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Mastering Musical Doubt

Guest post by Peter Rubie.

I like to play squash, and the best advice a pro ever gave me was this: “Hit the ball in the middle of the racquet.” Do you have any idea how difficult that simple piece of advice is to master?

Recently, Brent posted a great podcast about overcoming low self esteem as a musician. This is something that has plagued me on and off most of my musical career, and I’ve been playing for almost 40 years though I did stop practicing for about 15 of them, mainly because I decided I could never be a great player. (Yes, I know, pretty stupid right? But it made sense at the time and I had bills to pay.)

When I started studying again, with Peter Bernstein, I told him my goal was to improve enough to like how I sounded on tape. He replied, almost immediately, it wasn’t my job to like or dislike my playing, that’s for the audience to decide. And certainly, I’m sure most of us can empathize with the irony of people in the audience coming up to you after a gig and praising playing that you think sucked. It’s wonderfully summed up in a quip attributed to the great guitarist Wes Montgomery. Wes had been playing quietly but steadily during the 1950s in clubs in Indianapolis, and before that had toured with Lionel Hampton’s band in the late 1940s (a band that included a young Charles Mingus on bass). After Wes became what we might now call a jazz “rock star” in the 1960s, a fan came up to him and told him he played wonderfully. Wes smiled and told the fan simply, “You should have heard me in 1948.” (Others have quoted him as saying, “You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play.” Take your pick.)

Every time I hear myself on tape after a gig I want to cringe and cry at the same time, despite people making nice comments about my playing (What kind of tin ears do these people have, anyway?). I force myself to swallow that indigestibly familiar feeling. I give it a few days for my traumatized ego to quieten, for my dose of humility to kick in, and then I remind myself that my job as a musician is not to be fabulous or brilliant or any other egocentric thing.

My job as a musician is simple — find ways to creatively define a song’s harmonic and melodic possibilities when I improvise, and to just play the damn tune properly. And along with mastering rhythmic possibilities, for me that’s enough. My first serious music teacher, in England where I grew up, was the bass player Peter Ind. Peter moved to New York in the early 1950s to study and play with Lennie Tristano, one of the first great players to come up with a flexible system of breaking down how to improvise geared to the individual player, about how you teach improvisation to beginners. By the time I met him, Peter was a tall, thin man in his 40s with shoulder length hair and a ZZ Top-like beard, who grappled with the bass the way Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford did, using a high action and powerful hands. He had an intense way of talking quietly, looking you in the eye as he spoke, that was both kind and intimidating at the same time. There was little room for bullshit.

Peter told me a story of a new student of his, a professional trumpet player who wanted to “buff up” his jazz playing. After several weeks of lessons the trumpet player quit, telling Peter that far from making him a better player, Peter had made him play worse! Peter’s point to me, and I knew it to be true because he was (and still is) one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, was that far from making the guy play worse, he had managed in a few short weeks to open up his ears, and the guy, perhaps for the first time, was able to hear what he actually played like. It was a shock to the system. The next step, the one the guy was not able to take, was to shuck the ego and listen to his playing as if he was teaching another musician not himself. So whenever I get into my “Oh my God, how can I sound like that,” mode, I essentially wait it out and then go back to that (current ) infamous recording thinking, “OK let’s start defining what it is that really horrifies me so. Because THAT is what I need to work on next.”

Another great influence on me is the remarkable west coast player Larry Koonse. I remember starting a session with him by sharing that I’d been struggling with some musical demons (of which this was one), and he immediately told me he’d been struggling with musical demons of his own that summer. I was quietly dumb-struck. How is that possible? I thought. How can you be arguably one of the great guitarists in the world, and still have musical expression problems you need to wrestle with? And of course, his demons are certainly not mine, nor are they yours either. But a dedication to honestly exploring musicality can open us up to this pathway if we’re not careful.

That led us to a discussion about perfectionism, and how debilitating it can be, and how it hit him so hard after he graduated music school (Larry was the first recipient of a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies at the University of Southern California), that he stopped playing for months before finally starting up again, a little bit each day at first.

Chick Corea has an interesting snippet of advice you can find on Youtube.

He breaks things down this way:

Step 1. Find a player whose playing you connect to and love, and play along with it as best you can. Try and mimic it. Get the flow and the rhythm.

Step 2. Turn the recording off and see if you can retain the groove and flow.

Step 3. Record yourself playing something. (The great English jazz guitarist Dave Cliff, another friend and formative influence on me, once told me he recorded all his practice sessions at one point in his life. It’s a tough school to attend though, be warned.) Chick says, after you’ve listened to the recording, you may decide “that’s too much this way, and not enough of that. So, now practice more of THAT towards your idea of what it should be.” Because only you will know when you’ve reached the point where you think, yeah, that’s working now. Who else is going to tell you? You’re not looking for admiration. You’re looking for what you’ve learned to recognize is right for you. Learn to trust your own judgment about your playing.

Step 4: Finally, there’s what Chick calls the Apprentice System. Find a Master to work with, someone who has an ability you’d like have, and go play with them, work with them, collaborate with them, make music with them. This is how we learn a trade, and a skill. We work with people with the idea that you want to learn something and they can help you figure it out.

At its best, music is something outside of us, an energy stream that we strive to somehow plug into using our ears and our fingers, like launching out on a plank without a life jacket into a fast moving river. It’s something that we manage, through the meditation of practice, to connect with when we are on the stand or in a session with others. We become conduits for something “other” that passes through us, and is shaped as it enters the world by who we are at that moment. Our job is to simply get out of the way and let it flow through.

Hit the ball in the middle of the racquet. Not so easy, is it?

Peter Rubie
Peter Rubie has been on the jazz scene in Europe and the U.S., since the mid-1970s. He was the leader of the house band at the original 606 Club in London, before moving to the U.S., in 1981. He has studied and played with Warne Marsh, George Coleman, Peter Ind, Peter Bernstein and Larry Koonse. Among many notable jazz musicians he’s played with are John Stowell, Kenny Wessell, Mike LeDonne, Eric Alexander, John Raymond, Jay Leonhart, Mike Clark, Jack Wilkins, Junior Cook, Paul Meyers, Martin Taylor, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Bobby Wellins, Slide Hampton, Dave Binney, Dave Cliff, and Emily Remler. He lives in New York City where he plays and teaches.


  1. This is a fantastic article. I struggle on a daily basis, but because I limit myself. It can be difficult at times to pick up the horn and play, especially when working at "9 to 5" type job M-F. I don't call it a hobby, that I play trumpet, it's a passion. However, I have such a long way to go. I love Chicks rules, I try to apply this, at the part about playing along, when I'm listening to Pops…and I listen to a TON of Pops. I'll get there…just don't know how quickly.

    Thanks again for posting!!!


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