We have all experienced it. You are doing great, everything is clicking right along. Your scales are perfect, all the way up and down the horn. You are in tune practically all the time. Your lessons are filled with praise, and you performances are well reviewed every time.
Then suddenly you stop growing.
People call it a lot of things, “hitting the wall” or “stuck in a rut” or “writer’s block”. But I think there is a more accurate name for the phenomenon that helps us to see the solution more clearly:
Success is a two-edged sword. One the one hand the benefits are clear, the praise and the playing and the external reward for our practice is important and helps justify all that work. But perhaps the pitfalls are not so clear.
When we are doing well, slowly inside of us an expectation develops. “I’m on fire, I’m the best and I can practice as fast as I want from now on and get better at MY super-fast pace instead of slowing down like the rest of these ‘humans’.” To quote Admiral Ackbar:
IT’S A TRAP!!!!
As you do well, this pride will overtake you, and you will ignore the kind of practice that surely got you to be successful in the first place. You will become impatient, take on more than you can chew, and eventually have to crash in order to be humbled appropriately again. That crash may even be so hard as to cause you to quit the thing you love most forever.
The desire to sound good at all times and be accepted by the public is fine, but it cannot be the criteria you use to determine whether you are worthy of your own love or not. I see it so often, and it is the greatest tragedy of our era of art. Our generation of artists seems to believe that without this hate, and this doubt, and this general hurtful striving that great art cannot be had.
We are told the stories of Beethoven, and Picasso, and all the “suffering artists” of the past. We are raised with expectation that art must hurt, otherwise it means nothing. Here is a hint, this is garbage.
My favorite artists are not those who are hurt by their art, but rather those who use their art to further their love for themselves, for their community, and for their spirit. Take Coltrane, take Maynard James Keenan, take anyone with a smile on their face dangit!!!!!
You needn’t suffer to play well, and in fact it hurts your practice.
If you hate yourself, and the way that you play, you will rush through material before it is done. You will ignore deep-seated issues in order to protect you ego. You will play tensely, and not be able to practice for long periods of time because of the strain it places on your whole being. You will reach beyond what you are capable of doing to try and “catch up” to the greats.
In short, hate will cause you to stagnate. (see how cleverly that rhymes so you will remember it? Boy I’m cool!)
But if you practice with love for yourself, you will be patient with the material and slow it down, perhaps even shortening the exercise or admitting which part you are struggling with and focusing on it. You will make it to the those few practices which are most necessary, and be okay with them sounding “bad”. You will be able to relax, and thereby practice indefinitely, building that superhuman “endurance” that the greats sometimes seem to acquire through force of will. They don’t. You will be honest about where you stand and be able to take those small steps forward that are the basis of all progress in all fields.
You cannot do calculus without being able to do algebra. Even in math the principle is clear! Those who hate themselves will see the wrong answer as an indication that they are a bad person and will give up. Those who practice with love for themselves will see the wrong answer and know that it is not the end of all time. They will see through it to the causes, and know truly what to do to fix it. They will even be able to ask for help, knowing that they are not weak and stupid to do so!
It is through love that all progress occurs, in all endeavors. Therefore it is not what you practice that is important, but that you practice from a love for yourself. You must know that this can be done, and not wait until tomorrow to do it. Do it now! You will have plenty of time to hate yourself later 😉
While you practice, you accept who you are.
You can only move forward from where you stand.
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.
So I was sitting in my room, playing guitar as usual, and I realized something… I wasn’t in my room playing my guitar at all! I was in the future, playing guitar in front of people, eager for their approval of what I was working on, eager to hear the praise of “how good I sounded”. I was being swooned over by girls, and winning the adoration and lesson times of young musicians, booking major gigs for an audience that “really understands me”. I was somewhere else, which is not just a problem for me (and everyone with a heartbeat) in music. It is a huge problem in life. The idea though is so prevalent and forthcoming though in music that I feel it should be talked about in this context first. You must be present to improve at music. Let’s give that one it’s own little paragraph
YOU MUST BE PRESENT TO IMPROVE AT MUSIC
There. I feel much better now that you know that. Because it is huge in our field. Without presence, you cannot read the signals that music (the entity), your body, your life, your friends and teachers, the universe, or ANYTHING is sending you, because you are not at the registered mailing address. This sounds bad, and it is (as far as bad can be defined)… but it is also great news because if you are here, you are now subject to a wealth of musical knowledge that you were previously unavailable to. Let us look at a few examples of how presence can help the improving instrumentalist.
- Technical Improvement: Being aware of the signals that your body is sending you can have major effects on your playing from a technical standpoint. First though, we must define “good technique”. Good technique is simply the ability one has to accomplish any musical “goal” with the least amount of effort necessary. So, all the effort required, but none past that. Imagine if you will with me, that the trumpet requires a certain velocity of air to play high because of physics. Will rearing one’s head back and bending one’s back aid in any way to further compress air to achieve “high note air velocity”? I believe the answer is no. Things of this nature are example of extra effort that one can learn to avoid if one is listening to the messages the body is sending (pain, discomfort, stress, strain, etc.). I’ll never forget the days I watched Rahsaan Raas hit in the doubles while sitting on a chair, face pointed to the ground almost, but taking in more air than a freight train and letting ’em fly. No extra effort. Does Wynton really look like he struggles with the horn to get those notes to come out? What about Sergei Nakariakov? Perhaps there is some extra effort at that level of mastery at the trumpet, but through years of study (and prodigy-like behavior from Mr. Nakariakov) those two provide pretty clear examples of what it looks like to play high notes, wide phrases, heavily articulated passages, etc. It looks easy. Like any baby chimp could do it. Like they could do it in their sleep. “I could never do that.” says the negative self. It’s wrong, as usual. You can, if you learn to listen to your body. The best posture to take is the one that is the most relaxed while holding the instrument. The best amount of finger motion is the one that comes from setting your fingers free as opposed to constricting your joints. Your wrists are best served by being straight because that is what feels the least strained. There is a great deal of science one can do to determine the proper way to sit, and the angles at which the clarinet sounds best, OR you can listen to what your body is telling you, and learn to play from an attentive and relaxed space. Learning to pay attention to my playing has saved me a lot of money that could have been spent on even more classical training, but with presence these days I am able to solve technical problems by simply finding the space from which things come through with the least effort (physically, this is easy to do. The mindset can take a little work… for another post). Examples of this could fill volumes, and for this alone presence is worth a million dollars.
- The Development of Musical Sense: Imagine you are performing your classical solo, or perhaps you are playing guitar for your friends, maybe you are at a jam. But really, you aren’t playing your solo, you are thinking about what others think of you, whether or not you are “in tune” or playing with “appropriate tone”, you are elsewhere, outside the moment at hand. How can you, if you are outside the moment at hand, deal with the prevalent musical issues RIGHT NOW, like contrast, connecting with the audience, and listening to the other musicians you are playing with. Great conversationalists are listeners more than they are talkers, and as it is in English, so it is in music. In fact, the bassist Victor Wooten once said that he is an English speaker fist, before he is a musician (music is definitely just a language by the way) and so he approaches any music question first as an English question. In English, we listen as we talk and base “our performance” on the information we acquire in the moment. No performance, no conversation, no speech is independent of context. All things happen in the present, and if you aren’t here, you cannot speak through the moment and touch the human hearts that are here. Being present will allow you to use musical information that is in present, and accomplish the “goals” of music (all of which also exist in the current moment.) This is also true of composition, Pat Metheny once said to Scott Wilson that he sits at the piano for a long time every day, and often won’t play a note. When asked why he responded “You have to be at the train station when the train comes in”. With this advice, Scott said he had the most prolific summer of his life. Bela Fleck often calls his message machine at home, and sings the ideas that come to him in the moment so he can work them out later. The idea is that your practice, your performance, and your composition (all the creative activities in music) can be centered around the idea that you are here, in this context, growing and weaving through current circumstances and emotional environments (like Bruce Lee or something!… In fact just like Bruce Lee says “Be water my friend”). Music in it’s pure form cannot be expected, it is like Robert Fripp said “Maturity in a musician is the ability to achieve innocence at will”. At first glance it sounds like new age trash. But I can attest that it is most certainly real. How many times do you think Coltrane’s quartet played A Love Supreme before recording it? Hundreds? It was not new to them, in the traditional sense. But when you hear it come through the speakers, it sounds as if they were hearing it for the first time. That is special. Everything else will seem stale to you when you learn to see things as though they are new. Because in truth, because of the way time moves forward… they are!
- Creativity: If you are thinking about the future, or the “results” of your practice and your performance, this will constrain you creatively. You will be constantly evaluating whether or not what you are doing is “valid”, or whether or not it is “cutting edge” enough to play publicly. You will become subject to the fear that what you are doing isn’t good enough because you are placing it in a context of the greats of the past and your expectation for what you “should” sound like in the future. Can you see how that sounds? What you “should” sound like? How stale! To play to expectation, based on the performers of the past and the direction music is going these days, is an absurd goal. Firstly, because the performers of the past HAVE ALREADY PERFORMED! In fact, what makes the greats of the past great is that they played what they felt about the society they lived in! They did not, as we try too often to do today, try to be valid. They gave om-age to the past by performing in the present. Also, to try and predict what people are going to listen to in the future is as fickle as predicting the weather, or what particular style will be “in” next season. Even Gregorian Chant has had a modern revival… who saw that coming? No one, the people that do chant were probably just as shocked as the rest of the musical community. The majority is going to do what it is going to do, regardless of how you good you are. So now, FINALLY, you don’t have to worry about it! You can just live in the present and explore the instrument and music and harmony without fear, because being afraid serves none of the functions that it is supposed to. It will NOT make you famous to pander to the interests of the public, only pure luck will make you famous. I know several bass players who are objectively better than Esperanza Spalding, but she is famous and they are not. Go figure. They don’t care, because they know how awesome they are, and how much fun it is to freely create in the moment. If you believe in God, go ahead and see it as your right, as a child of the greatest creator of all time, to create whatever the hell you want and not be ashamed of it. And being able to listen to your creative spirit IN THE MOMENT, will greatly enhance you ability to do that without judging yourself. On that note, also know that you are different from the you that you used to be, so the things you create today make look and feel and sound different than that which you have liked and done in the past. In fact, you may come to dislike the things you have done in the past, but don’t be afraid of that, because you have changed. Significantly.
- Getting to Work: A common problem for developing musicians is figuring out what to work on when they are practicing. There is so much that can be done, it is hard to pick a single direction to go. Future-oriented (distracted) practice will often appear busy, as though the practitioner is working very hard on a great many things. This manner of practice though, even if studiously followed for great lengths of time, results in little growth. Deep roots are harder to pull that shallow ones. Practicing for depth is the way to go, and choosing a single direction to focus on is the way to obtain depth. Simplify simplify simplify. To quote Kenny Werner quoting Bill Evans “Practice the minimum”… amount of material. Such progress can be obtain from just working on the tongue, where it strikes the reed, the lightness of it, how to tongue at different dynamic levels. Or simply working on dissecting rhythms at sight can result in miles of conceptual gain in only minutes a day. Tackling giants simply doesn’t work. The physics hates you. Instead, chop him to bits, and deal with each bit individually. Not only is this more effective practice, it is practice that is easy to do! Anyone can convince themselves that they are going to work on just tonguing for just five minutes! The problem is that it doesn’t “feel” like anything is getting done, but if you learn to pay attention to your practice, and pay attention to the moment, you will notice that you are (for the first time maybe) working on the real problems that are hindering your development. Presence will outline for you which technical, musical, rhythmic or otherwise elements are truly keeping you at the level that you are standing on. To boot, presence will inform you when a skill is mastered and needs no more practice. So often we become fixated on playing that which we play well, simply to pet the ego. Though it can serve the moment to play something that is mastered, there will always come a time to sharpen a new axe, and listening to the present will guide you toward the work that needs to get done.
Hopefully that is enough to convince you to get your head out of the clouds and come back to the moment to practice. More posts will come on obtaining the type of presence that I am talking about, and incorporating it into your practice, but please do not feel hindered by waiting for me to tell you how to do it. Just go do it today! You don’t have to wait for anyone to take a deep breath and play in the moment. It is such a gift. And practicing for the future is one of the major barriers that holds people back from improving in the present moment. Learn to relax, take a deep breath, and play naturally (working with the natural tendencies of your body and mind, as opposed to trying to change them “If you go against nature, you are probably going to lose” -Dr. Ray Smith). Your whole life may get better! Try it now! What bad things could possibly happen as a result of just being here?