My saxophone playing involves a lot of shoulder shrugging. I’ve surpassed my 10,000 hours of practice that Gladwell argues can lead to expertise. I’ve studied with great teachers (Mr. Valdez included) and tried to incorporate their instruction. But the fact remains that I’m just not that good at playing the sax. It pains me a bit to write such things, but the evidence is there. How do you make peace with the fact that your playing remains stuck at the same level? I’ve spoken with other musicians about this concept and I’ve received thoughtful advice preaching patience, but the great mind game is in actually believing the message. Telling yourself you’re okay doesn’t make you feel okay. I read Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery, and I was impressed by his recommendation to think “Every note I play is the most beautiful sound I've ever heard.” I appreciate that approach, and understand its intention, but the method is a struggle to adopt. I can’t tune out the voice saying, “If that is the most beautiful sound ever, then this world is a cold, dark place.”
I’m writing a blog post because I found one solution to the problem. It’s not a great remedy, but I found it fairly effective. The key, in a perverse manner, was graduate school. I moved from Portland to Boston and stopped playing – for 18 months. As in 18 months. That’s an absurdly long period of time for a musician to forgo his favorite pursuit, but I was overwhelmed with other matters, including the relentless pursuit of future employment. More importantly, I ceased playing until the foreboding feeling I experienced when looking at my saxophone dissipated and transformed into a sense of longing. It wasn’t until then that I could genuinely say to myself “I don’t care if I sound like I’m 10 years old.” And the best part has been that I feel 10 years old when I play, filled with the excitement that comes from making noise and… well… honking.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend my method of rekindling joy in playing music (given the length of time), but I hope that others who also are prone to self-deprecating thoughts can find a way to move past the frustration of not sounding a certain way. One useful piece of advice I received pertained to the constant comparison to others’ playing ability (or as it’s more commonly known, the “oh shit, that guy’s so much better, I need to go practice”). David Castiglione, who taught a jazz improvisation course at Vassar College, told me to think that of everyone as being on a wheel. You are further along on the wheel than some people who are older than you -- and a great distance behind some people who are younger. You are not a “superior person” to those who don’t play as well, just as those whose playing is more advanced than yours are not better people. Taking a holistic view (i.e., looking at the entire person) helps me recognize that there are other things that matter more than the ability to integrate the right substitutions over the dominant 7 chord.
For those who are able to, as Bird said, “…forget all that shit and just play,” I commend you. For the rest of us, I encourage you to be kind to yourself and find a teacher who won’t chew you out when you struggle.
Marty Sacks is a 2014 MBA candidate at Boston College. When not playing music or studying, you’ll find him at Argopoint, a legal consulting firm in Boston.