Book Review: “Free Play,” by Stephen Nachmanovich

Free Play doesn’t deal directly with music practice, but it is nevertheless an important book for anyone interested in music (or other arts, or life). I strongly believe that improvisation benefits practice. To me, improvising is an essential musical skill, one possessed by musical greats (Hussein, Bach, Shankar, Beethoven, Duke, Mozart, etc.), and is practiced in musical traditions all over the world, as well as by young children who haven’t developed some of the fear associated with improvisation in those overly focused on the written notes. Remember when you drew letters over and over as a young child, taking great care (or not) with the shapes? Now imagine that despite all that practice time forming letters and sounding out words, that you never (ever) spoke extemporaneously. Crazy, right? To me, that’s about the same as practicing scales over and over until they’re memorized, but then never using that tonal material to improvise. Crazy talk! At the end of this review is a link to an mp3 of my improv group Meh! playing an improvised story with Nachmanovich.

Scale it Up

If Music is genetic material, scales are its DNA. This is true for most music, anyway. Scales won’t help you much if you’re going to perform John Cage’s 4′ 33,” or if you’re interested in Inupiat shamanistic drumming, but scales will get you through just about any other music, from any culture (as long as you choose the right scale to practice) and they’re invaluable material for use in improvising.

As I started putting my thoughts together on this topic, I realized that a complex set of information is bewildering without tools to make sense of it all. There are so many scales, and so many ways to practice them that it can be difficult to keep them all straight. So I’ve created some tools to help you keep track: checklists, scales, and a few other things. Checklists are making headlines lately (New Yorker article here) because they’ve been shown to improve performance significantly (it’s why pilots use them).


Planning is an essential part of your practice session. Imagine the planning that went into the video above, and ask yourself how much planning goes into your practice sessions. Every book I’ve read on practice, and every research article that looks into what musicians do when they practice mentions the importance of planning out your practice session. This includes broader plans like goals, as well as more specific things like exactly which pieces or skills you’re going to tackle and how you’re going to tackle them. This planning stage is only one part of a 3-stage process used by most of the people studied by McPherson and Zimmerman in a 2002 study. Here’s what it looks like:

Huge Chunk of Awesomeness

A wii remote, percussion, a bunch of servos and solenoids, some 12-tone set theory algorhythms (that word’s a joke, not a typo :-), looping functions, machine improvising and you get this huge chunk of awesomeness. First a performance and then how it’s done. This is so cool and amazing I simply don’t know what to say. Watch Patrick and his “band” Jazari and be inspired and flabbergasted. I wonder how he practices…..