Finding meaning for your jazz playing

I just read Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search For Meaning. It’s been on my reading list for a long time so my recent sojourn to the northern Arizona flower-covered mountains gave me the opportunity to finally read it.

Field of flowers - Lake Mary2

In essence, the book is Frankl’s horrifying account of his life in Nazi concentration camps and what he learned from that experience regarding the human condition. He became a therapist for several of the prisoners and embraced that role as his opportunity to help them cope with and survive their horrific daily existence.

Frankl realized that salvation for himself and each of them relied on finding meaning in their life, as impossible as that seemed in those terrible circumstances. After all, they each knew that their chance of survival was less than 10% and that every hour was consumed by one task: avoiding death.

Viktor Frankl was remarkable because he was able to discover real meaning for himself within those dire conditions and then helped others find their own meaning-even those who had lost almost all hope. Frankl’s own life’s meaning became the writing of this book from a manuscript hidden away from guards and fellow prisoners. The book saved his life.

And that search and discovery for his life’s meaning enabled him and many others to eventually walk out of those camps with their humanity intact.

If I can be forgiven for the leap from the unspeakable horrors of WWII concentration camp life to the subject of jazz, I believe there are some valuable lessons from Frankl’s keen observations documented in his book. While much of Man’s Search for Meaning is his autobiographical telling of life in the camps, it also contains a scholarly description of his discovery within psychology called Logotherapy.

Logotherapy states that the driving motivational force of an individual is his life’s meaning. Finding that meaning enables him to reduce or eliminate some of the deep causes of anxiety or neurosis. Dis-ease such as depression, hopelessness, etc. often comes from a contradiction or an unsettled conflict. Contradictions can also arise from pursuing values contradictory to one’s true purpose-a purpose they probably haven’t yet consciously discovered.

Uncovering the central purpose for your life can eliminate contradictions and conflicts, and therefore free a path for an integrated thriving life. Forgive my oversimplification of Logotherapy. For a complete understanding of Logotherapy please read Frankl’s book.


Think about it. The frustration and lack of fulfillment in your own playing aren’t there simply because of a lack of chops or from confusion over chord/scale relationships. At least not as much as you probably think it does. It comes largely from not being crystal clear about the meaning that drives your music.

So why do you play jazz?

Frankl makes the important point that the meanings many people ascribe to their lives are superficial. That’s not a value judgment. It’s an observation that the common objective of making money or being popular or winning awards leaves many people desperately unhappy. Those poor souls don’t know the true purpose that fundamentally drives their lives.

Too many musicians chase a musical ideal copied from someone else. There’s nothing wrong with emulating your idol in order to discover how they play as they do. But at what point do you abandon your model and settle into your own unique musical voice?

I’ve written much about finding one’s authentic musical voice, but I think that Frankl identifies a preliminary step. That step involves finding the ‘why’ in one’s playing. The difference between obsessing over the ‘how’ of your music and being clear on your ‘why’ is the difference between throwing a bullet and firing one. Your ‘why’ is the gunpowder that shoots the bullet into its target.

This is not just for professional musicians, but for all musicians. Why do you take your instrument out of its case or sit at the piano? Why do you practice, if you do? Why do you go to the Sunday night jam session?

“To get better”, you reply. But to get better for what purpose? What is it about YOU that is expressed and fulfilled by the sound you make on your instrument?

The clearer you are on your ‘why’, the more fulfilling your playing will become. Not that you stop working on getting better, but becoming clear on your ‘why’ allows you to be less frustrated by how you play now. It makes our practice more focused and therefore, more effective. Ever wonder why all the hours you put into practicing aren’t making you better?

Once your ‘why’ is clear, is it possible that your authentic musical voice emerges? I think this is when your musical voice is given birth. You now improvise closer to the music you hear inside. In other words, you become a better musician.

What is the meaning for your pursuit of music? Ask the same question of yourself in other important areas of your life.

You may be shocked by the result.

5 thoughts on “Finding meaning for your jazz playing”

  1. That is such an important question. Those days when my tone is off, I can’t find a working reed, I’m confused on what to practice, and/or I know I’ll likely never reach a level I seek to attain – I wonder why I put in the time to attempt it at all. But I know I’m stubborn and I don’t want anything to kick my butt – even if it takes a little longer. But “why” is very important! As JFK said “…I say, why not?”

    I love your thought provoking insights and why I’ve chosen to take your mastery course.

    1. Thank you Neil. What I come away with from your comment is that being clear on your ‘why’ or meaning provides you with the resilience to more easily brave the storms of adversity.

  2. I read Man’s Search for Meaning in high school and again recently. It is among the best books I’ve ever read. It’s message resonates as loudly today as it did for me many years ago. I think everyone should read it- especially now as we all face this pandemic and come to the realization of what it means to truly suffer and to overcome hardships. Thank you for this message and relating it to one’s pursuit to learn and master an instrument.

  3. Thank you for this article. I will read Man’s Search for Meaning. Over the past few years the question of Why has been asked, with the answer being trite and meaningless. With the appearance of Covid and subsequent lockdowns that has resulted in a broader practice picture, my focus and Why has changed to a deeper, more personal answer.

  4. Yes Michael,
    It’s a recurring question, that I try to answer every day.
    And that can make all the difference when it comes to attracting the right people to one’s music journey (from fellow musicians, to promoters, festivals etc…).

    My answer to you is to get inspired and inspire people around me, hoping that something in my music will help them understand themselves a bit more.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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This is just a fake book example for the type of website I can build for you. Just trying to use a little humor here!