Sometimes I think my job as an improvisation coach is more psychological — getting people over their fears — than musical — demonstrating tips, tools, and techniques. When I started teaching online group jazz piano lessons, my original idea was to charge participants a higher tuition to appear on camera because I thought it would reduce expected competition for the limited available slots. Boy, was I wrong. Only a few participants consistently and courageously dig in to learning new skills in front of others. Self-consciousness gets in the way of more active, more valuable, more inspirational-to-others participation by all of my students than it should. That’s okay. I don’t hold it against them but neither will I give up on encouraging them to come out of the shadows.
The same thing happens when I ask for volunteers to explore a creative concept with me at music education conferences. I wait and wait while reassuring the audience of professional music teachers that I won’t put them on the spot and point out how easy the task is until slowly, someone comes forward willing to play a few notes in front of their peers if only to move the presentation forward.
The fact is, too many musicians are afraid of making their own music. I’m not talking about stage fright here. I’m talking about a willingness to mess around with a friendly pentatonic or blues scale over a couple of chords in an educational setting. I don’t know whether it’s ego or old classical music scars but I’ve noticed that the more someone is trained to read the page, the less they seem able to improvise in front of others without inner demons rising up. What do they have to lose really? Wrong notes don’t bite. Is it concern about being judged by fellow musicians that makes them freeze? In my experience, musicians listening to other musicians are more likely to focus on comparing their own perceived weaknesses with what they are hearing than they are on counting someone else’s unintended notes. (We all tend to undervalue what we can do and overvalue what we can’t do.) Is it the listeners that scare us? The fact is, music lovers are much more likely to tune into the emotional impact of a live performance than the technicalities. Time and again listeners have let me know that they enjoyed my playing right after a performance that I judged (at the time) to be pretty rough. Until I knew better, I’d say things like, “Really? Didn’t you hear that whole middle section where I was wandering around aimlessly?” Then they’d apologise, mumbling something about “I don’t know much about music I guess.” What a schmuck. They weren’t wrong. I was. If what they heard made them experience hard-to-access feelings, took them on a mental journey, or was otherwise enjoyable, inspirational, or just silly fun, then it was good music despite my own navel-gazing self-assessment.
In 2017, let’s flip our mindset about playing our own notes. Whether it’s good, bad, or mediocre is irrelevant to the joy of the music-making moment. My advice: When that bad old self-aware inner troll grabs your throat making your feel like an imposter, just smile, think or say out loud “So what. I don’t care. This is my time to play.” and then get on with keeping the music flowing.
I hope 2017 is the best, most musical year of your life!