Following the Path of Least Resistance

The path of least resistance. You don’t have to be an enlightened Buddhist to appreciate this idea. Simply look around you. The elements of the natural world intrinsically follow this concept. The water flowing in a river follows the easiest path, birds fly the most direct route to their destination, and even people follow patterns that create the least amount of work. Energy of all types follows the path of least resistance.

Resistance in all its forms, drains energy of momentum and eventually stops the flow of motion.

Think about how this applies to your own physical motion. When you play a sport or exercise, you are a lot more successful if you are relaxed and confident with your movements. When you add tension to the mix, either mentally or physically, you end up straining to produce movement. By thinking too much, you create tension and inhibit movement, eventually developing a negative feeling or fear towards that activity.

The same holds true of the physical aspects of playing a musical instrument. For example, air flow is vital to producing sound on a wind instrument. If you restrict the path of the air flow or create unneeded tension in your body, your sound will noticeably suffer. Or, regardless of instrument, if you’re trying to play a tune at an extremely fast tempo and tense up, it’s much more difficult to play than if you are calm and relaxed. The struggle to overcome resistance just adds more work to an already difficult task.

The goal is to create sound in the most relaxed and efficient manner possible.

Forcing yourself into a musical routine or pattern that resists your natural approach every step of the way will create frustration and aversion to practice. Strive to find the path of least resistance on your musical journey – one that promotes creativity and allows you to achieve your musical vision with the least amount of struggle.

Some resistance is helpful

Before we go any further, I should make it clear that avoiding resistance at all costs is not the point here. When you are learning a new skill or working to improve towards a goal, resistance is a necessary tool – it just has to be applied in the right way.

If you just accept your current level and neglect to challenge yourself, the simple truth is that you’ll never improve. This is one important reason why we need to go against the flow and selectively avoid the most comfortable path.

When you’re feeling lazy and unmotivated, push yourself to get into the practice room. When you are in the practice room, don’t waste time on the areas that you’re good at, confront the parts of your playing that are difficult and giving you problems. Discipline yourself to work on technical and tone exercises that are essential for good musicianship, but may not be the most fun to practice.

Above all, put yourself in musical situations that challenge your abilities and get you out of your comfort zone. By fighting the natural tendency to play it safe, you’ll uncover the areas of your playing that need the most work. If you truly want to improve at anything, musical or otherwise, you need to motivate yourself and resist the urge to take the easy way out.

However too much resistance, especially in the wrong areas, can be counterproductive and lead to frustration. Even though we initially have the best intentions, it can be easy to get stuck in a pattern that creates unnecessary work, stifling our creativity and turning the activity of making music, once fun and fulfilling, into a daily chore.

Smart practice

We’ve all heard the stories about Charlie Parker practicing 14 hours a day. This can be an inspiring story and many of us aspire to get as much time in the practice room as we can. However, more time in the practice room doesn’t always equal quality practice.

On some days, four or five hours of practice can fly by, while on other days it can be a struggle to focus for even one hour of quality shedding. Everyday is different. The important thing is to be aware of your physical and mental state. If you find that you are not mentally engaged in the practice room and just going through the motions, get out and do something else. When you’ve regained your focus, come back and get some quality work done.

If you’re physically fatigued and it’s difficult to keep playing, don’t force yourself to continue practicing just because your practice plan says to. You will actually do more harm than good and start to ingrain bad habits. Take a day off and return refreshed and you’ll accomplish more in minutes than hours of fatigued practice.

Even though we aspire to be like the masters in every way, this is not always the answer. What works for somebody else, no matter how famous, isn’t guaranteed to work for you. The contents of your practice routine should align with your musical goals, not someone else’s.

If you are in a constant battle with yourself in the practice room, it’s time to make some changes. Practicing should be fun and you should be absorbed in what you are doing. When you force yourself into a practice routine that isn’t right for you or lock yourself in the practice room even when you are not productive, you are hurting more than helping.

Don’t resist your own musical voice

We all hear music in a unique and personal way and this is a huge part of finding our own musical voice. Certain players resonate with us, specific records align with our musical vision, and unique grooves unlock our innate creativity. Following your musical instincts is vital to becoming the improviser you want to become.

But, heeding the calling of this creative muse can be harder than it seems and obstacles arise from a variety of places. As we set out to learn this music we are influenced by teachers, peers, and even public opinion. Before we know it, a picture is presented to us of what players are considered masters and what styles are accepted or deemed unfit for consumption.

We are given required listening lists, we’re told what solos to transcribe, and we’re pushed into certain musical situations. This can be an important first step in understanding what is out there musically, but we mustn’t stop there. You need to go out and discover the players that you love and the styles of music that speak to you. If you take these suggestions as strict rules and don’t explore music for yourself, you can be pushed down a very limited path that is the opposite of what you want to sound like.

Likewise, forcing yourself to play in a specific style on your instrument, or in a way that is currently popular is another trap that causes you to resist your own musical voice. Stick with the concept you have for your instrument and develop it until it is fully realized. For instance, as Miles was emerging as a promising young trumpet player, the sound of the trumpet was being defined by Dizzy Gillespie. Yet, Miles did not give up his musical conception just to follow the crowd and sound like everyone else. He stuck with his vision and eventually defined a whole new voice on the trumpet.

Equipment

A trap that is very easy to fall into as an aspiring musician is that of equipment. Looking to a mouthpiece or an instrument to solve your technical and musical problems. Buying the same mouthpiece that Coltrane used, the same horn that Freddie played on, or forcing yourself to use the “standard” equipment that everyone else uses is not the secret. Despite knowing this, we continue to rely on the equipment of successful musicians even if it is not the right fit for our physical set up or musical vision.

Masters like John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard, or even the greatest classical players weren’t made by their equipment. They spent hours of hard work in the practice room and found the equipment that was right for them – the tools that allowed them to get the sound that they were envisioning with the least amount of effort.

This is the aspect of the masters that we should emulate, not the size of their mouthpiece or the brand of their instrument. Struggling day in and day out to produce sound easily or just because it’s the equipment that is popular or was used by the greats is a sure way to take the fun out of playing.

Following your own path

Everyone has their own sound. The way they naturally hear music and see themselves playing. This naturally comes out no matter what you do. The only problem is that we try to alter our approach based on external influences and end up muting our own voice. We force ourselves into other people’s practice plans, learn the solos that people tell us to learn, and struggle to play on the equipment that works for famous musicians.

Exploring the methods of successful musicians is a healthy thing to do on your path to improving as an improviser. But, forcing yourself into something that doesn’t work and continuing with it frustrated is not ideal. Struggling day to day with equipment or ill fitted practice plans because they are popular or worked for famous musicians is counterproductive. Find the methods that work for you and allow you to achieve the sound that you’re hearing in your head.

Yes, it may be difficult at first to go against the grain and use the equipment that works for you or follow your own unique musical influences, but if you do, your efforts will be so much more fulfilling. You aren’t playing music to sound like someone else, you are playing to express yourself. The day that you learn to trust yourself and follow your instincts is the day that you begin to nurture your musical voice.