How to Consistently Play to Your Full Potential on the Jazz Gig

(This is a guest post by Mark Morely-Fletcher.)

Bird said it best.

At least, I don’t know of anyone who’s said it better since.

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

That’s what we all want, isn’t it? To “just wail” when we hit the stage.

So often, you feel that you’ve got it down in the practice room. The ability to wail is there.

But then when you get on stage – nothing.

No wailing. Just okay. Maybe even outright disappointment.

Today, I’m going to show you something you can add to your practice that will have you consistently wailing with the best of them when you hit the gig.

Watch out, though – there’s a twist coming a bit later on…

Practice and performance conditions are different.

No matter how much you wish it could be otherwise, gigs happen out there in the messy, imperfect real world. The conditions will never be perfect like they tend to be in the practice room.

This can create a serious gap between how you practice and how you perform. Since one of the keys to making practice really effective is to do it in conditions that are as close to the ones that you’ll perform in as possible, this can be a big deal.

If you don’t put anything in place to bridge that gap, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise if your practice and your performance go very differently.

There’s absolutely still a place for spending plenty of time practicing in an ideal practice environment. When you’re looking to learn difficult new skills (and you’ll find plenty of these throughout your journey as a jazz musician) then you want to give yourself all the advantages that you can to start with.

That’s not the whole story, though. Once you’ve mastered playing in a controlled environment, you need to go one step further and make sure that you develop your ability to deliver in more realistic conditions.

Simulate difficult conditions when you practice.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Just think about some of the situations that you’ve found challenging at gigs and have a go at replicating them at home.

You should choose things which match your individual situation, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • A cramped space makes it hard to play your instrument
  • The room’s too hot or too cold
  • The sound you’re getting from your instrument is horrible
  • The other musicians are much too quiet, or much too loud
  • There are distracting sights or sounds

When you practice in “adversity conditions” like these then you’ll start to get a handle on how much spare technical facility you need on top of what it takes to play things in perfect conditions (check out Diego Maldonado’s article on “headroom” for more on this). You’ll also start to work out what adjustments you can make which will help you to cope with these specific conditions.

However, while developing the ability to deal with a specific set of conditions can be helpful, it’s not the real reason we’re setting things up like this (I promised you there was a twist coming!).

The physical conditions are not the real issue…

In almost every instance, the physical challenge itself isn’t what causes the real problems.

It’s how you react to any difficult conditions that can really throw you off the rails. As soon as you start thinking that the conditions aren’t how you’d like them to be, you trigger an emotional response that is very unhelpful.

You start to fall into a “victim” mentality.

You wish things were different.

You might even think that it’s unfair.

You perceive the outside environment as doing stuff TO you. It’s easy to forget that there are still plenty of things that you control.

In the worst case, you might even admit defeat mentally. It feels as though things are hopeless and you stop trying properly.

When you do this (whether you go all the way down the victim path or just one step) you’re immediately compromising your ability to play well. One of the single most important things for you to do as a musician is to keep your focus purely in the present moment. Only on what you’re playing now – no other distractions.

Think back to the end of that Bird quote from earlier: “when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

Turns out that for most of us, it’s not the wailing that’s the problem. It’s the ability to forget about all the other stuff. The ability to accept how things are and just get on with it.

This is the main reason you want to practice in difficult conditions

It’s not about building the physical capability to play your instrument in them.

It’s to get better at ignoring all the external difficulties and distractions. To strengthen your ability to keep your focus 100% on playing great music no matter what’s going on around you.

That’s what will help you forget all the other stuff so that you CAN just wail.

If you’re like most musicians, then you probably haven’t really thought about the mental side of practice and performance before – let alone spent time working on it. Your mindset and mental skills (like your ability to set and maintain focus) can be trained systematically, though, and they’re vital for great performances.

Like any other type of practice, you’ll get the best results from just working on one thing at a time. Although there are many other things that you could (and should) develop to have some really big impacts on your performance we’re just going to consider how to work with these adversity conditions for now.

Practical steps for your practice.

Think back to your list of challenging gig conditions and identify the ones that you feel are most “unfair”. The ones where you really find yourself distracted by them.

Make these the “adversity conditions” that you’re going to work with and find ways to really exaggerate them.

You may have heard the old military saying: “Train hard, fight easy”. That’s great advice here too. You don’t have to restrict yourself to realistic challenges. You want to deliberately exaggerate the “unfairness” of the conditions that you put yourself in so that your ability to “accept” things and just get on with it gets a serious workout.

For example:

  • Don’t just make yourself play in a slightly cramped setup, but box yourself in so you can hardly move.
  • Don’t just have a vaguely distracting sound sitting quietly somewhere in the background. Put a video or some music on at full blast so that it completely drowns out anything you play (maybe check the neighbours are out first).
  • Set up your instrument to give the most horrible sound possible and work with that.

Get creative. Have some fun seeing just how challenging you can make things for yourself.

Now that the challenge is set up, it’s important to be really clear about exactly what the point of this exercise is.

It’s not about playing brilliantly, so don’t feel bad if that doesn’t happen. It’s unhelpful to judge the quality of your playing in the moment, anyway – but that’s a topic for another day.

Your goal for this exercise is simply not to be bothered by the adverse conditions. Learn to accept them and just get on with playing as best you can.

Better still, lean into it. See it as a chance to test yourself. See if you can develop an attitude of “Bring it on!”.

You probably don’t need to include a lot of this in your practice routine – a little can go a long way. Be honest about your situation, though. If the way you react to conditions on the gig is a big issue for you then give it the time it deserves.

It’s probably something you’ll never completely grow out of.

Going further…

Jazz musicians typically spend most, if not all, of their practice time developing the technique and knowledge that they need to get the music inside them out there for others to hear.

I hope this article has shown you that working on your mindset and focus can be just as important a part of this. The exercises here are a great first step in this direction. They’re not a substitute for technical practice but a useful complementary approach. Spend some time on both of them and great things become possible.

Once you’ve made some progress with them you should look into other ways to upgrade your mindset further.

If you take only one thing away from this, remember to avoid getting sucked into a victim mentality.

Don’t wish things were different but accept them as they are and see what possibilities this gives you.

It might help to think about a classic exercise that improv comedians use (it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is relevant for us musicians too).  Rather than having your instinctive reaction to difficulties be “No, but…”, make it “Yes, and…”

Let me know how you get on in the comments below. And I’d love to hear about the “adversity conditions” that you invent for your own practice.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

14 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Mark,

    I'm an amateur tenor saxophone player and a few months ago, I had on and off neck issues that were bothering me. I decided to give my usual neckstrap a rest and try one of those harness straps to see if it helped. I hated it! I felt the horn pressing against my body and the whole thing was mad uncomfortable. My first reaction was to throw it away but I didn't. Then, one day my neckstrap broke in a strange way and since I didn't have a backup nor the time to go into the city to get a new one, I decided to dig up the much hated harness strap again. For a few days, I practiced with it, feeling less and less uncomfortable as time went on, and I believe it made me focus on trying to be as relaxed as possible when blowing my horn in order to counter the discomfort of having to change my posture. Anyway, thank you for your inspiring article!

    Olivier Garrel

    • Hi Olivier,

      That's a great example – thanks for sharing it. Taking something you dislike and finding the positives in it is a fantastic way to reframe the situation. Also great that you noticed how it can become less of an issue over time once you've accepted that's the way things are and just get on with it.

  2. Dear Mark,
    why should we give up and accept the approach you advise "Don’t wish things were different but accept them as they are and see what possibilities this gives you" ? Do musicians not deserve decent conditions to express themselves as other kind of artists do? I think most of the venues are obsessed with cash flow only and the lack of organization reflects negligence and scarce appreciation of music as an art and form of entertainment. Unfortunately, sometimes this happens even with acclaimed professionals…shame.

    • Ciao Daniele!

      Thanks for your comment. I completely agree that musicians deserve decent conditions and I think you’re quite right to stand up for that. I’m not asking you to give up any hope of changing things completely, but rather to accept things as they are during the time that you’re actually playing music.

      Before the gig or after the gig it’s absolutely fine to try and get the venue to change their approach. Or it’s totally reasonable if you choose not to play at venues which don’t respect you. But DURING the gig that’s a distraction. You need to forget all that just for a short time and focus 100% on the music. Otherwise the music will suffer. That’s the respect that you owe to your audience.

      Does that make sense?

  3. I found some short video clips of an audience filmed from the stage perspective and found I get that physiological response as if I was on the stage.

    • Great idea, Joel. I haven't tried using videos for that before.

      When I had a ground floor flat with a window looking out onto a busy-ish street, though, I used to deliberately stand right in front of the window facing out when I practiced. I could see people walking past and I knew they could see me. It was a big distraction at first wondering what they thought of me – it must have looked pretty strange. But before long I got much better at tuning those sort of thoughts out and just focusing on the music.

      • Mark…I'm frustrated with this condition (performance anxiety) I did the open window challenge several years ago for awhile just for the possibility I might be heard. I didn't stand where anyone could see me like you did. That would be another level. A while later I had a casual conversation with the neighbor lady behind my house and ask her if she can hear me play. She said she has and loves to come out and have her coffee while listening to me playing. Without thinking about it, stopped playing outside! F#$% man, I'm sabotaging myself! WTH? I'm just venting. No need to respond.

      • Hey Joel, I'll chime in as well! We all get performance anxiety. It stems from a fear of what others think of us. And as musicians, we tend to sometimes invest too much of our self-worth in our musical abilities. It's natural to do that when you care about something. My goal is often to try not to take music so seriously and just play for the joy of it. Easier said than done. For example, I like to cook. I really enjoy it, but I don't get stressed out about if something turns out good or not. I just enjoy the process. I don't take it so seriously as a hobby, yet I do try to improve every time. Perhaps you have something similar for you. What if we could channel that attitude into how we feel about our music. Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this a "growth mindset." One key thing to note: your neighbor says "she loves coming to listen to you play." Don't take that joy away from her, even if it's small. Give it freely.

      • Hey Joel. I feel your frustration. It's a tough one to beat, but it can be done. Two quick thoughts for you:

        Awareness of the problem is HUGE. The fact that you're aware you're sabotaging yourself is a massive step in the right direction even if you're not sure where to go from here yet. (Pretty much everyone is sabotaging themselves in some way but most people don't even realise it).

        The way to break through it is going to be gradual progress in small steps rather than suddenly solving it completely. Pick ONE small thing you can do that will take you in the right direction. And take the attitude that you'll do it "just for today" rather than feeling you have to stick with it every day – that can lead to overwhelm and you never get started.

      • Hi Mark and Brent. I've really been thinking about your words of wisdom and encouragement about performance anxiety.
        Mark said: "Awareness of the problem is HUGE. The fact that you're aware you're sabotaging yourself is a massive step in the right direction" "The way to break through it is going to be gradual progress in small steps"

        Brent said: "We all get performance anxiety. It stems from a fear of what others think of us. And as musicians, we tend to sometimes invest too much of our self-worth in our musical abilities. It's natural to do that when you care about something. My goal is often to try not to take music so seriously and just play for the joy of it Growth mindset"

        All so true guys! I am my own worst enemy. The good news is, I have been mulling over these ideas and practicing a little bit with imagining myself as I want to be. I have found myself daydreaming about entertaining for a small group where I'm somewhat a part of the group but playing within the gathering not taking myself so serious and having fun. Out of the blue, my sister in law called Friday in the afternoon asking if I would play for a birthday gathering on Saturday. It was to be a mixture of older folks I know, some I know but have not seen in awhile and a handful of 20-30 year olds. At first the anxiety kicked in just thinking about it. Short notice. I'm not ready etc but then it occured to me this was a growth opportunity
        ("growth mindset.") and it's not all about me, why would I deny helping my family put on a good party? They wouldn't ask if they didn't think it would work and, it is what I have been dreaming about! It was no accident! I spent that evening and a few hours putting a set list together of tunes I thought I could pull off. I made notes about this and that to help me not stumble when starting each tune etc.
        I went hours early to set up at my leisure and make sure everything functioned. I was playing through the set list as people started arriving which was a small step. I could see they were way more focused on the greetings and all that. I got a beer and said hi to everyone and after 15 went back out to find most were sitting in close proximity to where I was set up. One lady friend ask if I was the one going to play. Yes I am which was another small step. They all know! I opened with Blues before Sunrise. I don't know the head but, they don't either. I closed my eyes, got into the zone and while improvising thinking, this sounds good Joel and, man I'm killing it and, you landed right where you wanted. When I finished and opened my eyes, everybody had a smile on their face and was clapping. I have that snapshot with audio embedded in my mind. What a feeling! Two of the young guys I know went out of their way say how much they like how I play. Friends and relatives are one thing but young strangers is the real deal I can hang my hat on! I'm hooked!
        Your kind words and encouragement are dearly appreciated and made a difference along with, I forgot to mention, some breathing exercises I got from "Bulletproof Musician"
        Thanks again
        Joel

      • Hey Joel. Wow! Massive congratulations on what you've achieved here. That's awesome, and thanks for sharing such a great success story. I'm so glad that Brent and I were able to help out.

        Reading through what you've just written, I'm noticing you mention so many little mindset aspects that I reckon you've got spot on. Too many, in fact, to go into them all here. Keep thinking this way – you'll find that you'll be able to keep growing.

        Just to pick out one thing quickly, though. That idea of having a snapshot of a great moment embedded in your mind can be really helpful. First thing is just to take a few minutes every so often to run back through the memory and remind yourself of what you're capable of and how great it can feel to get out there and perform.

        When you're preparing for future performances, then you can take it a step further. Go through the memory first, reminding yourself how it felt to improvise in the zone. Then visualise the physical conditions of your upcoming performance, but carry over those internal feelings from your past memory so that you see and feel yourself performing in the zone again in the future. This can really help to set yourself up to achieve great performances more frequently.

  4. Glad you liked it, Chris. And I love your attitude!

    With any luck the builders will finish soon and give you a break (but not before you've reaped the full benefit of the challenging conditions they've so thoughtfully organised for you).

  5. Hey Mark

    Great guest post. The neighbours upstairs have the builders in this week so I'm practising with the constant noise of hammers and angle-grinders. Bring it on! (and yet, at the same time, please make it stop…)

    Chris

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