Things are not always what they appear to be. Sometimes the standard advice does not get you where you want to go. Here’s an idea: approach what you’re trying to achieve by doing the opposite. Now, this won’t work for everything, but it very well may solve the nagging problems you just can’t seem to figure out.
Here are just a few examples of how to harness the power of opposites…
To play loud, play soft
Our first inclination when wanting to play loud is to blow our brains out and pump as much air as humanly possible through the horn in hopes of producing a loud sound. This wildly unfocused column of air will have a difficult time activating your instrument and making it resonate at its full capacity.
Instead of approaching loud playing this way, use the opposite tactic: practice playing softly.
How can practicing softly teach you how to play loudly? Using the saxophone as an example, playing loud is not a pure function of how much air you input into the instrument. In fact, it has more to do with how you focus your air.
First practice reducing your volume to a faint whisper and learning to focus your air stream like a laser beam. Then, gradually increase the volume while you keep this focus.
Through this process of learning to play loud by playing soft, you’ll notice a dramatic change in the way you put air through your horn, yielding much more volume and more control.
To play fast, play slow
Everyone wants to play fast. It’s something about human nature, we’re enamored with this ability. We’re so in awe of it, that we often skip learning to play melodic lyrical lines all together, in favor of attempting to play lightening-fast-runs. The result is sloppy. An approximation at best.
Fast lines are built upon being able to first construct lines at slower tempos in a creative and confident manner. Listen to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, or any of the greats. Do they always play fast?
Sure, on a tune like Countdown Coltrane is burning it, but then on the same album he turns around and plays one of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded: Naima.
Trane obviously shedded slow and medium tempos in great detail, working up to the fast tempos he so well known for. Listen to him play I Hear a Rhapsody and pay close attention to his medium tempo lines, ideas effortlessly flowing. Perfection.
To play a tune (many chords), play few chords
A typical unproductive method of learning a tune: put on the play-along-track of a tune you want to learn, play through the head once, and jump into soloing chorus after chorus with the aim of improving over the harmony. All this method does is ingrain poor habits.
Why try to play over many chords when you keep stumbling over the same few every single chorus? Instead, find the problem areas, loop them in Transcribe, and work on them until you’re blue in the face.
And, moreover, why approach the chords as a whole set (a full chorus )when most tunes are comprised of the same sections repeated a couple times. For example, an AABA tune just has two sections, so why initially practice it in a linear fashion?
Take the ‘A’ section, loop it in Transcribe until it’s solid, then do the same with the ‘B’ section. Once you do this, approaching the whole tune will be significantly easier.
To hear complex harmony, hear simple harmony
Hearing a complex chord all starts with hearing the most basic elements: intervals. From intervals, move to triads. From triads, move to seventh chords. From seventh chords, move to chords with 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.
To play modern, turn to tradition
I’m always surprised to hear some extremely modern players say who they’re transcribing. One incredible saxophonist I took a lesson with told me he was in the process of transcribing Lester Young.
I was completely taken aback. Excuse me, why are YOU transcribing Lester Young???!!! But it turns out that many modern concepts and ideas are inspired by tradition.
Much of what we consider hip and modern today, many players and composers were experimenting with many years ago. It may be from a line Lester played, or perhaps in the work of a classical composer like Stravinsky or Ravel. Either way, looking back to go forward is always advisable.
To gain freedom, play within restriction
Ultimate freedom would seem to arrive via practicing in a free manner, however, this true freedom simply does not arise from directly practicing in this manner. Imposing restrictions on your playing allows you to isolate one particular aspect of your playing.
It’s these restrictions that then create freedom in this area. It’s counter-intuitive, but restriction and limitation yields freedom and flexibility.
To have more vocabulary, focus on less
We could all have more language. In this desire for more language, we often skimp on how much we practice a particular line. We don’t work it through all the keys, or to the point that it springs naturally into our playing. No, instead we move on to another line, and then another, and another, hoping that this next piece of vocabulary will take us closer to the musician we hope to be.
While acquiring more and more language is great, focusing on mastering a base of vocabulary for all situations is essential. Focusing on fewer lines and making them your own will get you much farther then trying to learn vocabulary for sheer quantity.
Because you’ll learn to vary and combine the lines you know in infinite variation, you’ll actually end up having more language at your disposal than if you glossed over many lines.
To learn more tunes, spend time on fewer
Just as focusing on fewer lines and truly mastering them will create an abundance of vocabulary for you, the same is true with tunes. Many tunes have the same recurring progressions that once you master in all keys will be just as easy on one tune as the next.
Instead of attempting to tackle 100 tunes, start by learning 10 inside and out in all keys. Once you do this, you’ll actually learn tunes much more quickly because you’ll know how to confidently approach the common progressions you encounter time and time again.
Each of these examples clearly illustrates how focusing on the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve will lead you in the direction of your goal. Of course this tactic won’t work in all cases, but start thinking about how you could possibly use it and I’m sure within minutes you’ll find numerous instances. In my experience, it’s helped me with all the topics discussed in this article. Who would’ve thought, play slow and soft, to play fast and loud?