After years of accepting transfer students who wanted to learn classical, jazz, popular music and composing; I realized that much of the information they wanted to know was in the music they already knew how to play. Somehow the information they had accumulated paralyzed them when it came to “creating” their own sounds – even when playing written music. They were either overwhelmed by all the options or going through their mental checklists of everything they were supposed to do to play “correctly”.
Slow practice has been a point of emphasis for generations of music teachers and players. When we do give a reason or reasons as to why we should practice slowly, it usually revolves around the increased accuracy of executing our pieces. It helps build good playing habits, correct muscle memory and overall accuracy.
I’m pretty sure I know zero people who didn’t want to quit playing music at some point. Even professionals or hobbyists who are full of joy when we see them play went through their rough patches.
In the beginning, my whole teaching studio at Creative Music Adventures was built on this phone call from teacher friends around the community:
“I have a student who has some potential but they are driving me crazy. They are supremely talented but won’t do anything I ask. Can I send them to you to see if there is any hope?”
While in college I started teaching piano lessons regularly. I could play piano, compose and improvise on a standard college level – but teaching was a whole different animal. Thankfully, I had great teachers growing up and could call upon my experiences with them to help the lessons become productive as quickly as possible. The methods were helpful to a new teacher because they had written out instructions for teachers and students. They also isolated concepts into lesson books, theory books and performance books.
After years of training in an area we accumulate patterns and habits that effect every aspect of our experiences. We acquire information and knowledge that was intended to improve the way we perform or express our abilities. Of course this makes us better, but this information and knowledge can also hold us back in the long run if we use it as a way to become overly critical and negative when experiencing our own playing, our peers’ playing, our peers’ students or anyone performing in our field.
There have been times when I would feel that my rate of improvement didn’t line up with the large chunks of time I was spending at the instrument practicing. Sometimes practicing a lot isn’t enough. We need other methods to elevate our playing and bring cohesion to all the concepts we are working through.
It’s inevitable that playing music leads us to situations where we are judged or critiqued. The venue can be as simple as a single performance, a rehearsal, a festival, an audition, press reviews, social media comments or countless other platforms.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I had when learning to play music came during a painfully frustrating time. I was trying to work out a lot of Bill Evans material in college and I just couldn’t make it sound good. I spent a lot of hours that didn’t equate to improvement. I was studying with an amazing teacher who could rip through the stuff with ease. He also sensed something wasn’t clicking and said, “You know, everything comes down to triads.”
I was excited to be placed in the Miles Davis Ensemble at the beginning of a college semester. Miles was one of my heroes and our leader said we were going to do original music in the style of the famous quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. This made me more excited because I wanted to write music in that style to learn more about it.