From Cages to Playgrounds – Scott McGill on excellence in music and life

I was privileged to interview Scott Mc Gill, a progressive rock and jazz fusion guitarist recently.  Scott has played with Percy Jones of Brand X and worked with Michael Manring, a well-respected fretless bass player.  He divides his time between teaching, composing, performing and researching music, which would be something of an idyllic lifestyle for me.  Before we get started, let’s see the man in action:

Tell me about your influences in terms of innovative music and improvisation?

I spent 10 years working with Dennis Sandole who was John Coltrane’s teacher.   It does not get much better than that.  I’ve played with some of the best people on the planet in Casinos on the East Coast and Broadway etc.  I also find that one of the best ways to extend yourself is to teach and research music.  For example, I was interested in your explorations of the concept of flow in your writing.  I’ve spent 20 years teaching, writing, playing freelance and improvising.  That amounts to more than 10 000 hours of immersion in music.

So you are the ultimate adaptive musician?  Front of stage, in the studio, teaching others?  I meet people who are good at one of these but rarely all three.  I’d guess that this requires some loss of ego and the ability to focus intensely on what you are doing at any one time?

Yes. It’s enthusiasm and focus really. I like learning and engaging deeply in many areas of music enables me to learn a great deal. The discipline of progressing in all of these areas is something I am interested in as it makes me feel as though I am working towards something meaningful. I also find that progression in one area usually facilitates progression in the others.

Take me back to the beginning to help me look for clues as to how you learned to improvise.  How did you begin?

I started learning both reading and playing music.  They were always married.  I did not start out as many people do, by either learning formally and then starting to improvise 7 years later or vice versa.  I began by picking up a few chords but very soon after took lessons from someone who did both reading and improvising.  The ear is the instrument.  Even if you are reading, you should always be able to hear it and vice versa.   I learned music in a combined way from its inception.

Is this like starting out speaking two languages?  If you start that way, it is much easier than learning them separately and sequentially?

I guess it could be.

Does formal learning have to drive out the possibility of improvising?

Not at all for me.  The more I learn about theory, the better I get at improvising.  I don’t partition it.  For me, rules are a release and not a barrier.  That said, for some musicians, it is apparent that learning musical theory does hinder them from improvising and vice versa.  I guess it’s a question of mindset and it also depends on the training.  Some of the best improvisers were formally trained, e.g. John Coltrane and Liszt.

Does that relate to the idea of mastery – once you reach a certain level, the technique vs. attitude debate does not matter and you transcend that?

Fundamentally yes.

Improvising a dialogue with Scott McGill

When you are in the moment of creativity, what happens?

I find that I lose all sense of time (not timing! :-).  I recall a very special moment working with some friends.  We played for 90 minutes but it seemed like minutes.  It was fantastic.  I felt a real sense of euphoria.  When I am creating I also become hyperfocused, like you can hear everything that is coming next and you have the ability to successfully predict what the other people in the band are about to do.  I think that my senses are very acute in those moments.

Can you teach people that?

Not really.  It has to be learned.

What then is teachable?

The vernacular – the notes, the chords.  How sounds relate to one another.  How things sound against one another.  There’s a lot of syntax and the ability to hear something new.  My teaching is individualised and improvised and a lot rests on the student – which makes teaching music one of the hardest things to industrialise.

What about when people get stuck in improvisation?  Are there things you do to help unblock them?

Listening to the same thing with fresh ears is one approach.  Getting them to listen to new things another.  Sometimes changing the instrument or even the approach to the instrument is effective.  For example by looking at the guitar up and down the neck instead of along the neck may make someone approach the instrument more like a piano or saxophone.

Talking to Bernie Torme and Bill Nelson, I’ve been told that switching instruments is a great idea for creativity e.g. in Bernie’s case to the Sitar.  Bill Nelson says that different instruments force a different attitude from the player.  Do you subscribe to these views?

Absolutely.  The nuances of an instrument matter a great deal.  I’d add the ideas of learning about concepts and then trying that out on an instrument.  So theory for me is a practical tool.

What about the idea that the untrained ear is everything with respect to musical creativity?

An intuitive approach does not exclude formalism and I’ve known and worked with great players in both categories.   The argument “don’t read music or your creativity will be shut off” does not stand up to scrutiny.  I can give you examples on each side of that argument in every case.  I always wanted to read music so that I could grab some sheet music and use the notes in a different way.  It was all about grabbing licks for me.

So, you see a music score as a playground rather than a cage?

Precisely.  I listen to a score and think ‘What could I do with that?”  For example, I’m doing a couple of pieces that have borrowed ideas from Ravel at the moment.

Editor’s note:  For me this is the ‘curiosity’ principle of creative people – see the diagram below.  It also illustrates the skill of what Tom Peters called ‘Creative Swiping’.

Scott Mc Gill with his fretless Vigier guitar

I often discuss the parallel that great musicians and great leaders are what the text books say are emotionally intelligent.  i.e.  That they are masters of their own competence whilst they pay attention to what is going on outside them?

I would tend to agree and that’s why I spend a lot of time getting musicians to listen.   It’s especially important to be able to hear ahead of time what you are doing in an anticipatory way if you are going to master improvisation.

In business, we’d call that a complex adaptive system where there is a great deal of variation going on in an interactive way

It’s exactly the same thing on the bandstand.  I feel you can learn a lot about complexity and improvisation in other fields from music.

What about ‘rules for improvisation’?  I made a programme for The BBC’s In Business series with a comedy improvisation expert who suggested that he uses 3 simple rules for improvisation in comedy.  Do you rely on shared codes when working with others?

Really good improvisation sounds like it isn’t.   It’s a lot like writing where you are developing a character, but you are doing it on the fly, in real time.  I don’t tend to use signals although there are a few of them such as banging your head to signal the need for the band to come back to the motif and using fingers to signal key changes and so on.

You have talked a lot about anticipatory skills and that relates to the idea of leaning into the future in business.  Can you say more on this?

I’m reading a lot about anticipation at the moment – especially the work of K. Anders Erickson.  Erickson discusses how the fastest and most accurate typists are the ones who can quickly anticipate the next move.  His theory of Deliberate Practice has influenced me greatly and I have been lucky enough to have corresponded with him recently.  He’s very brilliant and what he says about focused deliberate practice appeals to me.

Where does innovation come from in music, given that we’re all working with the same 12 intervals? – maybe more in your case as I know you specialize in playing fretless guitars?

I don’t know really. From what I know there are many millions of combinations of the twelve pitches not to mention the inclusion of rhythm, form, timbre, tempo/time, etc. There are always microtones for those who want a different sound other than the twelve standard pitches as well. I do play a Vigier fretless guitar and enjoy it thoroughly. I like the different vibrato and glissando possibilities and the fact that you can shape a note a bit more after striking it that you can with a fretted guitar. It is difficult to play in tune though.

Where can people find out more about you and get hold of your music?

Find me at MYSPACE and Soundcloud for audio examples of my work with my bands Jones McGill DeCarlo and Freakzoid.   For more biographical information go to FLAVOURS ME and Scott McGill. I am reachable on Facebook, Twitter, and have a blog as well.  Here’s another piece:

As the Editor, for me the transferable lessons about excellence are:

  • Use structures AND creativity to achieve mastery in any field.
  • Use anticipatory approaches to stay ahead.  This may involve deep listening to your own performance and that of those around you, whether we are talking about music, business or other fields of endeavour.
  • Adopt an emotionally intelligent approach to working with others, sensing and responding to minimal signals to help change course along the way.

21 responses to “From Cages to Playgrounds – Scott McGill on excellence in music and life

  1. Again , GREAT article Peter!

    I often wonder of if organizations confuse innovation with improvisation, or maybe it’s the same thing…



  2. Agreed Peter. Are we in tune then by saying, to deliver growth in a business there is always an element of improvisation (perhaps we could call it ‘risk’) required… If the improvisation aka ‘risk’ pays off, it’s then deemed to be innovation?


  3. Great interview. Thanks to Peter, for some great questions and direction, and; to Scott, for some insightful, candid responses.

    For me, the key to effective musical improvisation lies in one’s ability to listen and discern the moment, combined with having an adequate vocabulary (i.e., base of knowledge) and technique on one’s instrument(s) to provide an appropriate musical response. (Which is not to say that improvisation cannot be used to create tension, by playing something outside — structurally or emotionally — the underlying musical context. Sometimes, improvisations which “play against” the music can be most effective.)

    Expanding knowledge on one’s instrument(s) should, in theory, enable a person to become a better improviser. Also, challenging one’s self by playing in new, more diverse musical settings should facilitate growth as both an improviser and a musician, in general.

    On practical terms — assuming that knowledge, technique and experience are at least adequate — leaving one’s ego at the door provides an infinitely more effective foundation for connecting emotionally with the moment and musically with fellow musicians. Being a vehicle for creation is an exhilarating, yet, deep-down, humbling experience; pride should play no part in the process.


    • Thank you for your kind words, Peter. For such an impressive body of work in a relatively short body of time, Scott is indeed quite a humble man.

      Humility starts with being thankful for what we have. A spirit of sincere appreciation for the good things present in life doesn’t leave much room for ego — the glorifying of ones self.

      Several things that emerge, for me, as a common thread through the diverse body of Scott McGill’s work — regardless of musical context — is his desire to play something that hasn’t been played before, and his sincere desire to play it strictly for the sake of playing it.

      That’s what his playing has always said to me, seeming to indicate that for him the joy of making music is its own reward. (The fact he has chosen to perform in a genre notorious for albums selling ‘dozens of copies’ reenforces that notion!)

      I thoroughly enjoyed your interview, Peter, and look forward to going back into your archives and digesting your previous work — as well as being notified of future works.

      I found it very engaging, and a refreshing twist on the “guitarist interview”! Your questions were well thought-out, and sought answers rarely pursued but vital — seeking to uncover some of the mental processes involved in the art of improvisation. Very ambitious stuff, that!

      It was a really complex, conceptual choice of subject matter for a one-on-one interview; both questions and answers were insightful and well articulated.

      I’ve read a lot of interviews with musicians — guitarists, in particular — over the last four decades. This was, for me, personally, one of the most intriguing, without question.

      Thanks and kudos to you both.


  4. Peter once again you show you are the master when it comes to teasing out discussions around improvisation and innovation. There’s a lot leaders, managers and businesess can learn from this excellent interview. Oh and the pics are good as well.


  5. Thank you Peter for the chance to share thoughts on creativity on your blog spot. Here is another clip featuring the excellent Michael Manring and Vic Stevens of a more ambient improvised piece which demonstrates the anticipatory elements we discussed vividly:


  6. I was a student of Scotts for a year before he went to England, and he truly was a humble guy. What was happening in my life was just as important to him as the lessons, and he always pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of. The man never stopped playing. Between lessons, he would take any guitar off the wall and play with vigor. A true inspiration.


  7. Great article. I really learned alot from this…both Q&A.

    I haven’t had a chance to listen to Scott’s playing yet but that’s the value added stuff and I’ll definately make the time.

    Nice one Peter.


  8. Pingback: Scott McGill: An intuitive approach does not exclude formalism | Planet Six String

  9. Pingback: Scott McGill: An intuitive approach does not exclude formalism | Planet 6 String

  10. Your point about using structures and creativity to achieve mastery put me in mind of the work of Ilya Aleksandrovich Musin, a teacher of conductors, who encouraged his students to work at marrying exactness (which comes of structure and expertise) with expressiveness (which comes of finding and demonstrating a unique personal style). His ideas motivated me to explore (a little) how exactness and expressiveness can interact and combine to create ‘maestro’ performance: Thanks for another example I can add to my collection.

    Liked by 1 person

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