I don’t know about you, but I don’t wake up in the morning with aspirations for mediocrity. I much prefer to try my best to excel at whatever I do. So when it comes to jazz, one of my most distinguished passions, I’m always working on my craft and dreaming of becoming the best jazz musician I can be.

I know, it sounds ludicrous. Who’s interested in becoming a mediocre jazz musician? If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you have some interest in jazz and likely play jazz on some level. Perhaps you clicked from sheer curiosity about the headline, or maybe you thought a definition of jazz mediocrity would help you get out of the musical rut you’re in.

I’ve taught many students, played many gigs, and played with plenty of different levels of musicians. I’ve observed the musical geniuses and the musically incompetent. I’ve spent many hours practicing myself, and asking the necessary questions about my playing to improve.

A mediocre jazz player isn’t bad. He or she sounds acceptable. If you were an average listener eating dinner out at a noisy bistro, the music would not seem unappealing. A mediocre jazz musician can “get by.” But the mediocre jazz musician is exactly that: mediocre. There will be no turning of heads and only a few outstanding musical moments. It’s more painful for the player than it is for the listeners, because as I have said, a real musician doesn’t want to be mediocre. Musicians are artist, who like all artists, want to transcend the limits of their instruments and create blissful, genuine art.

So if you find yourself stuck in a rut with your jazz playing and perhaps would label certain aspects as mediocre, perhaps this list will help. This list is comprised of things that I find are often suspects of enabling a mediocre jazz player, rather than helping the player reach the next level. If you conclude that any of these may be the cause of some of your symptoms, consider the alternatives!

1. Keep being enslaved to scales.

Knowing your scales is essential for learning your instrument. Scales can also be helpful in the context of jazz theory, to help you identify pitch collections that work over different chord types or progressions.

But scales are not musical. If you choose scales as your go-to for your jazz improvisation, you are likely to stay mediocre. If you wanted to become an exceptional jazz musician, you would need to focus on learning jazz language. That would include, but not limited to, learning solos from jazz greats, learning licks, learning jazz standards, and of course just listening to lots of jazz music.

Jazz musicians who improvise using scales, sound just like they do. There is something missing. Sure, you can get really good at connecting scales together and mixing them up a bit, but it will hold you back from the magic of great jazz language and letting your ear guide you.

2. Keep holed up in the practice room.

A common theme I find with some students is they spend all of their time in the practice room, but little to no time playing with other jazz musicians.

The practice room is important. You need to spend diligent time in the practice room honing your craft, and becoming a competent musician. Without this, you will not get too far. But jazz is social music. If you want to become a better jazz musician, you will need to get out and play with other musicians, whether it be in gigs, public jam sessions, or just getting together with a friend to play. This is where the real growth happens.

Imagine you are going in for surgery. You meet the doctor before the surgery and ask him how many times he’s performed this operation before. He tells you that he has never done it before, but that he’s studied for years, read many books, and simulated it multiple times. Would you be concerned? I sure would.

Experience is what matters, and no amount of time in the practice room can adequately prepare you for what happens in a live performance.

3. Ignore working on rhythm and time.

I find that a lot of mediocre jazz players spend the majority of their time working on their solos and navigating the vast array of harmonic structures jazz has to offer. Everyone wants to be a great soloist, and you will need to work on these things if you want to become one.

But it doesn’t matter if you play the hippest lines or have the best technique if you don’t groove. If your time feel is off, and you neglect all rhythmic studies you will be missing a key ingredient for jazz excellence.

When it comes down to it, if your music doesn’t make people dance on some level, your music will feel off. It has to groove. Your single note lines need to groove, and your accompaniment needs to groove. If you rush or drag too much, it won’t groove.

So if you want to stay mediocre, ignore these things. But if you want to become an excellent jazz musician, start shifting some of your practice time from soloing to rhythm and time.

4. Continue to be hard on yourself.

There comes a time where every serious musician will have to confront self-doubt and insecurity about their musicianship. Most jazz musicians I know have struggled with this, or continue to struggle with this, including myself. For some, it is worse than others. I know some musicians that always leave a gig feeling terrible about themselves.

While sometimes this can be channeled in a positive way, a way that causes one to identify their weaknesses and take actions to improve, it is often self-destructive and paralyzing.

Beating yourself won’t get you anywhere. It’s a serious issue I see with so many musicians. The more you beat yourself up, the less fun music becomes, and the less fun music becomes that worse you will play. I’ve been there, done that, and I can tell you from experience that you will not truly improve with this mindset. Stop hating your playing. It’s never worth it.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing
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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications "500 Jazz Licks" and "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

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