If you do something and you think, “That really seems like me and I don’t think anyone else does that,” then you’ve got to jump on that with both feet and do it over and over again until it becomes something that really works. That can take a long time or it can happen in a day. There’s that moment when you’re like, “Yeah, that’s what I do, right there.”
– Ethan Iverson, pianist in The Bad Plus*
Finding an artistic voice is personally fulfilling and the key to standing out in a noisy world. The musical landscape is more crowded than ever, and the only artists we pay attention to are remarkable and unmistakable—like The Bad Plus.
In the 21st century, average is boring.
Flow becomes an alternative path to mastery, sans the misery. Forget 10,000 hours of delayed gratification. Flow junkies turn instant gratification into their North Star—putting in far more hours of “practice time” by gleefully harnessing their hedonic impulse.
– Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance
We’ve been telling ourselves the wrong story about practicing music.
Practicing is like a job. We need to subject ourselves to tedious work in isolation to achieve future results. The most successful musicians have the work ethic to slog through the most hours. Those who succumb to instant gratification are lazy, undisciplined, and destined for mediocrity.
Sound familiar? This story is the source of frustration, guilt, and self-doubt among countless musicians.
We can tell ourselves a different story. This new story is more joyful, fulfilling, and effective for attaining mastery.
Surfer at Mavericks. Photo courtesy of Flickr/jacobovs
Stop trying to beat everyone else. True success is creating work that no one else can replicate. Don’t aim to be the best—aim to be the only.
When you’re truly unmistakable, the competition becomes completely irrelevant. You’re not the best option, you’re the only option
– Srini Rao, Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best
Keith Jarrett doesn’t have any competition. If you want to hear Keith’s play live, there is no substitute for the man himself. Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Bill Frisell, Roy Hargrove, and Pat Metheny are have carved out their own categories. They are unmistakable.
Are these musicians objectively the “best” at what they do? It’s an irrelevant question. These renowned artists have stepped out of the world of measurement into a universe of possibility.
It’s widely assumed that there’s a trade-off between quality and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.
Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
Courtesy of Flickr/Gwenn Seemel
As players and teachers, many of us obsess over what to practice, how to practice, and how many hours to practice. This often puts the cart in front of the horse.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jason James
I want to share a writing exercise from composer, pianist, and author W.A. Mathieu. If you feel overwhelmed or frustrated with trying to measure success by someone else’s model, this prompt will help you define a personal musical vision.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/alexanderward12
The Playing Changes series presents and expands on concepts from my book, The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony published by CMA Press.
The first article in the Playing Changes series helped you visualize and hear melodies by thinking in scale degrees. This concept also applies to hearing tonal harmony.
If you find creativity mysterious, you may be stuck in linear thinking.
Courtesy of Flickr/PunkToad
Just as doctors practice medicine and lawyers practice law, we practice music. Treating practice as tedious work in isolation for future results is a recipe for frustration, guilt, and giving up. Our practice isn’t just preparation; it is every aspect of living a musical life.