Quick and easy mastery of jazz?

I woke up this morning to an email from an online jazz instructor claiming, in essence, that 1. large amounts of practice is NOT necessary for impressive progress, 2. the goal of practicing is not to eliminate mistakes, and 3. that if one doesn’t keep up a consistent practice habit even when they know they have the time, it’s not due to a lack of discipline.

I understand that the point of these ridiculous claims is to stand out and attract interest by contradicting conventional wisdom on these topics. After all, this was an affiliate ad written to sell someone else’s online course. But if it smells, looks, and tastes like snake oil, it is snake oil. Use common sense against misleading ads for any product.

Let’s back up. Marketing and selling is something I’ve spent doing professionally my entire adult life. I’m well aware that ‘quick and easy’ sells. It’s not because we’re morally flawed. It’s because in order for our brain to keep us alive and surviving, it needs to filter out less necessary stimulation and activities and make our efforts as efficient as possible. We extend as little energy as needed and build repetitive activities into habits. We can’t learn to balance on a bike all over again every time we want to ride. ‘Quick and easy’ helps manage the enormity of our daily lives.

Back to the claim that large amounts of “practice time is not necessary to make impressive progress”.

Can we agree that the ability to gain the facility on a musical instrument sufficient to spontaneously compose consistent, emotionally rich musical stories over evolving harmonies is hard? Can we agree that the ability to perform that activity is not innate? Even Mozart had to spend 10 years developing his genius before it emerged as great music.

I believe that it is beyond malpractice to assure musicians that long hours of dedicated habitual practicing over decades is unnecessary. It harms those who believe this, relegating them to years of frustration as they wonder why they can’t play as they wish they could. Mastery is not effortless, even though it’s effective marketing.

Not everyone is destined to be a world-class jazz musician. In fact very few are, and that’s perfectly cool. However, everyone does have a certain standard they set for themselves in terms of their musical proficiency, from a drive to perform in Carnegie Hall to getting the instrument out every once in a while to entertain their friends.

Whatever level to which you aspire, there is a certain amount of required work. The disservice done by the purveyors of ‘quick and easy’ jazz mastery is that they convince people that there is a shortcut to the proficiency they desire.

Here are my answers to the three ‘myths’ claimed by this instructor:

1. You need large amount of practice to achieve impressive results.

In order to build the required muscle memory and the trillions of neural connections in your brain that allow you to play jazz ‘impressively’, you must play your instrument over and over and over for years and decades. While you play, deeply listen to the sound you produce, and to help you hear your sound, record yourself and listen back.

You will be listening for flaws in your playing as they relate to the gap between what you hear as your musical voice and what is currently coming out of your instrument. When you hear a flaw from this gap, don’t just play the same thing again and again expecting improvement simply through the repetition. Instead, think about the cause of that flaw and work on that. Record again, and listen. Play the recording for a teacher or peer to learn what they hear.

Practice hard and smart to attain whatever level of proficiency you desire for yourself. Practicing hard and not smart will lead to unfulfilled frustration. You will take much longer to close the gap, if at all. Practicing smart but not hard will limit your musical proficiency. It’s harder to imagine the result of smart and not hard, but my guess is that you will achieve musical prowess but within a very limited range of ability.

2. The goal of practicing is to eliminate mistakes

Again, this was simply a bombastic statement meant to attract attention. Of course, practicing is geared toward eliminating mistakes. Their point is that mistakes should not be seen as failure, but as learning experiences.

I guess if they came right out and said that, the reader would gloss by it seeing it as obvious. Instead of cloaking that statement as a myth, tell people the true purpose of practicing which is to hear mistakes, discover their root cause, through instruction or recording or some other means. Then through hard and repetitive work develop the skill that eliminates that ‘mistake’.

3. If you can’t keep up a consistent practice habit, your life is too busy or you lack discipline.

That’s not a myth, it’s reality. You are not a bad person if you can’t keep up a consistent practice habit, but if you are frustrated by your current level of musicianship, ask yourself if you are spending the necessary time practicing.
If you are not practicing enough for you to play the way you wish, then rearrange your time priorities so that you can put in the time. If you have the extra time to practice but find yourself justifying the time spent doing other things, then, yes, you may lack the required discipline to becoming the player you wish to be. For that, check out my book on developing self discipline.

As I’ve written before, if I never reach my dreamed-of popularity for my teaching methods, it will likely be because of my advocacy for slow and hard versus quick and easy. Sorry. I can’t change the software and firmware of human beings. But I can assure you that if you put in the necessary time and use that time wisely, you have the best possible chance of becoming the player of your imagination. Don’t let them tell you otherwise, even if it is simply marketing bullshit.

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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!