One way you will stop yourself from improvising well or at all

Researchers have identified two kinds of mindset. One, they call “Fixed” and the other, they call”Growth”.

As you can imagine, they are polar opposites and have the power to determine the fate of your life. Now, if that is too dramatic for you, let’s say that those two mindsets affect how you improvise jazz. Better?

What is a fixed mindset? It is one that believes that people are the way they are and that is that. Their intelligence and abilities are fixed in stone. That is their lot in life.

The growth mindset is the belief that there is unlimited potential in people and that they can accomplish anything they are determined to learn and work hard to develop.

Which are you?

Well, I think I know which one you want to believe you are. The fixed mindset seems limiting and somewhat sad to believe in, and the growth mindset seems full of cool possibilities. But be honest. Do you find yourself thinking or saying things like:

  • I’m as good as I”ll ever get on my instrument.
  • I’m just not cut out for improvising.
  • I don’t have that gene or that thing that good players possess.
  • No amount of practicing will ever get me to play better.
  • Why should I take the trouble to even try?

You’ve probably heard the phrase attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you believe you can or can’t, you are right.” He was saying that if you firmly believe something is beyond you, it is. Let me make a quick distinction. No amount of belief will ever make me an NBA star at this time in my life. My body’s physiology isn’t capable of the strength, coordination, and stamina to contend. But I’m not referring to transforming a middle-aged man into elite physical skills. Instead, I’m suggesting that the mental and creative skills required to play jazz are probably inside you more than you can imagine.

You cannot will yourself into being the next Charlie Parter or Coltrane, but can you play more than you do right now? A lot more? I think so, but it starts with the belief that it is possible.

I hear so many musicians say, I don’t improvise. I wish I could but I can’t. The clue is hidden in the word ‘wish’. If you have a certain proficiency with your instrument, what is holding you back from learning the language to play over the blues? The word ‘wish’ is your clue that you may have a fixed mindset and that you could benefit from the belief that you ARE capable of improvising. Turn the wish into action to gain the skill.

I’ve worked with classical musicians who wanted to learn to improvise. The ones with the belief that they can develop the skill, and that playing jazz isn’t some dark art that only the anointed at birth can play, they are the ones who develop a capability and enjoyment from their newfound skill.

I do want to be clear that I’m NOT suggesting that if you close your eyes and click your heels together three times while repeating “I’m a jazz genius” that you will play like Michael Brecker. No. I am telling you that your belief that you are capable of learning a new skill is the first and most fundimental step in that journey. It’s a journey of effort and study and early failures, but it is a journey you can make given the necessary proficiency on your instrument. AHHH, you say you lack that proficiency which is why you can’t ever play jazz? I didn’t say improvising was easy. Start practicing. As a wind player, start getting yourself in better shape. Walk around the block or walk up some stairs each day to get your wind stronger. Depending on your age and physical health, run. Eat more nutritious food in order to give yourself more energy. You might find through those more energy-rich foods, that your productive day gets longer and you gain the extra time you need for fruitful practicing.

The growth mindset is one in which you find solutions to your limitations. The fixed mindset is one in which you convince yourself you’re too old, too stupid, too un-creative, or too busy. But ohhh, how you WISH you could play jazz.

Sorry to pull the rug of excuses out from under your feet, but my sincere hope for you is that you change your mindset to one of growth. Only then can you transform your wish of playing jazz into interesting lines over the blues.


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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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