Monday, February 04, 2019

Tuning Slide 4.29- Getting Technical Beyond Will

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.

One of the great fallacies of human endeavor is the idea of “willpower.” We often will hear that all something takes is enough willpower and we can do whatever we want. I did a quick Google-search on willpower and found many quotes that will tell you that willpower is what makes the difference between success and failure. Well, sadly, this is a myth, misconception, and almost surefire road to failure in the long run.

Willpower alone won’t do it.
No one has enough of it to get everything done.

Yes, you need the “will” to do something; you have to have the drive and desire to do what needs to be done. But just depending on willpower alone won’t cut it. Researchers in a number of fields with different experiments have shown that willpower is a limited quantity. If you spend your whole day exercising willpower to make sure you can get everything done, you will get home at night exhausted- your willpower will be shot, gone, depleted. It is actually more like a muscle than some hidden secret strength.

If I want to ride thirty miles on my bike, it will take more than exerting my “willpower” to complete it. I will not have the stamina, the physical strength, or the mental endurance to accomplish it. At least not without training.

Which is what my musical practice routine is- training to accomplish more. But there’s the catch of finite amounts of “willpower.”

Over the past month I have been focused on my physical exercise. I am working hard to losing weight and improving my overall health. I have been exerting more “willpower” to motivate myself to get to the gym and do my routine. During that time I was having a more difficult time getting beyond my basic daily trumpet routine. In fact, to be honest, I missed some days on the trumpet- often the days when I had to exert more “willpower” to get to the gym. It also impacted the time I have spent writing- the third of my personal trinity of self-growth.

Sometimes we have to suck it in and Just Do It!

Which is what I finally managed to do last week. First, I sat down and just played the horn with iReal Pro to get my creativity going again. Second, I pulled out the computer and just started writing. Third, I got in enough exercise to boost the energy. But I still need some work on how to fit all these together- the balance.

It seems to me that “willpower” is not one thing; it is several.
◆ Desire- the “want-to-do-it”;
◆ Discipline- the “plan-to-do-it”;
◆ Habit- the “do-it-every-day” pattern;
It is the combination of the three, as well as others, I am sure, that make what we call “willpower” successful.

Josiah Boornazian, one of the regular contributors at Learn Jazz Standards (, had a post two weeks ago that explained why the habit part of “willpower” is important. The post is about what he calls Three Pivotal Exercises that can help one’s jazz technique. These three exercises are learning how to utilize technical studies of intervals, chords, and arpeggios in jazz. He makes sure to point out that there are many good and very useful technical studies that one can use, of course. (Link)

First, though, he gives his philosophy of using technical studies and urging people to think on three levels. While he is talking from the jazz genre, it applies just as well to any kind of skill we want to get better at.
#1: Firstly, we want to develop muscle memory and sharpen our physical intelligence. I call this “thinking with our fingers.”

#2: Secondly, we want to improve our ability to recognize chords and melodies by ear. I call this “thinking with our ears.”

#3: Thirdly, we want to sharpen our understanding of jazz theory, especially scale/chord theory, because it is so helpful for learning how to improvise fluently. I call this “thinking with our (theory) brains,” “thinking with our intellect,” or “thinking using concepts.”
I like his phrase “physical intelligence” to describe what we often call “muscle memory.” I have often been amazed at how practicing some of the basic technical studies like he recommends can apply so quickly and easily in so many different settings. It happened again recently in the community band I play in for the winter. We are playing the Carmina Burana suite which I surprisingly have never played before. In the 3rd movement there is a four measure run of tongued and slurred quarter notes in the basic G major scale. My brain with Self 2 recognized it immediately, although not consciously. My fingers responded with little hesitation and got it right the first time through. That is muscle memory, developed from jazz and technical studies.

The technical studies in the back of Getchell’s First Book of Practical Studies give a way of training for the physical, but also with the intervals to recognize the chord structures. I have been amazed at times how working these allows me to know what a piece of music is going to do- or at least be prepared for it. Whether it is a standard wind band piece or some comping behind a solo in a big band, that “aural” intelligence and awareness is invaluable.

That easily leads to Josiah’s third level, theory. We practice the technical studies, hear, and then experience the theory. Somewhere in our Self 2 we go- “Oh yeah! I know what that means” which gives Self 1 no reason to jump in and get worried.

One more thought related to the technical studies and their importance is to make sure we play them conscious of their sound and their musicality. It is difficult at times to get beyond simply playing it technically correct but with dull sound or poor musicality. Without looking at the sound and music, we will get bored. But with that awareness, we will develop the ability to play musically, no matter what the study!

It is always the music; always the sound. But more on that another time!

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