Improvisation, Jazz and Rolfing:

Pages: 36-39
Year: 1999
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Rolf Lines – FALL 1999 – Vol 27 – Nº 04

Volume: 27

One day over lunch, my movement teacher, Vivian Jaye, and I were discussing how I might improve my connection with clients. Her idea was that, as a musician, I “play” them like instruments. That I initially struggled with this interesting idea hardly surprised me, when I recalled my unsuccessful forays into jazz improvisation. Clearly, there existed parallels between my difficulties as an improviser and as a student of movement work. It occurred to me that examining this issue might improve my understanding of Rolfing. Also, the fact that improvisation remains a largely unexplored metaphor for bodywork inspired me to consider its possible implications for our work.’ As a Rolfer, I embrace the notion that what we do is more a mode of inquiry than a monolithic system. In this paper, I endeavor to extend this inquiry into unfamiliar terrain.

Like Rolfing, the art of improvisation is a difficult process to describe and teach. A close friend begins his first book on improvisation as follows: “Due to the intricate nature of improvisation, many players choose to disregard the voluminous data available and take what I call the ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’ approach to soloing. Essentially, this is when you close your eyes, open your ears, and blow your horn and hope for the best.”‘ He argues that such an aleatoric approach to improvisation is highly unlikely to result in aesthetically satisfying results. Rather, he advocates a “target approach” to developing playing skills, focusing on specific aspects of improvisation, working on a given problem until some progress has been made and then moving onto the next. Having established his conceptual framework, he launches into a technical discussion of the tools of jazz improvisation. Any attempt to telescope his ideas would rapidly send us sliding down the slippery slope of technical jargon. To avoid this, I have chosen to illustrate a few features of jazz form by employing a ubiquitous harmonic pattern (progression) called the “12 bar blues.”

To understand this harmonic sequence, certain basic ideas must be explained. Sequences of notes called scales are the basis of all melody. Scales are linear arrangements of adjacent notes which span an octave. An octave is the distance between two pitches of the same name, for example, middle B-flat on the piano and the B-flat an octave above it.’ In the example above, the B-flat major and the B-flat blues scales are presented (Ex.1). You will notice that all the notes in the B-flat major scale are not present in the blues scale. The blues scale is a 5-note, or pentatonic, scale with certain pitches missing. Another difference between them is that two notes, D-flat, and A-flat are not found in the major scale. These are the so-called “blue notes,” which are frequently rendered slightly of key and give traditional blues its characteristically mournful sound.

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Harmony is the vertical arrangement of pitches with rules governing relations between successive vertical groupings. These groupings, called chords, are derived from scales.” Harmonies have two distinct qualities, rest (stability) or motion (instability). The tonic or I chord has the first note of the scale as its root or bottom note. This chord is the most stable chord in the scale. All other harmonies have relative levels of instability with respect to this fundamental chord. Progressions are successions of harmonies which contain patterns of harmonic movement from rest to tension or from tension to rest. The tonic seven (I7) chord is a three-note triad: B-flat, Dnatural, F with an added seventh, Aflat. In creating this seventh chord, we borrow the seventh scale degree (A-flat) from the blues pentatonic scale. The 12-bar blues progression contains two other harmonies, the dominant or V chord and the subdominant or IV chord. The dominant seventh (or V7) chord is five scale degrees above the tonic (B-flat to F), and consists of the notes, F-A-C-E-flat. The subdominant (or IV7) is one step below the dominant chord and contains notes, E-flat – G – B-flat – D-flats Like the tonic (I) chord, its first three notes come from the major scale while its seventh, D-flat, is borrowed from the blues scale.

The traditional 12-bar blues progression begins with 4 measures of tonic(I7). At m. 5, the harmony shifts to the subdominant (IV7), where it stays for 2 measures and then it returns to the tonic (17) for two measures. It ends with 2 measures of dominant (V7) and two measures of tonic (17). Consider, for example, Elvis Presley’s 1950s rock and roll hit, “Hound Dog,” a simple 12-bar blues.’ The song is in B-flat major, the same key we chose above, so we use the same chords: Bflat (I), E-flat (IV) and F (V). As you can see, the song is 24 measures long and the 12-bar pattern is repeated 2 times. The only divergence from the above pattern occurs at m. 11, where instead of repeating the V chord, the composer substitutes a IV chord (Eflat). This “substitution” also occurs in the last two measures of the song. Also, note that the melody begins with the note D-flat. This is a blue note borrowed from the blues scale, a minor third above the tonic (B-flat to D-flat). (Ex.2)

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How could such a large corpus of compositions spanning a period of over 100 years be based on such a simple succession of triads? One key factor is “substitution,” a term mentioned in the previous paragraph. A substitution is an alternate chord or harmony used in lieu of the tonic (I7), subdominant (IV7) and dominant (V7) progression described above. Enumerating and categorizing types of substitutions represents a substantial portion of most jazz theory texts. An important thing to understand is that often these substitutions emerge spontaneously as an interaction between a soloist and accompanying instruments during an improvised solo. Accomplished improvisers who have mastered the harmonic language of jazz introduce pitches not found in the fundamental three triads. When this happens, a “substitution” occurs. The richness of jazz is largely a function of this dynamic interaction between soloist and accompaniment.

The interaction of practitioner and client in many ways resembles the creative process in jazz. Learning the basics in jazz through repetition parallels the way we learn Rolfing. We learn our “melodic” and “harmonic” vocabulary while interacting with our clients. In both art forms, improvising begins when we creatively apply a specific “vocabulary” while interacting with others.7

Another interesting link between music and Rolfing is the process called “entrainment.” Entrainment is the tendency of objects in proximity to become interlocked or to move synchronistically. One reason for this phenomenon is that “nature seeks the most efficient energy state, and it takes less energy to pulse in cooperation than in opposition.”8 In her book, Dr. Rolf seems to be describing the same process in a slightly different manner. “It (structural integration) is a physical method for producing better functioning by aligning units of the body. Invariably, in matter, appropriate order is more economical of energy than disorder.”9 (italics mine)Therapists use entrainment to engage clients and alter or redirect their behavior and mental state. Rolfers also entrain with their clients, leading them to altered perceptions and levels of comfort in their bodies.” Similarly, musicians who play together for a period of time become entrained, more subtly “reading” each other and reacting spontaneously during improvised solos.

The interaction of structure, movement patterns, and improvisation are integral elements of our work. As we evaluate structure, we work with simple guiding principles. Like the harmonic process described above, we see that both stasis and motion are critical factors for our clients. How their bodies act in motion, how they are supported and the ease with which they return to stasis all shape how we structure our “choruses” (or solo improvisations on our clients’ themes). Each session is a unique improvisation on specific thematic material associated with a given “hour.”

The art of musical improvisation as a metaphor for Rolfing offers great promise since both disciplines explore the intricate balance between established formulae and creative freedom. The art of Rolfing human beings with their complex and multifarious structural and emotional underpinnings requires secure understanding of the language of the body and an ability to adapt to multiple levels of simultaneous change. If we naively approach human structure from a purely intuitive manner do we not fall into the same trap that Hal warns his students to avoid (his “Ready, Fire, Aim” caveat)? The art of Rolfing and improvisation are both intricate “variation forms” whose underlying patterns offer a virtually limitless panoply of options. What unifies both is the artist’s (Rolfer’s) ability to spontaneously create anew while working within predetermined limits.


1.Exploration of metaphor and meaning in unfamiliar territory is masterfully explored in Douglas Hofstadter’s study of the art of translation: Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Languaae (New York: Basic Books, 1996). This book greatly influenced my thought process and inspired me to write this paper.

2.Hal Crook, How to Improvise: An Aooroach to Practicina Improvisation (Rottenburg, Germany: Advance Music, 1991), p. 11.

3.The choice of key is predicated on the key of “Hound Dog”, B-flat major. It seemed easier to present both examples in the same key rather than deal with the problems of transposition, the movement from one key to another.

4.Scott Reeves, Creative Jazz Improvisa-ti on, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), p. 3ff., and Andy Jaffe, Jazz Harmony, 2nd ed., (Rottenburg, Germany: Advance Music, 1996), p. 39ff. This discussion of harmony was refined through discussions with Hal Crook, a internationally recognized authority on jazz theory and improvisation, to whom I am greatly indebted.

5.Note: the subdominant gets its name from the fact that it is five steps below the tonic.

6.Familiar tunes which fit into this category include: “Jailhouse Rock”, “Night Train” and “Rock Around the Clock”. Jazz examples: “Blue Train,” “Bessie’s Blues,” “Solar” and “Equinox.” These and numerous other jazz examples can be found in The Real Book, an alphabetical collection of standard jazz tunes.

7.Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts (New York: Putnam, 1990), pp. 68-77.

8.Leslie Bunt, Music Therapy: An Art Beyond Words (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 62. For more on entrainment, see: John M. Ortiz, The Tao of Music: Sound Psycholoay. Using Music to Change Your Life (York Beach, ME: Weisner, 2997), p. 317ff.

9.Ida Rolf, Rolfing: Reestablishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Beinq (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1989), p. 29.

10.Dr. Les Kertay, a mentor and friend, suggested additional types of entrainment: “(1)People’s structures are entrained to their movement patterns, in that their movement pattern reinforces the structure and the structure limits the movement pattern. (2) People’s nervous systems are entrained, in that repetition tends to wear “grooves” into the system such that an impulse, once down a particular pathway, becomes more likely to go down that same pathway the next time. (3) Then there’s the notion of projective identification, where the client gets the Rolfer to act in certain ways, which are really foreign to the Rolfer but are like disowned parts of the client.” Quoted from an e-mail received in January, 1999.

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