The old maxim “A is for effort” does not apply when it comes to jazz improvisation or playing any style of music. Effort is the last thing you want. In fact, we seek effortlessness. When it comes to playing our instruments, the ultimate goal is to be as efficient as possible. No movement or mind-share wasted. Everything automatic. Controlled and precise.
Unfortunately, we often think we should be exerting effort to play our instruments. It’s not supposed to be easy right? Wrong. It is supposed to be easy. The actual physical and mental process of playing our instrument should be as easy as humanly possible.
How much work should it actually be?
This is completely objective because what you call “easy” is always going to differ from what I call “easy.” However, a good rule of thumb is that playing our instrument should not be much more difficult than breathing. If it is, you’re working too hard and your musicianship will greatly suffer.
This applies for any instrument. For example, if you sit down at the piano and your fingers stumble and strain to strike the keys, you’re not being efficient, and you will not be as free musically as you could be.
On a woodwind like the saxophone, if it takes quite a bit of effort to produce one note, just think about how much effort you’ll require to produce lines?
Everything: your mind, your body, your equipment…should all be aligned with the attitude of effortlessness and being as efficient as possible.
But the greats are exerting lots of effort, right?
This is a myth, yet many believe it. They’ve seen videos of their favorite players or heard of the extreme equipment they use and have determined that their heroes must be working hard. I remember a kid who said while that listening to Coltrane, you can tell that he’s playing on extremely hard reeds, and therefore, he should too. This is detrimental on so many levels.
I’m not going to argue what Coltrane’s particular setup was, instead I’ll simply direct you to the video below. Answer me honestly. Do you believe that Coltrane would be able to play what he’s playing if he had to exert much more effort than breathing to play his instrument?
Whatever “easy” was as defined by Coltrane, he achieved. For him, it’s like breathing. It doesn’t matter what his setup was because you’re not him. What matters is that you achieve this effortlessness through what works for you.
Relaxing the body
Any motion that is not directly contributing to playing your instrument is wasted energy. Does this mean you can’t move around or tap your foot? No, it’s not a rule explicitly stating that you must remain still. It’s just something to be aware of and think about.
I move when I play and so do many players. The important thing is to think about how your body moves when you play and decide which motions help you and which waste your energy.
For example, on the saxophone, when people play any of the palm keys, high D, Eb, E, and F, they often slam down hard on these keys, causing the entire horn to sway out, while their mouth tightens up and their fingers fly in the air. Consequently, their sound closes up, their intonation sharpens, and the line will be disjunct. Is this desired motion or wastefulness?
Watch Charlie Parker play. His fingers look like they barely move. Work to develop extreme efficiency with all the mechanical operations of your instrument.
I remember rock climbing with an outstanding climber that told me he was focusing on how much grip he actually had to have on the rock before he fell off. He elaborated, saying that we think we need quite a bit more grip than we actually do need, and end up wasting a lot of energy in the process.
It’s the same thing in playing our instruments. We think we need to blow way harder than we actually need to, to achieve the volume we desire, or we think we have to move our hands voraciously up and down, attacking the keyboard, when in truth, we could float smoothly throughout the entire range of the instrument.
Start thinking more about the physical process of playing your instrument; understand that it’s about operating a machine as efficient as possible and after observing how you play, (the way you push down keys in different ranges, the way you grip the mouthpiece, the way you use your air etc.) weed out the unnecessary and tense motion.
Relaxing the mind
Not only do we exert a tremendous amount of wasted effort physically, but mentally as well. We ponder what people might be thinking of our playing, or we think about the chord change we just botched.
When improvising, our mind should be in a state of hyper-awareness, where we are both focused on nothing and everything. It sounds bizarre, but it’s this zen-like state that many great improvisors have described to me. It’s simple to sense this state when watching a live performance of this music played well. The vibe of this hyper-awareness state permeates the entire club.
Learning to relax the mind and get into this state takes practice. A book that has helped me, as well as many friends and teachers, learn to get into this mindset, is Effortless Mastery, written by outstanding pianist Kenny Werner. It teaches a process of deep relaxation and clear-mindedness that will help all that put in the time.
Getting rid of the effort
The key to removing unneeded effort and getting to a place of effortlessness all starts with a paradigm shift, transitioning from thinking that it should take a large amount of effort to play one’s instrument, to understanding that it should be like breathing, effortless and smooth. From there, you learn to relax the body and clear the mind, while allowing the knowledge stored in your mind to surface organically.
With some simple observation of how you much effort you require to play your instrument and some dedication to remove this effort, you’ll make huge improvements. I know that this simple realization, that playing one’s instrument should be easy, has taken me from not knowing how to excel to a new level, to understanding how to surpass my self-imposed limits. Dwell on it for a while, put it into action, and you’ll set new heights for yourself as well.