Goal-lessness and musical practice

Once I was a Blue Knight.  This was in 2009, and I went to the audition camp in December, and the trumpet tech said something that camp that would take two years to really hit home for me.  Kevin, at the end of my audition, said to me “It takes as long as it takes.”  It didn’t make sense at the time, but that statement made me feel like anything could be done.  I know now why.  When you place expectations of progress onto your musical practice, it alters the way you work.  You change from one tactic to another rapidly, you move on from tunes before they are internalized, you avoid working on things that you are bad at because “There isn’t enough time!  I have to get to all this other stuff!”  Your goal (getting better) is standing in the way of making true progress because it is altering your practice.  Imagine with me a quick scenario.  You think you don’t know enough tunes.  So you set a goal.  “I am going to learn x number of tunes by y”  and for a while you are very gung-ho about learning tunes.  Perhaps you even learn tunes the entire duration of y!  But most of us, by the end of y haven’t learned the x number of tunes we said we would, or we have taken severe shortcuts to our learning in order to “meet our goal”.  But the whole thing was absurd anyway.  Learning the tunes wasn’t the real goal, getting better at playing music was.  Now we just have more tunes that aren’t totally absorbed, so soon they will fall by the wayside of our subconscious, never to return.  Let’s take a moment and consider an alternate approach.  Let’s say we have the axe out (getting the axe out to begin with can feel like a very goal oriented activity for many musicians)  and we think to ourselves “what shall we practice?”  the answer is clear, though it may be clouded right now to you by some goal.  You practice what ever the hell you want to.  If you like Giant Steps, you work on Giant Steps. If you like Bach, you work on Bach.  If you like R&B, you work on R&B.  The moment will tell you what you want to practice, if you are listening to it.  Many people who are goal-oriented with music deny themselves this fundamental right under the impression that they can work against the grain and become famous or rich if they just learn everything that people like these days.  The goal is flawed.  The true “goal” is to reduce suffering in your life, and if you play a brand of music you aren’t fond of, chances are you are playing it for and with people you aren’t fond of, and being around people you aren’t fond of increases the suffering in your life.  PLUS getting paid to do ANYTHING changes the way you approach it.  In my life, I learned harshly that doing music professionally is not the catch all boon you think it is when you are in music school just because you can afford a sandwich.  Music as a job is mostly just like having any other job with the added garbage of someone telling you have to play even when you don’t feel like it at all.  We do enough of that thing inside our own heads.  It takes a great deal of mental energy and practice to learn to deal with those feelings.  There is a simpler way.  Go a ahead and just play Giant Steps and stop caring who is listening and judging.  If you want fully diminished scales on every dominant chord, then play em!  If you want to cake the whole thing in blues, DO IT!  Who cares?  Is there a legitimate, correct way to play?  No! There is only music that hits you and music that doesn’t, and those two categories are as fluid and flexible as the tide.  And you aren’t god.  You don’t control the tide.  You only control how open you are through practice, but in the present some musical phrase is trying to speak it self through you.  Just let it.  I promise that it will feel great.  And if it feels great, it is more likely that you will spend more time doing it.  And if you spend more time doing it, it is more likely that you will learn to go slowly, and get better.  The material of you practice should be to fulfill a different kind of goal: none.  You aren’t practicing to get better when you do things this way.  You don’t practice for the gig you don’t even have yet.  You do much less scale-chord/ calculus oriented practice (GOOD!).  You practice for practicing’s sake.  “When you are breathing, just breathe”  -Thich Naht Hanh (more on him later I think… I try not to have goals so I don’t really know).

The main problem with this approach is that the world is filled with people who have incorrect conception of how happiness works.  You aren’t happy because you have things.  You aren’t happy just because your needs are met.  Without meeting your needs, it is difficult (if not impossible) to be happy, but your needs are actually pretty easy to meet, especially if you are sitting at a computer right now.  As a result, our needs being met, most of us try to keep from getting bored.  This is the cause of most of life’s problems.  So we invented a little game to keep ourselves busy, unfortunately the game is constraining.  Goals have a tendency to change as time goes on as well, and then they invite comparison to the world you expected and reality.  Comparison invites doubt and self-loathing and a great host of horrible feelings.  No goals means less comparing.  Also, no goals means you free to pursue what ever project interests you.  Whether it be the drums or the harmonica or poetry or drawing, you will no longer be forced to be “just a saxphonist” or “just a painter”, the world is your oyster.  It is also faster to make progress this way, and more permanent.  Practice is the act of changing and creating habits.  Most of our daily lives are comprised of habits.  Our habits in the present are what truly build the future.  Smokers don’t die because they smoke one time.  Alcoholics don’t get liver disease because they drink one beer.  Lonely hearts aren’t lonely because they skip one dating opportunity.   We do it every day.  And we justify it.  If only we were here to see it… we would see how ridiculous it looks.  “I will go to class next time, I am too tired right now” or “I don’t have time to keep repeating this exercise!  I Have to get to new stuff!”  When in truth, there is nothing but time.  Endless, wonderful time, but you are bored.  Stop being bored.

This can seem like a selfish way of looking at things, until you realize the following.  Every great musician you can think of operates this way.  Miles was famous for not caring at all about what you or I thought about the way “Bitches Brew” sounds.  And that is one of the many reasons people like that album so much, it feels like Miles knows something you don’t!  Like there is some secret in there that makes the whole thing palatable, and he knows what it is but you can’t hear it!  He is so centered and confident with his purpose and his musical vision, that all kinds of forms and notes that widely considered “wrong” sold a great many copies.  John Coltrane did nothing but change people’s minds about which rhythms were the “right” ones.  When he plays a bunch of notes that, when transcribed, have tens and fourteens and fifteens above them, he is so familiar with them that they just sound like regular ‘ol eighth notes.  Nothing special.  He has been friends with those rhythms for years.  You have phrases and songs and harmonic choices and high notes that ARE DYING to become good friends with you.  But you ignore them for the sexy girls.  Which would you rather have, a meaningful relationship that removes a great deal of the suffering from your life or a hot girl for just one night?  The issue here is the same.  It is more attractive to play things for others, and to place expectations on the future.  We want others to see us as “starving artists” in order to feel that we have taken the acceptable path.  There is no acceptable path.  For every path you take there is a HUGE number of people that hate hate hate what you are doing.  Screw ’em.  It’s your life and you need to “get right with yourself” -Sonny Rollins.  And part of that is admitting that you love polka, and playing polka until you cute ‘lil tuba tongue bleeds.  It is like Steve Marcus said, “Improvisation is a garden.  You can plant whatever you want in your garden.”  He also said “You too” after I told him he had nice hair.  He is gone now.  So is Joe Zawinul, and Michael Brecker.  Precious irreplaceable gardens.  But yours is just as precious, just as unique, just as valid, even if pretentious music folk like me sneer our noses at you.  We have a bad habit of critically analyzing every little note, and we need not to.  The word itself, analysis means to separate and destroy.  Where is creation in that?  No where.  You need not know at all to create, and you need merely go to any poor town in any poor country to see that, and see the happiness and contentment it brings.  Peace is created, not found, just like freedom and happiness.  We are so stuck in the thought that we are going to “find freedom” and purchase happiness with drinks and fast food meals and movies.  But we can’t.  Just like you can’t buy friends, you can only be friends to them.  That is all there is.  Freedom is right here, right now, and you needn’t put it off any longer.  The future has you and me in chains, but we needn’t be like this.  It reminds me, selfishly, of a poem I once wrote.

John Johansen was a man,
Eating his daily bread,
When suddenly a murderous plan
Formed in John John’s head.

John Johansen took his time
Planning his murder out.
No precious face or death bell’s chime
Would give Johnny any doubt.

John Johansen left no detail
Uncovered, untouched, unturned;
“Oh soon I will set my sail,
My foe will see what he has earned.”

I watch and wonder,
Thinking suddenly of a priest
And they who govern least.
The thought comes up
That men aren’t free
Not because of christian cup,
Oh wishful blunder…
We just choose not to be.

So John takes his hurried thought
Swiftly to the murder’s place,
Building quietly a rage quite hot,
But not to show it in his face…

Because a free man
Must be void of any plan
For good or ill
Or any bill…
No monk will ever stand
Darwin’s question grand.
John Johansen though,
He’ll be at the final show.

I take my gun in hand
(My thoughts too weary spread
“Huh, guns are manned”)
Now John Johansen’s dead.

Boy, I was bit of a lament heavy 19 year old huh?  Any way, that is the end of this post.