In my last blog I tackled the idea of comparing ourselves to other musicians and how damaging it can be for our musical progress. Many of my fellow musicians agreed and nodded energetically to this and realised they had been guilty of damaging comparisons. Ideas seem to resonate with many people.
This week, I’ve been taking part in a jazz workshop for players of all abilities and I have encountered a different comparison problem. Students are comparing themselves to themselves.
The familiar chant I have heard this week is, “if the improvisation and music was written down, I’d be able to play it really well” As soon as students on the course came across something that they couldn’t do, they immediately compared it to something they could do VERY well. It’s easy to do this. I was asked to improvise using only notes from the extended chords, ie 7ths 9ths 11ths. I found this very challenging indeed. My initial thought was, “if I was allowed to do this my old simpler way, then this would be easier” the answer to this is yes, obviously it would be! However, I am making the mistake of forgetting I need to grow. I need to allow myself to become the beginner at something new again. Improvisation needs variety and new life injected into our ideas. I need to Allow myself to make mistakes. I need to allow myself to feel a little exposed and outside of my comfort zone, then I will get better.
I used to think that people who stayed within their comfort zones were confident because they never appeared to be challenged. This is not true. Confident Jazz musicians try new things with an open mind and a good sense of humour. The longer we are confident staying within our comfort zones, the less likely we are to allow ourselves to try something new. Also, it is more likely that we will use the idea of being good at something else as a reason not to try something new.
One player spent quite a bit of time and stress away from the class trying to learn a song before the class started. He said he wanted to be able to play it well before the class started. I asked him if he would say the same to a one year old child learning to walk. Would he say the child was forbidden to be there till he or she could walk confidently? He laughed and agreed he needed to give himself a chance and time to learn it.
People also seemed to reinforce existing limiting patterns by saying things like:
Do I need to sing and use my voice if I play a woodwind instrument?
If I am a good reader, do I really need to learn things by ear?
The answer to both of these things is YES. By learning things by ear and using our voices we make improvisation easier and we make the process of memorising much quicker and easier too. By memorising music, we free our eyes from the page. The music is tighter and the musical results are more impressive. I asked one of the visiting piano tutors how he memorised the 7 songs he played that evening and he said that he didn’t learn them from the sheet music. He had learned them from the records. Playing songs by ear, he had improved his musicianship and his ability to improvise. The results were incredible and it has made me want to learn things by listening from now on. I want to get better. George Odam, my tutor and mentor when I learned to teach music instilled the idea of “sound before symbol” and it is a valuable thing to remember. Our inner musical ear is crucial to our musical toolset and singing and listening are excellent ways to develop this.
Some of the other players were playing their second instruments and were also new to jazz. These players spent a lot of time apologising for mistakes. Interesting. If we focus on the job in hand then we will get better results. Nobody is interested in what we do not know or the reasons why we don’t know those things. They are only interested in what we do know and what we can do. We need to let ourselves learn. We can try new ways, try new approaches, let ourselves become the beginner again. Trying new ways will make our lives more fulfilling and more rewarding. It helps us accept that getting things wrong is part of getting things right.
Chris Gumley, the main tutor for the course instilled an idea of fun for new things. Along with everybody else, he allowed himself to make mistakes and have fun along the way. it seems to work for him very well. His consummate and inventive jazz saxophone playing is inspirational.
If we try things in the same way, we get the same results. We need to allow ourselves to falter occasionally. Would we tell ourselves off if we stumbled like a toddler whilst learning to walk?
So in short,
• Learn a piece by ear.
• Say, “This is different, I am going to try this.”
• Expand your musical comfort zone by trying things that make you feel uncomfortable every now and then.
• Allow yourself to make mistakes.