I had a great conversation today with Brent Vaartstra, who works with me on LJS, about the inner game of the musician. We got to talking about the ways in which different musicians handle the pressures of being a jazz musician, or even being an artist in general. I suspect that the majority of pro and amateur jazz musicians (as well as creative people in general) have experienced some level of inner turmoil at some point in their lives, due to unmet expectations. I thought our insights might be helpful to others who struggle with a common problem among jazz musicians: destructive thought processes that undermine our artistic endeavors and keep us from creating music at our maximum potential.

I have known many musicians who struggle with insecurity, either with regard to their art form (“Am I good enough as a musician?”) or with regard to the business of music (“Will I be able to support myself financially as a musician?”) Perhaps you also know some musicians who have struggled with insecurity, or maybe you have had self-doubt with regard to your art. Well, you are not alone, and the good news is that we can change our thinking patterns!

When you think about what we get to do as jazz musicians, it is really pretty amazing. We take a brief sketch of a tune and turn it into an improvisational musical experience. There is real joy in the music, and I think that fun is what attracted most of us into playing music in the first place. We have all had some incredible experiences in music which we will never forget. I encourage you to remember those experiences. Remember why you picked up your instrument in the first place!

All to often, musicians tend to be down on themselves and doubt their own abilities. I remember seeing a gifted sax player who always used to just make these horrible faces after playing magnificent solos. As good as he was, he couldn’t stomach his own playing. Maybe he was expecting to sound like John Coltrane or Michael Brecker, and he was not living up to his high expectations. It was actually very distracting for the audience to see him so down on himself, especially when, to the rest of us, he sounded absolutely incredible. It is obvious that this person has some negative thinking patterns. I suspect that his drive for excellence comes at the expensive of enjoying the music.

I am all for striving for excellence. We should all want to further our abilities. All of the greats had that; you can’t be great without that drive. However, when I listen to Satchmo, Bird, Trane, Oscar…these guys had some serious fun with the music. Sometimes we forget that music should be fun. Why would we do it if it doesn’t bring us joy and satisfaction?

Why do you play music? Do you want to be the best? Do you want to be famous? (Good luck with that…aim for the stars, yes, but be kind to yourself!) Do you want to make a living at it? Or maybe you play jazz so you can get more chicks! Maybe you simply want to have fun with it. Whatever your motivation, it’s good to examine your thinking patterns if they seem to hold you back.

I suspect that most of us play music because we love it. However, sometimes the desire to be great gets in the way, makes us doubt ourselves, and makes us enjoy the music less. Be kind to yourself!

I encourage you to create because you love it. Forget all of that other stuff, and play music you love. Let’s all stop beating ourselves up and start playing music for the love, whether or not you are making a living at it. Support other musicians, don’t speak negatively behind the backs of other musicians, and be supportive of others, regardless of their level of ability. We are all in this together, so we might as well enjoy the music as long as we are blessed with the opportunity to make it!

-Camden Hughes

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

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