously, saxo-
phonist Ted Brown led quite an accomplished musical career while at the
same time holding down a full-time day job, eventually becoming one of the
first generation of IT professionals.
This approach was largely at odds with the prevailing pedagog-
ical approaches of the time which were rooted in the idea of informal
apprenticeship, and oriented in large part towards developing the profes-
sional skills required for employment in the remaining dance bands and

6. This was the case at least in the early years of Tristanos teaching in New York
(the 1940s). Anecdotal evidence suggests that by the 1960s he had dropped this explicit
requirement, though he still demanded a perhaps unusual level of commitment and regu-
lar attendance at lessons.
7. But not always. For a time in California, Marsh worked cleaning pools, and Konitz
was once both a bible salesman and record-store clerk. Generally speaking, however,
both had high enough public profiles in New York to make a reasonable living teaching.

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Jedi mind tricks 187

orchestras of the day. That jazz music could be approached first and fore-
most as an artistic endeavour was not a widespread idea, and there was
hitherto no concerted efforts to provide instruction on how to progress as
a creative musician. For the most part, improvisation and development as
a jazz soloist, rather than simply a proficient instrumentalist, was left to the
individualit was something you either had, or didnt have, and was not,
by-and-large, considered something that could be taught in a methodical
fashion beyond the explication of chords and their corresponding scales.8
Holding a steady job has a rather obvious impact on the amount of time
one can spend practising an instrument. Jazz history is filled with stories of
artists practising nearly incessantly, and the idea that one ought to spend
most of ones day engaged in instrumental practice is now a truism in cer-
tain circles. Yet, for the majority of Tristanos students, such habits were
simply not an option. Ted Brown, who began studying with Tristano in the
late 1940s, describes his general situation below:

When I started studying with Lennie in November of 1948 I was work-

ing a day gig, so from Monday through Friday my practice time had to
be at nightand that was usually an hour and a half to two hours. It
was very hard to find places to live which would allow me to practice
at night. I had a room on 58th Street near Columbus Circle for a while
and the Superintendent told me I had to stop at 9:00 PM. By the time
I got home from work and had something to eat it would be around
7:00 PM before I could get started. And if I went one minute past 9:00
PM the Super would start banging on the radiator. I moved quite often
because of noise complaints but eventually found places on the upper
west side of Manhattan which would let me play until 10:00 PM (inter-
view with Brown, 31 March 2009).

The situation must have been quite similar for other Tristano students with
non-musical jobs, to greater or lesser degrees.
It is worth reiterating here that the method of study developed by
Tristano was highly unique for its time. Tristanos early years of teaching
predated the regular inclusion of jazz into college music programmes,9 and

8. Discussions with Ted Brown, Lee Konitz, Bob Mover, Don Palmer and other musi-
cians active on the New York scene during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s bear this out.
9. While the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles added jazz to its curriculum in
1945 and North Texas State added a jazz degree in 1949, Berklee did not begin to hand
out diplomas in jazz until 1954, the summer school programme at the Lenox School did
not begin until 1957, and Oscar Petersons school for Advanced Contemporary Music
(Canada) until 1960. With the possible exception of the short-lived Lenox and Peterson
schools, these programmes were still not concerned with the types of creative issues that
formed the basis for Tristanos approach, but rather pioneered the types of chord-scale

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was a marked departure from the hitherto ad hoc ways in which proficiency
as a jazz soloist had been developed.10 Though Tristano did not emphasize
musical skill for its own sake, his approach, which stressed musical fluidity,
relied upon a level of musical competence that was rare for the time period.
Tristano expected his students to have complete mastery of their instru-
ments, to be able to play in all keys, to have a significant grasp of rhythmic
complexity, to be able to transpose by ear and to be able to sing accurately
all the intervals, melodies and harmonic movements being practised.
In todays culture of institutionalized jazz education it seems obvious
that a musician should have full command of their instrument and be able
to play in all keys, and to hear that students were impressed by Trista-
nos emphasis upon musical rudiments perhaps sounds nave. However,
one needs to bear in mind that in the 1940s such rigorous musical training
was still the nearly exclusive domain of classical music, the style most rep-
resented by academic musical education. Additionally, such professional-
ism was simply not required to make a living playing in the vast majority
of dance bands at the time. Warne Marsh explains his earliest contact with

They were lessons, and they seemed exactly what I wanted from a
teacher Oh, it was elementary. It was what a musician needs to
know to be able to express himself in the language of music It was
all the rudiments of music that actually you dont get when you go
after playing dance band music and playing solos the way kids do.
You dont get what classical music does offer if you stay with it long
enough, which is polyrhythms and mixed meters and good harmony
and ear training, the substance of music (Chamberlain 2000: 43).

In order to balance the musical demands made of his students with the
realities of living and working in an urban environment, Tristanos peda-
gogical approach placed a great emphasis upon techniques and meth-
ods of musical development that took place away from the instrument.

rooted curriculums (along with composition and arranging, etc.) which still predominate
in institutional jazz education today.
10. From the perspective of the practising student, it is also worth considering that
Tristanos methodology predated the establishment of the practice room as a venue for
concerted study, and required that the student find means to practise at home, outdoors
or elsewhere.
11. At the time Don Ferrara was studying with Tristano through the mail, something
that both Tristano and Konitz have done on occasion when a student was unable to
attend lessons in person. Ferrara showed both Ted Brown and Warne Marsh some of his
correspondence with Tristano.

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This emphasis upon improvisation and melodic development, along with

the mental techniques that Tristano encouraged, resulted in a form of
practice that lent itself particularly well to an interrupted routine, and may
have been one of the chief reasons that so many of Tristanos students
were able to find success despite their (often) lack of full-time attendance
to music. As we shall see, recent findings in the area of brain plasticity fur-
ther bear out the efficacy of mental techniques for the acquisition of instru-
mental skill.
Tristanos emphasis on musical practice that took place away from ones
instrument both stemmed from and reinforced his belief that in order to truly
improvise, ones aural imagination had to be both fertile and precise. The
cultivation of the aural imagination also served to free the musician from
the habits and techniques of muscle memory linked to a particular instru-
ment. Knowledge of intervals, scales, keys and harmonic progressions
were often best worked on away from ones instrument, and were meant to
be tied to the voice as a means of expression. The ability to sing intervals,
scales and harmonic movement in a variety of keys ensured that the aural
imagination was able to correctly conceive of the appropriate pitch relation-
ships and that the voice was able to translate those pitches into sound. A
visceral understanding of pitches and pitch relationships divorced from a
specific instrumental technique ensured that such musical information had
meaning beyond the specific confines of a particular instrument and began
to form the basis of an internal reservoir of ideas (Sarath 1996: 7). This
embodied pitch knowledge could then be easily transferred to ones instru-
ment in a manner that emphasized playing by ear through the navigation
of pitch relationships rather than the named notes.
Work on the hearing, voicing and naming of intervals was practice that
could be accomplished anywhere that was quiet, and Ted Brown would
often spend his lunch hour on such exercises.

Except for working with records, I did most of my ear training on my

lunch hour. Fortunately, in those days I had the luxury of a whole hour
for lunch and found places that were quiet so I could hear it in my
head and sing it or whistle it softly to myself. Eventually I was able to
work on some of the lines in my head as well (interview with Brown,
31 March 2009).

Such practice could be done in a variety of ways, all of which empha-

sized the mental imagination of pitch, or pitch relationships. Students could
make use of a pitch pipe initially to confirm their findings and to solidly
establish starting tones, though the goal was to be able to clearly imagine,

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190 Jazz Research Journal

or pre-hear, the material in question. The exercises were then sung in order
to ensure that the knowledge was embodied, rather than abstract. Vocaliz-
ing enabled the student to confirm the accuracy of their aural imagination
and made explicit the connection between internal aural conception and
performance practice.
In order for his students to develop an understanding of scale types,
intervallic relationships, functional harmony and similar concepts, Tristano
encouraged the use of small flashcards upon which the student would write
the twelve musical notes, one per card, using the reverse side for enhar-
monic spellings where necessary. These flashcards were then carried in a
small pouch or pocket, and were used for recall drills during any available
downtime. Use of the flashcards in conjunction with a metronome, or with
tapping a foot or hand, required instantaneous recall and simulated the
reactions needed in live musical contexts. A student could practise interval-
lic relationships this way by having to instantly call out the appropriate note
a certain interval distant from the drawn flashcards. Once a student had
developed some comfort with theoretical basics, chord progressions could
be worked though in a similar manner, by having to name out the chords
to a designated tune using notes drawn on the flashcards to determine
the starting chords. Any number of similar exercises and games could be
designed to help the student become proficient at certain theoretical con-
cepts and skills while away from their instrument. These activities were par-
ticularly well suited to trips on the subway.
Once a working knowledge of such concepts had been acquired, the
student could begin to approach their instrumental application through
mental processes. The student was encouraged to find a quiet location
and to clear the mind of distraction. Visualizing their instrument so strongly
as to be able to feel the keys under their fingers, the student would then
slowly and carefully play the exercise in question. With practice, the stu-
dent would not only be able to feel the keys during this visualization, but
would also hear the corresponding pitches from their instrument. When
done consistently, it became possible not only to practise in such a way,
but to make mistakes that were audible, and to seek to correct the tech-
nique that led to the error.12

12. I encourage anyone who is an instrumentalist to try this. First, close your eyes and
imagine holding your instrument. Feel the keys or frets or strings beneath your fingers.
Get the instrument to produce a sound that you can actually hear ringing in your inner ear.
Now turn a metronome on to medium tempo and play through a basic exerciseplay a G
Major scale, slowly in quarter notes. Feel your fingers moving and concentrate on hearing

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Instrumental practice is a noisy pursuit, particularly for wind players,

and finding a means to practise when living in an urban environment is an
ongoing negotiation for most.13 For many students who had to deal with
the limitations imposed by day jobs and lack of studio space, Tristanos
mental techniques provided a practical and effective way to work on music
in situations in which audible practice was unfeasible. Tristano stressed the
advantages to practising ones instrument silently, concentrating on hear-
ing the pitches internally and relating them to the appropriate fingering.
With practice, it meant that one could, for all intents and purposes, practise
an instrument without actually holding it, through a concentrated process
of visualization. A combination of these techniques provided opportunities
to practise when otherwise unable to actually play an instrument.

Lennie talked a lot about being able to visualize and relate it to your
instrument, knowing what the fingering would be as well. The effect
of that kind of practice is truly amazing in the confidence it gives you.
It really imbeds it in your brain so you feel it very strongly [He also]
used to stress the advantage of doing silent practice on your instru-
ment. I got to the point where on my lunch hour I would go up to
the mezzanine of an Automat near work where it was quiet and go
through one of the lines in my headvery slowly, note by note, inter-
val by interval but hearing it and knowing what the fingerings would
beand that was really very beneficial. Then when it came time to
play that line at the Saturday night session at the studio it was like I
had practiced it every night (interview with Brown, 31 March 2009).14

the pitches change. Make sure everything is in time. Now play diatonic 7th chords in the
same key. Now try a tune.
When I was learning to play I spent a great deal of time doing practice of this sort. It
helped me immensely both by enabling me to work through new concepts without the
distraction of the instrument, and by developing my ability to concentrate. When you get
to the point that you can make audible mistakes doing this kind of practice, youre doing
it right!
13. While not all emerging jazz musicians of the period were urban dwellers, I think
one could safely say that most were. Jazz is predominantly an urban music, and urban
centres such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York as well as smaller regional cen-
tres drew serious players to their environs to seek employment. In any case, I am con-
cerned for the moment not with possible exceptions to the rule, but with the habits and
hurdles of musicians in New York city.
14. Similarly, Lee Konitz (who has spent a lifetime practising in apartments and hotel
rooms) has developed a method of practising the saxophone that requires one to blow so
softly into the instrument as to only create ghost notes, or pitches essentially inaudible
to all but the player. Such a technique develops extraordinary control of the air-stream,
and, through its reliance upon aural imagination over audible tone colour, demands that
the player pay close attention to the structural content of what they are playing. No longer
distracted by your own sound, you can often create better music.

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Recently, scientific research in the area of brain plasticity (Mumford and

Hall 1985; Pascual-Leone et al. 1995) has been able to prove that imagina-
tive practice of instrumental technique utilizes the same areas of the brain
as tactile practice, and may be as effective as tactile practice in the acqui-
sition of motor skills. Using brain mapping and computer-monitored key-
board tests, scientists at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke in Maryland, USA, compared the progress of two groups of
pianists in acquiring facility with a new finger exercise. Over the course of
five days, one group was permitted to practise the finger exercise at the
keyboard for a two-hour period and the second group was permitted only
to visualize the practising of the exercise. Those in the visualization con-
trol group were not permitted to move their fingers to mimic piano playing,
and were connected to sensors to monitor and prevent such movement.
Researchers found that activity in the areas of the brain that represented
the muscle groups involved in the exercise increased equally for both the
tactile and imaginative control groups, and that:

mental practice alone led to the same plastic changes in the motor
system as those occurring with the acquisition of a skill by repeated
physical practice. By the end of day 5, the changes in the corti-
cal motor outputs to the muscles involved in the task did not differ
between the physical and the mental practice groups. However, the
mental practice groups performance was at the level of that occurring
with only 3 days physical practice. After a single 2-h physical prac-
tice session, the mental practice groups performance improved to the
level of 5 days physical practice (Pascual-Leone et al. 1995: 1041).

Though the group that was permitted to physically practise the piano
was initially more adept at the finger exercise than the group that only men-
tally practised the exercise, the mental practice control group did none-
theless exhibit motor skills that were equivalent to three days of physical
practice. After just two hours of tactile practice, the mental control group
had attained a similar skill level to those that had physically practised for
five days. Additionally, the scientists suggested that mental practice may
accelerate the acquisition of a new motor skill by providing a well-suited
cognitive model of the demanded motor act in advance of any physi-
cal practice, and that, the combination of mental and physical practice
leads to greater performance improvement than physical practice alone
(Pascual-Leone et al. 1995: 1045).
Working on musical concepts through means of visualization may
ensure that the most difficult parts of the intellectual process have already
been worked through before the student touches their instrument, and

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physical practice may then be left for concerns related to the use of those
concepts or skills. Time spent working on mental practice and visualization
also greatly improves ones ability to focus and concentrate, and ensures
that the material is truly learned, rather than simply memorized or tied to a
system of muscle memory. As Ted Brown recalled,

the time I spent working on mental practice and visualization greatly

improved my ability to focus and concentrate, thus enabling me to get
more out of all aspects of practice (interview with Brown, 24 April 2009).

Similarly, an understanding of the harmonic structure of the tunes a stu-

dent was working on was to be ingrained away from the instrument. Using
a small notebook, one could again use time spent commuting or when oth-
erwise unoccupied to learn harmonic progressions. Once a progression
was learned, such time could be spent visualizing the harmony away from
the notebook, speaking the chords and chord tones aloud and singing the
root movements, all against either a metronome or the rhythm of ones foot.
Saxophonist Ted Brown recalls doing just this:

I tried to learn the chord progressions to the tunes I would be run-

ning into at sessions, so I asked Lennie every week for the changes
to another tune. I kept them in a little 3 5 notebook and during my
lunch hour or riding the subway to and from work would sing them
to myself while trying to memorize the progression. Then when I got
home at night I would spend maybe 20 minutes or so working on one
of those tunes (interview with Brown, 31 March 2009).

And that:

If I was on the subway or on my lunch hour I would sing the roots

mainly to memorize the overall progression. At the same time I would
say the name of the chord and know what that chord symbol repre-
sented. Later at night I would use my horn to play the notes in each
chord to be sure I knew what they sounded like. Then I would also try
some short melodic phrases using chord tones and scale tones to
see how a melody could flow through the progression (interview with
Brown, 24 April 2009).

In what is a rather radical departure from the current pedagogical prac-

tices of many college-based jazz education programmes, Tristano consid-
ered the learning of solos, development of fluidity in all keys, exploration of
harmony, and the act of improvising to be aural projects rather than prob-
lems to be solved intellectually. In particular, Tristanos approach to the
learning, or lifting, of pre-recorded solos was an involved process, the
bulk of which was suited to non-instrumental practice.

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194 Jazz Research Journal

The initial step in the process involved learning to sing along with a
chosen recording.15 The student was not simply to copy pitches, but to
learn to sing along in such a way that they could visualize themselves play-
ing the solo. Time feel, accent placement, timbre, articulation and mood
were all as essential as the pitch elements of the solo and needed to be
embodied in the process of this initial learning of the solo. The next step,
which was often an arduous one for new students, was to learn to sing
the solo without the recording. Again, though the establishment of the cor-
rect pitches was of course important, a correct reproduction of the solo
would involve all of the other elements listed above. Additionally, the stu-
dent would aim to be able to accurately sing the solo in time at the recorded
tempo, as well as at slower tempos that emphasized pitch accuracy and
note placement. The third step was to transfer the solo to ones instrument,
ultimately being able to play it both in conjunction with the source record-
ing and at slower tempos. The goal was to copy not only the notes, but also
the sound and feel of the record. The student was to aim for an embodied
understanding of how the solo was being played, rather than simply an
accurate reproduction of the notes in question. Only as a final step would
the solo be committed to paper for analysis.
While the initial learning of the solo required a record or tape player of
some sort,16 as soon as the student had progressed to the second stage
of the process it could be practised anywhere that there was a conducive
environment. Tristano encouraged his students to sing, but also to concen-
trate on hearing the solo accurately in the imagination, concentrating closely
enough to physically identify with singing it. If a student had progressed far
enough, one could use the imagination to visualize all of the steps involved in
playing the solo from the feel of the keys under the fingers to the sound and
inflection of the pitches. By the time the student then went to transfer the solo
to their instrument, the process was usually quite intuitive.17

15. Tristano was known to encourage his students to learn solos by such players as
Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, but the choice of solo was often left to the
16. Today of course mp3 players have rendered this entire process portable.
17. This has been my experience. Once you finally reach the stage of learning to play
the solo, the only thing left to do is locate the pitches on the horn, which is generally a
fairly quick process. After that, it is simply a matter of learning to play the solo up to the
recorded speed, and to practise with the recording often enough to completely blend
sound and inflection with the original artist. Eventually, the entire concept of the solo
pitch, tone and feelingshould be available to you when playing the solo without the

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Jedi mind tricks 195

Additionally, Tristano utilized aspects of visualization and mental prac-

tice in the process of composition. Compositional exercises were a weekly
staple of lessons with Tristano, and were based upon the harmonic frame-
work of standard tunes in the jazz repertoire. Each week the student would
choose a tune with which they were familiar and would write a line over it
to be played in their next lesson. The goal was not to compose a melody
in the traditional sense,18 but rather to compose an ideal solo.19 It was an
opportunity to slow down the instantaneous process of improvisation and
to explore the shape of the melodic linewhy a certain group of notes
would sound great and a very similar group would not (interview with
Brown, 31 March 2009). Tristano encouraged these compositional projects
to be borne as much as possible from the musical imagination rather than
ingrained habit, and encouraged students to work as much as possible
away from their instruments.
Initially, students would find that they needed their instruments in
hand to successfully visualize pitches, but as they gained experience and
progressed with Tristanos techniques of mental practice and visualiza-
tion, they would grow less dependent upon external sources. The ability
to use the aural imagination to accurately hear ones way through a tune
and to map a melodic path through the progression helped to ensure
that the ensuing line was free from material borne of muscle memory or
other habits related to ones instrument.20 Being able to compose a jazz

18. The tunes are largely through-composed and lack standard conventions such as
repeated sections, clearly delineated bridge melodies, repeated themes or motifs etc.
Two Not One with its repeated A sections is a notable exception.
19. If the resulting work was deemed promising, the student would learn the piece
and would work on it further. Several of these compositional assignments were ultimately
recorded, and in turn they have formed the standard repertoire for those pursuing this
method of study. Among such tunes as 317 E. 32 St. (Tristano), Karys Trance, Sub-
consciouslee (Konitz) and Background Music (Marsh) stand Ted Browns compositions
Smog Eyes and Jazz of Two Cities as memorable additions to the canon.
20. Though I did not study with Tristano, I have studied with Lee Konitz, and many of
the mental techniques and practices encouraged by Tristano have been similarly encour-
aged by Konitz. Coming rather later to music than most people, I believe that were it
not for the opportunity to separate the learning and digestion of certain musical con-
cepts from the act of instrumental practice I would not have come nearly as far, nearly
as quickly. In addition to reserving the time spent actually working with the saxophone
to an exploration of improvisation and melody rather than theoretical concepts, the time
I spent working on mental practice and visualization greatly improved my ability to focus
and concentrate, thus enabling me to get more out of all aspects of practice. This ability
to concentrate is of course of primary importance on the bandstand, particularly in impro-
vising contexts.

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196 Jazz Research Journal

line in this manner was also an indication that the harmonic structure and
sound of the tune was ingrained aurally rather than recalled, or memo-
rized, intellectually.

I think the more you can do it without the horn the better the results
are. It helps to avoid certain little licks or favorite tricks that we may not
even know we use (interview with Brown, 24 April 2009).

Doing that consistently really helped my playing more than anything

else (interview with Brown, 31 March 2009).

As with every aspect of Tristanos method, these compositional tech-

niques and approaches were designed to further develop the skills required
by the rigours of improvising.

Just the process of putting it down on paper forces you to listen to

that inner voice that is going on in your head, like when you feel like
singing or whistling. And getting that first phrase down on paper is
the hardest one because that can set a direction for what comes after
it. So it might take 15 or 20 minutes hearing different possibilities,
playing or singing them (softly so as not to disturb that inner voice),
writing them down, changing them or erasing them and deciding
whether you like them or not. That is the same exact process you are
going through when you are improvising. Trying to relax and listen to
that inner voice and allow it to lead you through the tune, phrase by
phrase, only it is happening much faster. So writing gives you a way to
develop the confidence that you can depend on that voice being there
when you need it. And to realize that if it isnt there once in a while, it
will come if you can just pause and relax for a couple seconds until
you hear something. And if it still doesnt happen just stop! (Interview
with Brown, 24 April 2009).

Closely related to Tristanos emphasis upon visualization, imagination

and mental practising is the idea that musical knowledge, especially for the
improviser, should be embodied rather than simply understood intellectu-
ally. Tristano believed that if musical materials were learned slowly, with an
emphasis upon aural conception, imagination, and the improvised manip-
ulation of sound rather than the digital navigation of patterns, the resulting
knowledge would lend itself to intuitive expression. Scales, intervals, func-
tional harmony and other materials would then operate for the improviser
in the same manner that speech syntax, vocabulary and grammar oper-
ates for the native speakerintuitively and unconsciously, following con-
ventions that are implicitly understood. Here again, recent scientific study
into the ways in which the brain processes explicit and implicit knowledge
can be seen to have musical relevance.

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Jedi mind tricks 197

Explicit knowledge is that which is expressed by the deliberate recollec-

tion of information that is bound to a specific time and context, whereas
implicit knowledge is expressed by behaviour that demonstrated that pre-
vious exposure to a task has resulted in improved performance on that
task without the subject consciously recalling being exposed to that task
before (Pascual-Leone et al. 1994: 1287). In a recent study, volunteers
were assigned to groups and asked to respond at certain moments in a
seemingly random numeric sequence. Their brain function was mapped
during the process, which was repeated at intervals 120 times. The numeric
sequence was in fact not random, and the ability to correctly and con-
sciously replicate the twelve-part sequence was, for the purposes of the
trial, considered explicit knowledge. It was found that among those who
memorized the sequence, the brain ceased to react in response, and was
instead actively anticipating the points at which a response was required.
Among those who had not consciously memorized the repeating
sequence, the scientists saw a progressive improvement in RT [reaction
time] during implicit learning [which was] correlated with an enlargement
in the maps of cortical motor outputs to the muscles involved in the task
and with an increase in the intensity of the signals to those maps (Pascual-
Leone et al. 1994: 1287). In those who had become consciously aware of
the pattern repetition, the continued improvement in response time during
the exercise was shown to be because of a change in the subjects strat-
egy (anticipation instead of reaction), whereas there was a rapid return of
the cortical motor outputs to their baseline topography (Pascual-Leone
etal. 1994: 1288). When cortical thresholds return to baseline levels in this
manner, the task becomes over-learned and correct performance eventu-
ally may become automatic (Pascual-Leone et al. 1995: 1045).
When knowledge of the pattern remained unconscious, the subjects
attempts at appropriate reaction to stimulus was a model of implicit, impro-
vised learning. The resulting brain activity was shown to be quite different
from that of those who had memorized the pattern and were no longer react-
ing authentically to the stimulus, but attempting to anticipate the appropri-
ate response. Musical parallels could be drawn to those who memorize and
practise pattern-based material from pedagogical sources, such as Pat-
terns for Improvisation (Nelson 1966) and Patterns for Jazz (Coker 1970),
and those who develop an embodied understanding of a musical vocabu-
lary and then improvise with the resulting knowledge.
When moving from initial exercises in visualization and ear training,
Tristanos students were encouraged to invent their own melodic patterns

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198 Jazz Research Journal

and to work them through the varying keys by ear. As students progressed,
those patterns were then extended to move horizontally through chord pro-
gressions. The idea always was to use ones imagination and aural concep-
tion to create a musical landscape that was both personal and intuitively
constructed, and even basic exercises were intended to function not simply
as material to build technique, but as development of both the ear and the
musical imagination. Ted Brown recalls this process:

[D]uring the period with Lennie I did a lot of work on scale-type exer-
cisesa little pattern that you could play up and down the whole
range of the horntaking it through all the keys [by ear] major,
melodic minor and harmonic minor. That was by far the most difficult
for me back in 19481949, because prior to that I was reading scales
and exercises out of a book. So, to do it [by ear] was hard at first. But
Lennie was very patient and encouraging so you always felt like you
were on the right track, even if you had no idea how long that track
would be (interview with Brown, 31 March 2009).

Patterns for students of Tristano were not intended to function as ele-

ments of a reliable and pre-rehearsed vocabulary, but as tools to help the
student navigate and become familiar with the harmonic landscape. Pat-
terns or figures were conceived by the students themselves, and had to be
sung in order for them to be recognized as vocabulary rather than simply
as finger exercises. Once a pattern could be sung and then transferred to
the instrument in all keys, it was not to be rehearsed, inserted or otherwise
treated as a lick, but left to resurface naturally in the course of ones play-
ing, or not, as the case might be.
One of the hallmarks of Tristanos playing style is his use of accents to
create unique rhythmic effects, often crossing bar lines and superimposing
a variety of polyrhythmic effects onto the basic 4/4 foundation. Therefore,
rhythmic flexibility was emphasized as part of Tristanos teaching method-
ology, and students worked on becoming able to freely accent any part of
an eighth-note line. Rhythmic practice occurred first on scales in all keys,
then on melodic fragments composed from those scales, then over basic
chord progressions, eventually becoming a key element of both improvisa-
tion and composition.

[T]he idea was to keep a steady 4/4 rhythmic foundation but through
accents and inflections use other time feelings on top of that. For exam-
ple, playing an eighth note figure where you are accenting in groups of
three eighth notes will superimpose a 3/8 feeling on top of the 4/4. The
same with accenting in groups of three quarter notes will give you a 3/4
feeling. Lennie had me practice scales and place the accents in groups
of three eighths all the way up and downthen start the accent on the

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Jedi mind tricks 199

second note and then the third note, etc. Then he encouraged me to
create my own patterns using odd time accents. One that I spent a lot
of time on was a 7/8 figure built by using a combination of four eighths
plus three eighths (interview with Brown, 31 March 2009).

As always, the idea was not to develop a mechanical or automatic

approach to using such rhythmic devices, but to come to such a deep
understanding of the sound and feel of such accenting techniques that the
use of them became a natural and intuitive means of phrasing.21 To this
end, and in addition to instrumental practice and the construction of rhyth-
mic diagrams, Tristano had his students work out rhythmic ideas through
tapping and clapping them using different parts of the body. Eventually,
one would have a different rhythmic element active in each limb at the
same time.22 In such a way, students acquired an embodied understanding
of the rhythmic divisions, and a practical command of brain/body unity not
often seen outside of well-practised percussionists.23 After much time spent
with these processes, the use of a rhythmic vocabulary becomes an intui-
tive, rather than articulated, intellectual process.
Underlying Tristanos pedagogical emphasis upon musical practice
that did not involve ones instrument were larger concerns of concentration
and consciousness. In order to improvise intuitively, the improviser must
learn to concentrate deeply and for long stretches of time. The mental effort
required to remain in the moment for a full sets worth of music making
is not insignificant, an effort made all the more difficult by the external dis-
tractions that are part of performing in clubs. Such focused concentration
serves to situate the improviser in the musical moment, freeing the mind
from the conscious application of technique; a state of mind that is less
about concentration on something as much as it is about not concentrat-
ing on something. The goal is to occupy a heightened awareness of the
process of creationthe immediate translation of the internal repository
of technique and ideas to musical statements without a conscious resort

21. Having myself spent time on the methodical application of these exercises, I can
confirm that over time the use of the accenting language they teach becomes intuitive.
22. For example, try to get a different rhythmic division in each limb. Half notes in the
left foot, quarters in the right foot, eighth notes in the left hand and sixteenth notes in the
right hand. Try various combinations of this that alternate rhythmic division in the feet and
hands and that variously involve the left and right hands/feet. Add in a variety of triplet
figures and accents as you become more confident with the process. Exercise books in
drum rudiments can often provide challenging examples.
23. Unsurprisingly, both Ted Brown and Lee Konitz have been known to fill in as drum-
mers when required. Brown famously filled in behind Tristano at the Confucius restaurant
for a period of days.

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200 Jazz Research Journal

to those techniques or ideas. It is a form of consciousness akin to medi-

tation (D. T. Suzuki 1956; Herrigel 1981; S. Suzuki 1993) which results in
a conceptual state where both freedom from and simultaneous access
to (Sarath 1996: 78) such knowledge is possible. As with study in the
Zen arts of Japan, Tristanos pedagogy concentrated upon the processes
involved in the mastery of improvisation and instrumental fluidity, trusting
that the musical results would then take care of themselves (Herrigel 1981).
Though repetition of vocabulary is unavoidable in idiomatic improvisation,
Tristanos approach sought to bring about a state of consciousness from
which the expression of such stylistic traits was divorced from the regurgita-
tion of explicitly recalled clichs or patterns (Sarath 1996: 11).
Tristanos methods form one of the most clearly established lineal tradi-
tions in jazz, and provide an alternative to much of the current college-based
jazz curriculum (Jago 2011). Though certainly not the first to emphasize
the importance of mental conditioning and imaginative practice methods,24
Tristanos use of them within a methodology for jazz instruction constitutes
a unique pedagogical approach worthy of further research and discussion.
Continuing research into brain activity in response to learning stimulus, in
particular to the nature and affect of mental techniques for acquiring motor
skills, lend credence to many of Tristanos methods.
Examination of Tristanos pedagogical approach helps to fill what is a
rather alarming gap in our understanding of the ways and means by which
jazz practices were conceived, transmitted and learned before the wide-
spread advent of institutional jazz education. Such an examination also
serves to highlight that as jazz expression has, and continues to, take a
myriad of forms, the philosophical underpinnings of such expression are
similarly diverse, and perhaps tied to unique pedagogical methodologies.
The growing dominance of institutional jazz education has perhaps led to
an (over) reliance on a one-size-fits-all approach to the teaching and learn-
ing of jazz, one that prioritizes the materials of the music (scales, chords,
patterns, licks) over the types of embodied learning espoused by Tristano,
Konitz and other members of Tristanos school. While the time constraints
imposed by institutional education likely render a whole-scale adoption of
methods such as Tristanos impractical, further explorations of older, more
orally-based teaching methods for jazz may provide valuable models of
organically conceived musical practices, pedagogical methods and forms
of socio-cultural organization which are increasingly rare.

24. Pablo Casals, for example, also utilized such techniques (Mackie 2006).

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