Uplift your playing: try something new

Thank you for all the positive comments and emails from last week’s post on building your health.

As I thought about all those people wanting to make change, I was reminded of another topic that is super important to the idea of making material change: the willingness to try something new and different from what you’ve always done.

It’s been said that doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is ‘insanity’. I don’t think it’s insanity, I think it should be called ‘futility’.

Repeating the same habits over and over expecting something to change relates far beyond what you do for your health. This also relates to your ability to play your instrument and jazz better–more like you imagine.  

Think about your practice routine. How much of it is the same each and every time? Are you using a rubber stamp to make it through your playing time and effort?

Consider what you practice. The same scales in the same direction, the same etudes, the same tunes in the same keys, music out of the same books?

Consider where you practice. The same room with the same acoustics and the same vibe?

And consider how you practice. Do you always start at the beginning and play straight through to the end of etudes, exercises, or tunes? Except for drummers and piano players, do you always sit in the same chair pointed in the same direction thinking the same things? Do you record yourself? Is listening to your own playing live as you play the only perspective you have of how you or your band sounds? 

If you’re doing the same things over and over and wondering why your playing is not getting better and more fun, could there be an element of futility in how you’re spending your playing time? 

I’m not suggesting that repetition is bad. Learning to play a musical instrument requires the effort of relentless repetition. Scales and exercises over and over until you’re dreaming about them, playing  the tunes you wish to learn over and over until you’re sick of them, working your fingers and arms until they hurt or those muscles just give out (give up).

Think about the long-term effects of settling into a routine for the sake of routine. Paying more attention to the clock on the wall than on the details of your sound, prioritizing quantity over quality, the proverbial gold star you gave yourself because you practiced today, no longer expecting significant improvement in your playing.  Do you keep your practicing and performing fresh or are you stuck in a rut? The months are turning into years… 

Are you doing the same things over and over expecting different results?

If you sense that you might be, then think of something different to do practicing or performing, but then do it. Mix it up. Mixing things up and expanding the diversity of how you approach music gives you a better broader perspective on your playing. What’s more important than hearing yourself better, closer to how others hear you, both in your playing’s nuance and musical personality. 

I think of musical hearing in two related ways: First, with the microscope, you hear the detail of your playing: intonation, time, dynamics, inflection, and tone. 

Second, and with a telescope, you hear the personality of your musical voice. The big picture: your energy, your attitude, your kinship with the other musicians, the musical relationship you have with your audience. 

Why does all that matter? Because you can’t improve that which you don’t hear. And there is more than just one level to hear within your playing. Improving requires that you hear what needs to be worked on or what else is going on beneath the surface. You probably have a sound in your head that you imagine playing like some day. 

To get there, you need to more clearly hear how you play today and the difference between you and your model. Then hopefully later, you’ll hear your own musical voice so clearly that you abandon the sound of your idol/model, and project yourself. I know you have something worthwhile to say.

So if I’ve sold you on the benefits of hearing more, let me recommend 7 aspects of practicing and performing that I hope will motivate you to try some new things. 

Again, I’m not telling you to stop your repetition of scales, tune learning, and muscle development. Work hard on those things but do so within your new and fresh perspectives.

Here are 7 tips off the top of my head that can freshen your perspective on how you play, and open up your ears to knowing better how you can improve. 

7 Tips for Making Things Fresh

 

  1. Practice/play someplace new and inspiring. I’ve cheered this on this many times. The space doesn’t have to be an exotic location. Just someplace with different acoustics such as another room in your home, a large space in a church or auditorium that you can charm your way into, outdoors within the beauty of nature, or just in your back yard (neighbors permitting!) Be inspired and hear yourself differently.
  2. Get some new music books and materials. Are you playing from the same books you’ve played through forever? Look through Jamey Aebersold’s site jazzbooks.com and find one book slightly out of your comfort zone. Remember that this is a post on trying something new. Don’t just buy a book like all the others you practice with. Find a book written for another instrument. For example, piano players, find a book of horn lines. Bach Cello Suites would be interesting choice! Horn players, find a book on harmony for piano or composition. I also have to point you to my site, musicsavvy.com, to find materials no one else offers, like the free Pocket Jazz course!
  3. Practice without any music for an entire session. Put the music face down and commit to playing exclusively by ear and memory today. Tomorrow, you can go back to your books. You should at least know enough memorized tunes including Christmas carols, kid’s songs, etudes, and exercises to take the focus away from your eyes and put more of it into your ears. 
  4. Practice and perform in different keys. It seems odd that that we seem stuck to the same old “standard” keys for standards and other jazz tunes. Those keys don’t necessarily work equally well for every instrument range and skill. Strengthen your ear by playing tunes you know really well in new keys, like the ones I mentioned above. Hey, if you can’t play Autumn Leaves in at least three keys without thinking, you’re not truly hearing Autumn Leaves. New keys also open up new possibilities for improvising. It gets you out of your standard habitual muscle memory for licks. There’s something new!
  5. Listen to new artists. You have your favorites and that’s cool. But you can learn things from listening to artists in different styles and instruments. I know too many trombone players who only listen to trombone players, or jazz musicians who only listen to jazz. Try a website called Every Noise at Once for some truly random music from all over the world. Open your ears to more than just jazz trombone (unless it’s me of course!).
  6. Build some skill in other instruments. You will strengthen your musicianship by playing more than one instrument. Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, and Michael Brecker all are/were good drummers. It improved their sense of time and gave them greater insight into the drums while they play sax. Piano is a great second instrument since harmony is literally at your fingertips. Sit at the piano and comp left hand root and right hand voicings for the tunes you wish to know better. Learning guitar is on my bucket list.
  7. Get out and perform. Find an outlet for your playing. Isn’t that the whole point? Show up to your local jam session or create one. Call tunes you want to play better and call them in keys other than the standard ones (see point three above). Find rehearsal big bands that need your instrument or an occasional occasional sub. Find a playing opportunity that works well for you.

As you read think about changing up your routine, what is your knee-jerk emotional reaction to that idea? Was your initial reflex to think of reasons why a particular change can’t work for you? That’s perfectly normal, since routine is hard-wired into each of us as a survival mechanism. Your brain is built to be energy-efficient, not to crave new and more strenuous ways to accomplish repetitive tasks.

But accomplishing something as challenging as playing jazz well requires that you go above and beyond your default hard wiring that is built for efficiency through unthinking habit and routine.

Do just one of the suggestions above and honestly consider your experience and 30-day results.

Ask any accomplished musician what they did to master their art. I’m betting they won’t tell you they followed a routine of habitual comfort. 

And if you need one more example of the life-changing effects from thinking different(ly), here’s one from another of life’s great geniuses:

 

6 Responses

  1. I knew we were meant to be jazz pals – not only because of your fab posts and published books (I’ve bought 2 so far – love them!) – the George reference was the icing on the cake.

    PS: This post hits me in all the right spots. DSD – do something different. I hear you and I’m digging in firstly by changing where & how I am when practicing. 👏👏

  2. It’s not “pocket Jazz” it’s “Pocket therapy” for the struggling, intimidated, embarrassed, wanna-be musician. I gain so much from your suggestions and insights. They make absolute perfect sense and I will adopt and adapt. I need them, my brain needs them, and my music will thank me. Thank you for being that “tough love” friend.

    I truly appreciate you!

    Neil

  3. Once again, an essay full of practical and stimulating ideas. Thank you. Earlier this year I bought a pear wood descant recorder. I have been recording the piano chords and playing the melody on the recorder. It’s fun and presents a novel challenge. I also like to play through the pentatonic scales while looking out to the garden. They go together perfectly. Spotify has an album called History Has A Heartbeat by Joseph Tawadros and William Barton – a master oud player and Australia’s leading yidaki (didgeroo doo) player. It is an unusual combination but very innovative, beautiful and original.

  4. Hi, Michael –
    Because I don’t own a computer, and do everything from my phone, I usually refrain from commenting due to time constraints.
    However, it’s wrong of me not to thank you for all of these wonderful essays, as there always is something in them that is helpful and uplifting (the one on sleep made me smile, in particular, as I’d just returned from playing at week-long corporate convention, and one of the seminars for which I’d played a bit dealt with this very subject!)

    With humility, may I add a suggestion to the list? (I’m at the library, with computer access, and it’s been on my mind since I first read this.)

    The challenge is to take a favorite tune, or one one has wanted to learn, and do some research on it. Find the original sheet music, and if it’s from a show, find the score as well. See and learn the chord changes as the composer conceived of them. Look at the voicings, especially in the show scores, and even those on the “dumbed down” versions of the commercial sheet music – not the chord symbols above the staff, since those are ukulele chords and don’t always tell the whole story (Richard Rodgers was particularly strict about these things); look for strong counter-lines and counter-melodies that appear again and again.
    Dick Hyman edited two wonderful collections of lead sheets doing this very thing, and above the original chords, suggested hipper, and oft-played alternate chords.
    The benefits of this are many. If you know how the melody was originally conceived and played, you can be a lot more original when you make your departure, because then the conception is entirely your own. Finding recordings on YouTube of when the songs were new can be very instructive.
    I came up in the tail -end of when those “society” bands still existed in NYC, and the musicians who mentored me knew a lot of this information, even though they also were great Jazz players, and their knowledge ran deep.
    I got to thinking about this after hearing a recording, and later seeing a video, of Monk playing “Sweetheart of all my Dreams.”
    When I decided I wanted to learn it, the record collector in me found old recordings, like Rudy Vallee’s, Nat Shilkret, etc. They played it in Ab, Monk played it in F. I found the original sheet music very cheaply on Ebay – also in Ab.
    Finding and buying the sheet music might be taking it a bit far (I love collecting old sheet music, but that’s me) but my point is, when listening to performances of the tune by younger players on YouTube, I noticed a couple of things: they all played it in F, like Monk, and they all played – every one of them – his turnaround in the seventh and eighth bars. This made me wonder if they were doing his arrangement, or if they thought that turnaround was part of the melody.
    Obviously, there isn’t time and it isn’t practical to do this kind of research every time for every tune, but as it’s rather rewarding work, it’s something to consider doing for a tune you really love, or want to learn. (For standards, it’s nice at lest to be familiar with the verse, if not learn it outright.)
    Happy practicing!

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