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The Jazz Mindset

Why do we play jazz? Why do we play music? I hope the main reason why we spend so much time practicing, playing, and performing is that we love it. However I have seen some musicians who seem to struggle not because of their playing, but because their mindset isn’t healthy. Even worse, I have seen some musicians stop playing music or even completely give up jazz because of their unhealthy mindset.

I am no counselor, but one of my passions is to help musicians find a healthy mindset that allows them to create freely. Music is difficult enough to master without the “head games” that can keep musicians from true artistry.

Let me be clear about who I am. I am both a jazz musician and a music educator. I am not a superstar jazz musician traveling with some famous jazz icon to different cities all the time, but I have been fortunate to play some good gigs, like the occasional festival or jazz camp.  I have had the opportunity to occasionally play with some world-class players, but generally I’m a musician in the trenches, enjoying playing with good local players for small audiences.  And the music has definitely been good to me.

I have also been in the music education trenches for the past 7 years, having taught music at all levels between Kindergarten all the way through seniors in college.  I feel this gives me a unique perspective on music education, having taught music to all levels of students.

Many students have a healthy mindset, but I have also known students who seem to stop believing in themselves when they are around a peer who has more experience than they do. Instead of getting inspired, a student with a poor mindset may want to give up if they are intimidated by a more experienced student.

When we see someone with more experience, we should be motivated. We should be inspired. We should decide to reach for more rather than feeling deflated. We are capable of so much when we decide to make priorities and goals.

I vividly remember one of my first experiences with jazz. I believe I was in 7th grade. My trombone teacher was a music professor named George Turner, who has been teaching at Northwest Nazarene University near Boise, ID for over 35 years. He was, and still is the principal trombonist in the Boise Philharmonic. Prof. Turner had a powerful impact on my music education. I studied trombone with him for 9 years. Even though I eventually picked piano over the trombone, the things I learned from Prof. Turner were extremely valuable in my musical development.  For one thing, Prof. Turner was my first jazz teacher.

I was in Prof. Turner’s office one afternoon as 13-year-old kid after taking a trombone lesson. He put on the album “Night Train” by Oscar Peterson. He had something else to do, but he let me stay in his office and listen. I loved the joy I heard in Oscar’s playing. That is such an incredible album, and I will never forget the first time I heard it! This had a profound impact on me, and not long afterward I started checking out jazz cds from the local library as frequently as I could. I was in love with the music.

About 9 years later, I remember commenting about how hearing Oscar Peterson made me want to quit playing the piano.  WHAT?!  How could the man who inspired me so much when I was first gaining an interest in jazz actually make me want to quit years later? Did I expect to play like him as a college student? How could I have let my insecurities get me to that point? I had the wrong mindset. Music had become about something other than the joy of music. It became competitive, about proving you are worth something because your music is superior. This is not a healthy mindset, and I encourage people to guard themselves against this kind of thinking. By all means, strive for excellence in music, but remember to be kind to yourself.

I hope we remember that music is fun.  I hope we remember the reasons we became passionate about the music in the first place. I hope we remember to do the right things that will make us better musicians, and let the music help us express ourselves.

Learn from those who are more experienced, and help those who have less. This is an important thing to remember:  NEVER look down on or “vibe” other musicians who have less experience than you.

I have seen good players with an almost Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to the music. Sometimes they would be completely insecure about their own playing.  Other times they would turn into a pompous Mr. Hyde, taking pleasure in “vibing” other musicians with less experience.  It is sad for me to see someone let their insecurities get in the way of the joy of music, and it is even more sad to see musicians treat other musicians with contempt.

We should not look down on other musicians who are less experienced.  Help them out instead.  Don’t make fun of others. Arrogance has no place in the music.

Strive for excellence, but stay cool and give back. Always ENJOY the process!

One last thought:  one of the most important keys to success in jazz is to KEEP AT IT! Put yourself in many different musical situations with many different musicians. Practice the things you learn so you get better at them. Practice new tunes you may learn along the way. Seek out many musical experiences over the years (jam sessions, private lessons with various teachers, gigs, bands, musical mentors, educational opportunities, jazz festivals, workshops and clinics, competitions that may help you grow, even moving to a different city with a strong jazz scene…etc.) You will learn something from each musical experience.

Seek out the music. Practice every day. Don’t let insecurities or ego get in the way. And cherish every moment you get to play or hear the music. That is the jazz mindset.

Camden Hughes
Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


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