New Year’s Eve Thoughts

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.

Bradley presenting to teachers

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.

Pianos don’t bite. Really.

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.

Abandoned to the music.

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!




8 thoughts on “New Year’s Eve Thoughts

  1. Great article, Bradley. I am so lucky to have a new student (7 yrs. old.) who improvises all the time and sounds great! Should I be worried that if I teach him out of a method book, he’ll lose that innate gift?

    • Yes or no depending… It’s up to you to go beyond the method book encouraging him to identify chords, embellish and change things to his personal taste on the fly, rewrite endings or parts he doesn’t like. Tell him he has your permission to do these things AFTER he can play it as written. Or use a method book that integrates improvisation and reading right from the start. One such series is my Creative Chords books published by Kjos Music. It’s always awkward to mention your own works but it took a couple of years to put this together as a means to fill the gap between reading and creating.

  2. I was recently complaining to a non-musician friend of mine about my fears of playing online and of posting to our Facebook group. She asked me how you could teach lessons if no one shared or only shared their best work. She then asked me how it would feel if I reframed my thinking about my playing in front of the group, as simply providing you with material to teach to. Hmmm…that felt a whole lot different to me. So I made a written commitment to Bradley to show up online every week and play, whether I had practiced enough or not, because I want him to keep teaching these classes and I want to tackle my own barriers to learning and sharing. How about you?

  3. Thanks again, Bradley for your insightful post! You are absolutely right about these psychological phenomena. I know because I’m a fellow sufferer. I play and improvise like crazy when I’m alone, but if I know anyone is listening, I clam up immediately. Unfortunately, a lot of my improvising goes to waste because I can’t remember what I did!
    I’m happy to report that my 7 yr.old grandson does improvise and I heartily encourage him. He is my student and is learning to read, but still has the free spirit in him to do this. I love it.

    • I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the bottom of the reasons for this and it’s not like I don’t feel unsure from time to time myself. Here’s a few points I know for sure:
      – Self-awareness interrupts creativity and learning.
      – You have to get in the pool to become a better swimmer.
      – Facing fears causes them to diminish.

      When I’m nervous, I try to think of the music or my presentation as being a service to others which takes the focus off myself. I’ve also been know to temporarily pump myself up in dressing rooms with victory poses and affirming phrases about how awesome I am. As a guy who strives to be humble, I drop these on the floor with the last note but it can help to have that shot of confidence. What really works more than anything is to get into the music so you feel part of something bigger.

  4. Great article! I loved your statement about “playing our own notes.” Here’s to flipping my mindset and playing my own notes in 2017! Thanks for all you do.

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