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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!).
- 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.
- 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: