The Practicing Musician part 1: Separating Self-image From Performance And Practicing Longer Hours Without “Burning Out”, And New Comments Section Now Up And Runnning!

practicerHello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!

Readers, something unusual happened to me the other night. I was listening to a recording of my song being rehearsed with the student 10-tet here at McGill; it’s a somewhat difficult piece and the read-through was shaky (as first read-throughs generally are), and then came the clarinet solo by yours truly…

If I can be at all objective about my own creative work I’d say this clarinet solo was somewhat, em,…lame. I was playing as loud as possible in order to be heard (it’s a loud kind of song but clarinet isn’t a very loud instrument), which led to tension not only in the sound but in my hands as well, which led to uneven (and “ungrooving”) technique and generally poor rhythm. I could even hear myself mid-solo realizing how bad it was sounding as I began to flounder for any musical ideas I could think of.

Now readers, I like to think my clarinet playing doesn’t usually suck that bad but this wasn’t the unusual part I speak of. The unusual part of it was that I didn’t feel all that bad as I was listening to the recording!

After listening to it, I believe the words that came out of my mouth were “Whoa,…that didn’t sound good.” But that was it,… my self-esteem was pretty much in tact, Hooray! Let me tell you, this emotionally detached attitude wasn’t always the case.

Even at the young age of 17, after being “serious” about music for only 3-4 years, I started to associate my personal image with my art. What does that mean? Simple:

I play great = I am great
I play bad = I am bad

When your art takes center stage in your life, when that’s all your about, well then, there’s a lot riding on it isn’t there? Your self-worth becomes woven into how you performed that day, and that is a false sense of identity. And what’s wrong with that if it motivates you to get better? you may ask. I’ll admit, it does put the pressure on to get better but it’s a far cry from healthy pressure, if there is such a thing. What’s wrong with this attitude is that it prevents you from taking chances (your entire self-worth is at risk remember) and being creative requires a willingness to take chances, to make mistakes and “run with it.” (That’s right,… I just linked that to my album of the same name, shameless self-promotion, I’m all about it! :D)

So what changed for me? I’m not sure. I’m not sure when my focus shifted exactly nor do I know if/when I’ll go back to that way of thinking. As far back as 10 years ago I could identify that this attitude was a problem (this is starting to take the tone of an AA meeting right?) but then it just took a long time of gaining the experience and maturity that builds slowly, year after year. The older you get, the more you broaden your horizons, and with this larger “pie of life” if you will, you are able to see your art/career as simply one piece of that pie and not the whole damn thing!

However, that’s not the end of this story.

I’ve noticed a pattern in my mercurial relationship with music in the last few years: How hard I work at music is inversely related to how much joy I derive from it,… so, the harder I’m working at it, the less I enjoy it.

Kinda screwy huh?

Like all musicians, I want to enjoy the act of making music. And like most, I want to get better at it, considerably better actually, and,…you know,…relatively soon too. But the more I practice, the more I try to force what I’ve practiced into my performance which then just raises my expectations through the roof, which then leads to burning out and not practicing for awhile until I expect very little from music and it offers me joy again as a release. Then, once I’m enjoying music again, I want to get better at it and so I start practicing more and then the whole cycle happens again. (I think this is why many musicians I know who just play part time can enjoy music so much more than some full-time professionals, because their expectations are so low that they just relax and any music they produce feels like a gift.)

Unfortunately, this weird relationship to music has prevented me from practicing as much as I would’ve liked to, and should have, during the last few years. Being in music school again I’m reminded of what it was like, as an undergrad, to practice for hours and hours a day on nothing but the desire to be a great player (regardless of whether that desire comes from a healthy place or not) and simple blind faith that doing so would deliver me to a successful career as a professional jazz musician. I know of one drummer who’s my age and has maintained that attitude towards practicing, but it’s rare. That kind of Field Of Dreams belief that “build it and they will come” can start to seem a little naive as a professional musician who sees there’s a lot more to building a successful career than just how you play, but really?… that IS the most important piece, and I love to see people, at any age, who hold on to that.

Now, I’m sure any artist would tell you they want to improve, of course they do, it’s all part of this “journey” we’re on with our craft. Complete objectivity about ones art is rare (perhaps impossible?) but it certainly increases once you’re able to emotionally distance yourself from your performance. That recording of myself I mentioned earlier would’ve sent me into mild depression years ago but now I’m aware that in certain musical situations I feel free and relaxed and can create something very musical whereas in other situations, I’m uncomfortable, tense and restricted.

So when I say I played a poor solo with the 10-tet in that rehearsal mentioned earlier, I can step back and explain why: Because I was: a.) straining to be heard by over-blowing and b.) trying to compensate for the rhythm section’s lack of groove by playing more notes to fill the space,…which, em… hardly ever works. I should mention that the rhythm section was quite good, but like me they weren’t playing their best because they weren’t familiar with that particular type of song. Give us all a few more rehearsals (and possibly a microphone for me) and we would all sound like better players, not because we all became substantially more talented but because we became more familiar with the material and were then able to let our talents and musicality shine through.

This is all to say that I have gained increased objectivity about my own music and can therefore say with confidence that there are a few areas I feel really need work in order to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself in my artistic plan.

So the question is: How can I practice more without becoming obsessed over seeing the results of my practice in my performance and therefore raising expectations, and therefore burning out? Has anyone else experienced this? Oh, and the obvious answer of “STOP OVER-THINKING EVERYTHING AND JUST DO IT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!” hasn’t really worked for me so far, so…yeah, any other thoughts are welcome in the BRAND NEW COMMENTS SECTION BELOW!!

Parts 2 and 3 of this discussion will continue over the next few weeks with some related topics of interest,… to me at least.

Thanks for reading and have a great week everyone,… I gotta go practice!

  • Guy

    I have no advice, but aren’t you supposed to suck in rehearsal? Isn’t that what rehearsals are for? Oh, and stop over-thinking everything and just do it, for Christ’s sake!

    (I really just wanted to be the first to comment.)

  • james

    Are you supposed to suck in rehearsals? well,…hmm, maybe. But it was just a medium-up tempo song over a single Eb7 chord for heaven’s sake!,…I mean COME ON!!

  • Guy

    You’re probably not “supposed to” suck in rehearsals, but it’s better to do it there and learn from it than do it in performance, I’d say.

  • janet

    Does it have to be a dichotomy: play great/bad =be great/bad? I remember how you played at 17 and it was amazing. And badass. JD = amazing/badass is an image worth cultivating, methinks. If you have other adjectives in mind, go for ’em.

    And yes, having the right sound equipment makes all the difference, because then you aren’t straining to hear yourself or be heard, but can focus on the music. Speaking of which, I need a new amp … Any recommendations? 😉

  • james

    No Janet, you remember how I played at 16,…at which point I probably thought I WAS bad ass! At 17 I was good enough to know how little I knew.

    But that’s besides the point, which is… it’s all in the performer’s head and so it doesn’t really matter how the performance was received.

    I don’t know. Yeah, I guess if I always felt bad ass after playing then I would’ve been happy to associate that with my image but really?… between the age of 17 and 25 that was rarely the case. Hell, it’s rarely the case now but,… I don’t give a shit so much, you know, I care but,…I’m a many splendoured/layered onion now. There’s lots to me. You dig?

  • james

    Did I mention it was Eb7 concert?!… Guy, that’s my F7 for God’s sake!

    If there was an emoticon with his head hanging in shame, I would place it right here.

  • Big chops

    Just want to add, I don’t practice at all and I really enjoy music…just not my own!

  • Megan

    I don’t know what an Eb7 concert is or an F7 but I’ll throw this out there as a person that’s in the audience rather than on stage. When musicians are relaxed and having fun the music is better. period. It doesn’t matter whether a note is missed or off key because the audience is swept up in the energy of the band which translates right into the music we hear. I guess that’s part of the reason the second set often seems stronger because the band has stepped away from maybe initial stage jitters or mind wandering. They’ve really committed to the here and now of making music they love…and, as I said before, you can hear that joy comes through in the way they play. In the same way I’ve been at concerts where the band leader thought he was the cats pajamas and played every note right..but the music didn’t touch me because he didn’t need anyone else, he wanted to simply bask in the glory of one…and without a doubt thats what came through in the music once more. Anyhoo, just some thoughts!

  • Guy

    Love the new comments section!

  • Steve

    A few days coming, but feel compelled to chime in none the less.

    For me, enjoyment of performance went up after no longer relying on music as my primary income. Why? Because I could play when I wanted, and play the gigs that I wanted. To take a step back, I alleviated the pressure of having to play and more emphasis was put on wanting to play.

    But that eventually gave way to not playing as much.

  • janet

    JD = Many Splendoured Onion.

    Okay, well, it has potential… 😉

  • John Doheny

    With me it’s the recording process itself, which is extremely intimidating to me (although I’m much better at dealing with this than I was, say, on my first record, which I can’t stand to listen to). Something about it going on “the permanent record” gives me the heebie jeebies. I can hold forth all night long in live performance without giving it a second thought, beyond the normal slight edge of nerves (which I regard as a good thing), but once the tapes roll (figuratively speaking) I have to really psyche myself to not be inhibited. As Phil Woods says “the red light makes cowards of us all.”

    Playbacks tend to re-inforce this with me, and I don’t like to do a lot of listening. It sucks the air out of a session running back and forth into the booth to listen to takes, and re-inforces in my mind how much (I think) I suck. Then I get into the dreaded ‘hamster-wheel of negative re-inforcement’ where I hear myself sucking, my self-esteem takes a hit, and the next take blows even worse. My preferred modus operandi in the past was to just do three complete takes of everything, put them away, and come back to it a week or two later when I had some distance and could pretend that was some other poor sod playing sax on there. Recording somewhere like the Cellar actually facilitated this since Cory (in 2006 at least) wasn’t really set up in there to do playbacks.

    Serependitously, on this last project I seem to have arrived, at least partially, at the kind of Kenny-Werner-Effortless-Mastery-esque style of objective workmanship you’re talking about. I was able to listen to playbacks without wincing, dispassionately evaluate changes I wanted to make on the next take and generally function more effectively as my own producer, which as you know is no easy task. I was also able to evaluate aspects of my playing that I’m not happy with (particularly some articulation issues that have always been with me, but that are more evident on the mouthpiece I’m currenly using on tenor) and start the process of remedying them in the practise room.

    I had a conversation with pianist Robert Glasper about this recently, and he gave me some good advice. “Get over yourself,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with you.” It’s the music we are (or should be) here in service of, not our own transitory little egos. What I’m starting to “get” is that listeners deep into the pudding will recognize each recording and performance for the work in progress that it is, and that people who are reflexively judgmental often lack the ears to hear the mistakes anyway.