I was playing a gig the other night at a club in Greenwich Village, New York City when suddenly I realized I was the worst.

Everyone in the band was just absolutely killing it.  Every solo was creative, melodic and sincerely musical. The energy was intensely flowing throughout the room and each musician was locked together like a chain.  The bandleader and trumpet player is a master in his own right who’s played with the likes of Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich; the saxophonists a young virtuoso phenom fresh out of college; the drummer a swinging powerhouse beginning to emerge into the scene; the bass player a musical whiz; the piano player a uniquely creative mind with incredible talent and then me holding it down on the guitar.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve earned my spot in the band and I’m hired for a reason, but I couldn’t help but realize I was the worst musician on the bandstand that night.

Okay, so maybe “worst” is kind of a degrading word to use, but I felt like I was at the bottom of the chain. I wasn’t the best musician there.

Now the old me would have panicked upon this realization. I would have shriveled up in fear and disintegrated into a state of self-loathing:

“Oh no! I’m the worst player here! Everyone knows it. I bet you everyone knows it! I wonder what everyone’s thinking right now. Oh man, oh man, the next solo I play better be really good.  The saxophonist just tore it up. How was I supposed to follow that? I mean come on! Maybe if I go home after this and lock myself in a practice room for days on end and learn like 10 Bird solo’s that would help. Yeah…I dunno. This sucks. I wish I wasn’t the bottom guy.  I can’t wait until tomorrow nights gig…I’m definitely the best player in that one. Wait…where are we in this song now? Ah $#*!”

Now I know better and years of experience has taught me that thinking that way leads to nowhere.  So when I realized I was the worst player on the band stand that night, I began to smile and thought to myself: “Ah yes! The wind is in my favor my friends! This is my lucky night!”

Why would I think that? How could this be a positive thing you ask?

To answer this question, here are 3 reasons why you should be the worst musician on the bandstand:

1. You are guaranteed to become a better musician.

Have you ever heard the saying “You are who you surround yourself with”?  As human beings, we adapt to our environments.  If you put yourself in an environment with really great players you will be forced to reach for their level. If you put yourself in an environment with musicians who are just as good or worse than you, you will become unhealthily content with where you are at.  We don’t want to settle for mediocrity though, do we? Of course not! We want to become the best musicians we can possibly be.

I grew up in a small city where I was one of the better musicians in my circles. When I moved to New York to study and pursue a career in jazz, reality came and slapped me awake. Suddenly I was nothing but a minnow in a vast ocean of musical talent.  Whereas before I was calmly standing in shallow waters, I was now in the deep end struggling to keep my head above the waves.  Being around all of those great players that were better than me pushed me to new levels; levels I could not have gone to had I continued to remain content with being the best.

By no means am I saying you should or need to move to New York to be around better players.  That’s just my story and personal situation.  If you feel like you are surrounded by players as good or worse than you, go seek out someone who will challenge you wherever you may live. There is always someone better than you. Find them so you can learn from them.

2. It will push you out of your comfort zone.

We love to be comfortable. In fact, we often go out of our way to be comfortable.  There is nothing wrong with this unless you are afraid to leave it. There are times you should be comfortable and there are times you should leave your comfort zone.  The hard truth is this: if you want to become a better player you will have to leave your comfort zone. There is no way around it.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to fail or fall down. Just go for it! Nothing stifles improvement more than your comfort zone. If you have to, do it in small doses. Make a commitment to play with someone who is better than you on a regular basis.  You will be surprised at how quickly you start to improve!

3. It will give you humility.

Here’s another thing that stifles improvement: a big ego.

If you are always the best, you are bound to start thinking highly of yourself whether it be consciously or sub-consciously. Now there’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of pride as long as you aren’t putting others down along with it, but too much can be your downfall. Often those who have big egos tend to think they have “arrived”, meaning their self-improvement has come to a grinding halt.

One of the greatest lessons I ever learned and am continuing to learn is it’s okay to be wherever I am at musically.  As I described earlier, there used to be a time in my life where being the “worst” player at the jam session or the gig was a soul-crushing humiliating experience. I used to base so much of my self-worth on how well I could play music in comparison to others, which was an incredibly destructive path.  It was the result of my big ego getting absolutely crushed.

Humility isn’t self-loathing and it isn’t pride. It’s the middle ground; the sweet spot.  Humility is being grateful for where you are at and realizing how far you have come, all while acknowledging how much further you need to go to arrive at your destination.

Now when I find myself on the bandstand and I’m the “worst” musician up there, I’m incredibly grateful. I feel so lucky that I get the opportunity to learn from great musicians and am excited for the lessons I’ll receive.  When I do find that I am the best player on the bandstand, I realize that it’s my honorable duty to pay it forward to the other musicians and play to the very best of my ability.

As I heard Benny Green once say: “We are all on the same path headed the  same direction, only everybody is at a different point in their journey.”

 

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

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