The finishing fetish

Before a rehearsal tonight, I was speaking with a couple of friends/bandmates about some of my improvisation methods

They’ve been following a few of my lessons and advice on developing improvisation skills and one of them proudly mentioned that he can now play a couple of simple songs in all 12 keys. He’s been doing the work on a regular basis, which is fantastic.

I asked him how much thinking he is doing as he plays these tunes in all keys and he said that it depends on the key. That makes perfect sense. He has to think more through the harder keys.

His comment about playing in all 12 keys reminds me of feedback I frequently get as people work on the Improvisation Savvy course or my books, particularly Jazz Patterns for Ear. Someone will write me, “Hey, I’m doing great. I’m up to pattern 37.” Or they might say, “I’m up to module 4 in the course.”

All these comments and other like them have one thing in common: the idea that moving closer to the ‘finish line’ is a mark of progress.

Finishing things is a critically important trait in much of life. Finish your homework, finish the book, finish your website, finish writing the blog, finish performing the operation, etc.

But when it comes to the difficult task of exercising and developing your musical ear and building its connection to your instrument, I question finishing as the goal. With something like Jazz Patterns for Ear, I don’t think you can even ‘finish’.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that with the focus on getting to the finish line of 12 keys or to the end of the course or to the end of a complicated series of ear training exercises, the focus is on the arrival to a destination rather than on the journey. 

Let’s use an example of playing Autumn Leaves in all 12 keys. You could make your way to the twelfth key by thinking your way through the harder keys and claim victory over the intellectual challenge. After all, you can play the tune in 12 keys. 

But that is not the point of the exercise. The point is to play Autumn Leaves starting on any random note, not thinking about the key, but instead, simply listening to yourself ‘sing’ the tune as it flows musically from your instrument. To know the tune this way eliminates any difference between starting on G and starting on B. In either key, you’re focused on the musical flow with no thinking about the next note. If you sense yourself thinking, “If I start on B, the key must be…”, stop and sing.

Your elimination of wrong notes is not the goal. The goal is to deeply hear yourself. You’ll be shocked at the result of just listening to yourself play. You’ll be shocked at the improvement of your intonation, your note choices in improvisation, your time and feel, and your sound. All by focusing on what you hear, not on the mechanics of how your are operating the machine.

At the risk of sounding like Yoda…

My method of practicing this way is much more difficult and takes much longer to implement than memorizing the notes of Autumn Leaves in Gb or cementing fingerings or slide positions into your muscle memory. Memorizing notes is easy compared to training your musical instincts to guide you through various keys simply by hearing them.

This is the process of learning your instrument. The learning is never finished. There is no ribbon at the end of the journey. There is no champagne room or four-foot trophy with a little trombone player at the top. In fact, the better you get, the further you discover there is to go.

Focus on the process. Listen to yourself. If you stumble, stop and sing. The elimination of wrong notes is not the goal. The goal is to connect your musical mind to your instrument better today than you did yesterday. 

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