Dealing With Frustration In Practicing Jazz Improvisation

When you’re frustrated with your playing it’s difficult to excel at all. It’s difficult to make a coherent musical statement, let alone even listen to yourself. These bouts happen to everyone. The key is to not get too discouraged and press on…

Today we’ll look into some tactics for how to deal with frustration in the practice room, so you can quickly get back on track and continue making fast improvement.

Turn off the play-alongs

We all love jamming with a play-along, but in times of frustration, they can be extremely detrimental to your progress. What happens is you’re soloing with a play-along and you’re not content with the result, so you click the back-button on the player and give it another go.

The second run through is still not quite there, so you do it again. This behavior gets you more and more frustrated, yet with each attempt, you feel a stronger need to try it one more time to “fix” the problem.

This scenario is like beating your head against a wall, then forgetting how much it hurts, and doing it again and again. It’s human nature to want to fix our problems right away; nothing can wait, we must fix it now, and we’re oblivious that our frustrations consume us in the process, but you must rise above this natural tendency.

By trying to fix the problems you’re frustrated with by taking chorus after chorus with a play-along, you’ll ingrain horrendous habits and dig yourself deeper into the depths of frustration. When you’re frustrated with your playing, turn the play-alongs off.

Turn on your favorites

When you’re frustrated, where better to turn then to your heroes? Look to them for advice and guidance through the recordings they’ve left behind. They’re always there, willing and ready to impart their knowledge onto us. In fact, I have my go-to-recordings for when I’m feeling like my sound and concept is totally off.

These go-to-recordings are solos I’ve transcribed and worked on for quite some time. I know them in my sleep.

I turn them on and slow them down to 70% speed in Transcribe software so I hear everything closely. I then play with the recording, listening and matching every nuance. This process of returning to a sound and concept you love brings you back to your optimum hearing environment. It re-establishes a solid base of sound, feeling, and concept in your mind.

Take a break

Once you play with one of your favorite recordings to bring your ear and mind back in tune with a sound you love, take a break. With the music of one of your heroes echoing in your mind, it’s the perfect time to pack up and get out of the practice room.

Go for a run. Go cook something. Or even go watch television! Typically I’d never suggest to anyone to watch TV, but hey…better you watch TV than ruin your playing, right?

Just get away from music and playing for a while, giving yourself a little time to recharge.

Identify the source of the frustration

While you take this break from playing which could be a few hours or a day or so, once you’re feeling more objective, give some honest thought to the true source of your frustration.

Is it your sound? Is it your lines? Are you not comfortable on your equipment? Are you not playing what you hear in your head? Are you not hearing what you’d like to in your head? Is a certain tune or progression giving you a tough time?

Really try to pin down what’s bothering you. Write your thoughts down if that helps. And then, figure out what the underlying source of all your frustration is. For instance, if my frustrations include: I sound boring playing All The Things You Are, I sound like I’m rambling when I solo, and I botch the second part of the bridge every time…then what’s the source of frustration?

Given that many standards have similar material, it’s a bigger problem then this tune. It has to do with frustrations with language, rhythmic concept, harmonic understanding, as well as the particular tune.

Once you understand where the issues are, then you can tackle them.

Listening cures all

So many times we think, as in the beat-your-head-against-a-wall example, that just by giving something more attempts that we’ll naturally get the desired result. Why beat yourself up when someone has already done a lot of work for you? To fix your frustrations, during your break spend some time deeply listening and observing.

So to fix my frustrations in the example above, I’d do some serious listening. I’d first find every recording I possibly could of the tune. For rhythmic concept ideas, I’d listen carefully to the phrasing and rhythmic content of each soloist.

I wouldn’t restrict my listening to just these recordings either (it’s just a good place to start). I’d broaden my scope and look for anyone with rhythmic concepts and phrasing ideas I may be interested in understanding, taking note of each one as I go along.

For my frustrations with the second part of the bridge, I’d listen to the recordings again and listen intently to what the rhythm section plays. I’d hear the bass notes and the piano voicings clearly to understand and ingrain the sounds of these measures in my ear. Then I’d go back to all the recordings I found of the tune and search for phrases in these high-maintenance-sections that grabbed my attention, keeping track of where these instances occur.

Now that the source of my frustration is identified and I’ve picked out places where players achieve what I’m after, I could then get back to work, knowing exactly what it is I need to study and understand to improve in these areas, and not be frustrated in the future.

Come back anew, focused and positive

The next time you play, it should be like the slate is wiped clean, ready to begin anew. You’ve done some honest reflection and spent a lot of time listening. You’ve identified the true source of your frustration and developed a plan of action to remedy it.

Each time you play your instrument is a chance to improve and a chance to learn how to express yourself a little bit more. Use the tactics in this article and you’ll go from being frustrated to improving in no time.