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7 Ways to Break Free From a Musical Rut

As a jazz musician, there is nothing worse than feeling like you aren’t improving. You may spend a lot of time in the practice room honing your craft, earnestly trying to crack the code of your instrument, but still feel like you are getting nowhere.

Have you ever felt stuck like that? I know I have.

Feeling stuck musically is normal. Think of it this way: if you didn’t recognize that you had hit a plateau, you probably wouldn’t sense the need to progress. In a way, we need to feel stuck in our music from time to time to improve.

Every musician has their honeymoon phase. Do you remember yours? It was that period, probably shortly after you got serious about your instrument or jazz, where you felt like you were making lots of progress. You were plucking all of the low hanging fruits that you could see. It felt as if each time you played your instrument, you were better than the last.

Eventually, musical honeymoons become a distant memory. Suddenly you’re confronted with and an assortment of trials. You start having to climb higher up the tree to get your rewards. That thrill of rapid success is close-lined by the harsh reality of your limitations.

But take heart! Like I have already said, this is normal. Don’t be alarmed. You’re going to get out of this; you just have to want to get out of it. You have to evaluate what you wanted to get out of music in the first place, and then decide if you’re willing to push through the rapids to get to stiller waters.

Here are 7 ways to break free from a musical rut. Some may apply to you, and others may not. Some of them may be diagnosing your problem, and you should pay attention to that. Some of these are easy to do, and others will take more effort.

1. Take some time off.

A common reason musicians feel like they aren’t improving is because they are overwhelmed. These are the extra dedicated musicians who spend lots of time practicing and playing. What happens is they get information overload. When you are continually saturated with new musical information and hearing yourself play, you become unable to see tangible results.

Have you ever seen a child, perhaps of extended family or a friend, that you hadn’t seen in quite a while and thought to yourself “my goodness this kid has grown!” Well, to that child’s immediate family the child’s growth is probably not as shocking as it is to you. They are around the kid all of the time. The child’s growth isn’t radical to them. It is to you because there is a degree of separation.

Sometimes you need a degree of separation from your playing and need to stop practicing for some time. When you come back, not only will you feel refreshed, you’ll probably notice that you have improved after all.

2. See a show.

Inspiration. We all need it from time to time to keep us going. Sometimes we feel stuck in our playing because we just aren’t inspired. Perhaps we stop practicing because we lost some of that excitement we used to have.

I don’t know about you, but when I go out and see my favorite jazz musicians play, I come rushing back home to practice my instrument. Seeing musicians play so well reminds me of what I am trying to achieve. It reminds me why I do this in the first place. When you’re in that state of mind, you are in prime territory for a breakthrough.

I find live music is most effective, but you could even turn on a record and just listen.

3. Take a lesson.

Sometimes we feel stuck in our playing because we don’t know what to do. We aren’t sure what the next steps are. We may be practicing the same things over and over and don’t know where to take it from there. If you haven’t taken a lesson in a while, this would be a good time to book one.

I’m at the point in my playing where I treat taking lessons like doctors checkups. I go to the doctor, and he/she tells me how my health is and what I can improve on. Taking lessons is the same thing. I go to a professional musician, someone I look up to and respect, and get them to assess my ability. Sometimes this can make all the difference in the world.

4. Jam with someone better than you.

Sometimes we find ourselves in musical ruts because we aren’t being challenged. Perhaps it’s because we aren’t playing enough with other musicians, or perhaps it’s because we surround ourselves with players of lesser or equal skill levels.

If this is you, get out of your comfort zone and jam with musicians that are better than you. Not only will this inspire you, but it will also cause you to challenge yourself and reach for a higher level of musicianship.

5. Make a list of what you suck at.

Sometimes we find ourselves in musical ruts because we only practice what we are comfortable with. It feels much better to work on things we can already do well. We indulge in our strengths rather than confront our weaknesses.

Make a list of what you suck at. Think carefully about it and write them down. If you aren’t sure, record yourself. Listen for the things you wished were happening but just aren’t. Then go and base your practice sessions around your weaknesses.

6. Set goals for your playing.

Sometimes we feel stuck in our jazz playing because we haven’t identified a clear trajectory. We haven’t made plans, and we haven’t set ourselves up for success.

Whether or not you make goals for your musicianship could be the difference between success or failure. If you make a plan and stick to it, you will progress. It will be almost impossible not to. If you haven’t set goals for your playing, drop everything right now and do it.

7. Become a consistent practicer.

Often we will feel stuck in our playing if we are not consistent. It’s common knowledge that repetition and consistency breeds success. If we don’t prioritize practicing in our daily routines, progress will be slow and minimal.

Practicing 5 hours in one day does not have the same effect as practicing for 30 minutes to an hour each day. Consistency wins every time.

You don’t have to practice every day. It’s just not possible for most people. But you will want to set up a regular schedule for your practicing. If you do this, you’ll be saying goodbye to that musical plateau and hello to progress.

How do you get out of musical ruts? Leave a comment below.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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