I’ve always been dead serious about being a great jazz musician. That persistence brought me to New York City, through college, and now has enabled me to work professionally as a jazz musician.

That seriousness and determination to succeed has served me well throughout my musical endeavors thus far, but it also has tripped me up from time to time. In fact, it has sometimes left me crippled, discouraged, and demolished like a burning pile of wreckage.

You see, whenever you are serious about being successful at something, you have to flirt with the edge of disaster. You may be determined that it’s all going to work out and you will be relentless until you succeed, but the truth is you will occasionally come face to face with the reality of possible failure.

How does this manifest for a musician? Often in the form of insecurity, self deprecation, and the hatred of his/her own music.

I hope you’ll allow me to be vulnerable with you, because this topic really hits close to home. I’ve met many players who suffer from this. Constantly upset with how they sound. If they are playing a gig and don’t like how they are playing, it’s as if their hopes and dreams are being dashed upon the rocks. Depression sets in, and they trudge off to the practice room in hopes that it will be their cure.

For me, it all started the moment that I decided I wanted to be a jazz musician. You could say I felt behind the eight ball. I was late to the party. My musical peers had been studying jazz for much longer than me, and so I always felt like I was treading water.

Ultimately, being surrounded by jazz musicians that were better than me helped me grow at an incredible rate, but it also instilled a feeling in me that I was never good enough. I was always coming up a little bit short.

I judged myself, and I compared my performances with others. This was my first classic mistake. I trained my brain to judge how I played by the best player in the room. You can imagine that going to jam sessions and playing gigs with exceptional players when I was first starting out, were very defeating experiences.

The first two to three years in college I was at the height of my obsession with practicing and playing. I lived, ate, breathed, and drank jazz music. When I wasn’t in class I was practicing, when I wasn’t practicing I was playing a gig, when I wasn’t playing a gig I was jamming, and when I wasn’t jamming I was sleeping. And while these years produced incredible musical growth, they also manifested the height of my stress and feelings of inadequacy. I suppose obsession has the ability to fester these kinds of emotions.

I recorded myself all of the time. And while recording yourself to critique your playing can be a great tool, for me it was devastating. I hated to listen back to my solos, and every time I did, I felt like I needed to practice more.  For me, if I didn’t sound like the jazz musicians I idolized and looked up to, it wasn’t good enough.

As I mentioned, jam sessions were often not pleasant experiences for me. It’s not that I would play badly. In fact, none of my friends or musical acquaintances would have known I felt so distressed at jam sessions. I was an expert at hiding. The problem is I had turned playing music into a competition. A constant game of comparison.

Is that guy better than me? Does that guy like my playing? Was my solo good? Why did that guy stop playing for a few bars? Was it because I wasn’t comping for him the way he wanted? That guy just took a really great solo, how am I supposed to follow that?

What I didn’t realize is every time I perceived music in this way, I was hurting my performance not enhancing it. It’s like trying to run with shin splints; you can do it but you could definitely do it better without the handicap.

The culmination of those few years resulted in me burning out. Emotionally, I was drained. Music was no longer fun for me. I had forgotten why I had first gotten into it in the first place. I had forgotten the humor of music. I had forgotten the excitement. I had forgotten the joy. Seriousness and dedication almost drowned me. It had thrown me off the edge of the dock, chained and sinking fast towards the bottom.

However this was the turning point. This was the point I decided hating my playing wasn’t worth it. I decided that playing music because it was fun was more important than success or satisfying my ego.

It didn’t just happen like the flick of a switch though. It took hitting “rock bottom” but it also took some of my mentors and teachers to drag me out. Not by intervention, but by simply being a living example of what it was like to truly be in music for the journey.

One particular moment that impacted me, was at a lesson with one of my teachers, a world-class jazz musician. I expressed to him one day that I was constantly wishing that I could play better, and unsatisfied with my playing, to which he replied “Me too.”

How could this be? I thought. Here is a musician who has a successful career, respect, and is in the latter years of his life. How is it possible that he still wishes he could play better?

What I realized is he wasn’t depressed, upset, or unhappy with his playing. He just acknowledged that there is always progress to make, and there is always new trails to blaze on this journey of being a musician. He was at peace with where he was at, but always curious and moving forward.

Another teacher said this to me: You need to play from where you are at, not where you want to be. What he meant was that I needed to accept myself. I needed to be okay with where I was at on my journey. Through these teachers, friends, and coming to know myself better, I began to overcome the hatred of my playing.

And do you know what happened when I stopped hating my playing? My music began to flourish. No longer was I bound by the shackles I was bound to before. I was free to move and I was comfortable with who I was as a musician. I did not define my self-worth by the quality of my music, and because of this I was no longer handicapped. I stopped taking music so seriously.

Do I still find myself from time to time unhappy after a gig? Sure. It happens to everybody. But am I happy with my music and with the path that I am on? More than ever.

I want to encourage you, if you find yourself in this dark place of self deprecation, to climb out of it now. Take it from someone who has been through the fire: it’s not worth it. If you want to become a better musician, you will not truly do so by hating your playing. You will only release your full potential when you are in love with music, and positive about your musical growth.

Music is a journey. We are all on this path together, though on different parts of the path we may be. It’s time to embrace your music, it’s time to love your music, it’s time to take back the true potential that you rightfully deserve.

May music fill you with joy and purpose, not defeat and self-loathing.

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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for your openness about this, Brent. It is encouraging to see that you found a way to overcome the self-doubt. My experience of this relates to a fear of improvising in front of others and a general self-doubt about whether I can learn to improvise with confidence. Your website and Zero to Improv book are a great resource to help overcome this, thank you! Cheers, Marion

  2. An excellent article Brent, I found personally that the biggest block for me was continually comparing myself with others and constructing a sort of league table. I have been able to cast that aside and concentrate on my goal of being the best musician I can be which is a more positive thought process.