Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Tuning Slide 3.20- Beyond Mediocre (1)

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

If you need to be inspired to practice,
you should probably do something else
-Ted Nash
“You didn’t wake up today to be mediocre,” says a common meme easily found on the Internet. But many, myself included, spend way too much time avoiding the things that can help us move beyond mediocre or keep us stuck in ways that don’t move us forward. Which, in the end, keeps us mediocre.

Definition: of only moderate quality; not very good.
Synonyms: ordinary, average, middling, uninspired, undistinguished, unexceptional, unexciting, unremarkable, run-of-the-mill, lackluster, forgettable;
Informal -OK, so-so, fair-to-middling, no great shakes, not up to much, bush-league

That’s why so much of the research and writing on expertise and improvement focus on “deliberate” practice, working on the things that will make us better and consciously doing things that challenge us to grow. Just playing something two hours a day every day won’t necessarily make us better. With bad habits we may just become fair at being mediocre.

Brent Vaartstra on the Learn Jazz Standards website has an article outlining the Four Ways to Stay Mediocre as a Jazz Musician.

Specifically related to jazz musicians, his thoughts are just as applicable to all musicians who want to improve. I have reversed the themes into four ways to get beyond mediocre, but the idea is still the same:

• Don’t get stuck on scales
• Get out of the practice room
• Work on rhythm and time.
• Don’t beat yourself up

Let me sum up what these mean for me.
• Don’t get stuck on scales
⁃ As Vaartstra says, scales are essential, but how are we playing them? Are they just some rote exercise that we do because we want to learn the scales and let them fall smoothly under our fingers? Good. But what about the style and sound? Can we play them smoothly, with feeling and movement? Can we play them staccato with a sense of musicality? What about the tone? Do they sound like we are just rushing through them to get on with the real stuff? Talking with one of the Shell Lake Workshop participants the other day, he said that he has been working to make part of the Routine"musical". That’s the point. Every time we play we are making music! Then when that scale comes up in a piece, we can play it musically and not just by memory.

• Get out of the practice room
⁃ There are two aspects going on here. One is to get out and listen to live music when you can. It can (and should) be just about any kind of music. It is the opportunity to hear how other people make music and inspire us to improve out own. The other aspect is to get out and play with others. In jazz that can be going to an open jam. It can also be any bands or groups you can play with. Find ways to play with others! Even the best soloist must know how to play in balance and blend with others.

• Work on rhythm and time.
⁃ We often overlook this aspect of deliberate practice. Being able to read more complex rhythm takes time. For my money the two best methods for that are the Arban exercises, especially the syncopation and dotted eighth-sixteenth sections, and Getchell’s Second Book of Practical Studies for Cornet and Trumpet. More about why this is important when we talk about sight-reading. To sum it up now though, it is the rhythm that can often through us off. Rhythm is the dialect and emphasis of the music. When we can get those in our practice, we will be able to play more music.

• Don’t beat yourself up
⁃ It seems we often get back to these underlying concerns that we have often called Self One and Self Two from the Inner Game disciplines. As we work on our pieces, our less accomplished techniques, the more difficult exercises, it is easy to be unkind to ourselves- or worse, give up. Stay steady, let Self Two do what Self Two can do and tell Self One to relax and enjoy the music.

With that in mind here are the two of four ways I have discovered that these movements beyond mediocre can be of great value. I have found some of this on The Musician’s Way website ( and reflect on them from my own experience in practice and performance.

Warm-up and basics.
Like sensuous opening ceremonies, warm-ups prepare the body, mind, and spirit for making music.
– The Musician’s Way, p. 37
I still haven’t found warm-ups and basics to be “sensuous”, but they are the obvious place to start in the movement beyond mediocre. As I mentioned above this can be a place to develop musicality and tone. To play that “simple” Arban routine with beauty and tone is always the goal. Some of the exercises are even performance etudes. They are how we learn to do it. A good warm-up routine, appropriate to your needs and growth is worth it’s weight in gold- and time. So are things like mindfulness and exercises like T’ai Chi and Qigong in getting the body into a healthy spot.

Listening and learning
“For you to perform with native inflection, you have to listen and listen until you break through to the soul of a style.”
–The Musician’s Way, p. 98
The more you listen, the more you learn. On one website I read the more than obvious statement that we actually learn to speak- by listening. No one tells us how to talk. It is natural. We are designed that way. The same is true for music. But there are different types of music- just as there are different languages. They all share the same notes, though not always played the same way or in the same order. Some have different rhythms and different time frames. Some are “straight” and some “swing”. How do we know how to play it if we haven’t heard it.

I was reminded of this last weekend. One of the big bands I play with had a gig at a local dance venue. It was an amazing evening for me. I found myself moving along in time (mostly) and able to go with the rhythm. I realized that I am now truly beginning to understand and “speak” the language of jazz big band. I can more regularly look at a passage and know what it probably sounds like because it is in a pattern that is commonly used in the music. I realized I was no longer reading it “note for note” but playing it out of what was called above the “soul of the style.” It is just like when I have learned a new language and found myself thinking in the language. I was no longer translating from an English thought to a German or Spanish thought. On Friday evening I was not translating a written note from one style to another- it was more often just coming out that way.

This is actually more important than it may seem at first glance. All music is language. Music is perhaps a “generic” term for different languages. Like learning any new language we do not start with the most complex words and sentences. Trying to read War and Peace before a first-reader would be most difficult. As I was watching the John Coltrane documentary the other evening I was reminded of this truism. There is much in Coltrane’s later music that I do not understand. It was a different language than any most I have known in music. It was clearly powerful and transformative. I could feel it- but I don’t yet understand it. I want to- and have been working on that for years. I know more about it today. Someday it may all fall into place.

For that to happen I have to keep listening. The many styles and languages of music will enrich my overall understanding of the depths of music and increase my vocabulary. I will be a better musician- and a better person for it.

Which, next week, will bring me to two other aspects of practice that will help us all move beyond mediocre- sight-reading and memorization.

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