How Thoughtful Off Time Can Help You Become The Player You Wish To Be

Daily practice is the key to growing into the player you wish to become. Everyday, building upon the knowledge you learned the previous day, moving forward, getting closer and closer…that’s the goal. But what if with each day, you’re just more and more frustrated? What if you’re simply bored with your sound and most everything you play?

We receive dozens of emails about people feeling this way, unmotivated and uninspired.

While daily practice is a must, practicing with such a negative mindset  will cause more damage than improvement. You’ll be ingraining a sound you don’t like, with lines you’re not fond of, playing in a manner that is simply not you.

Want to play the way you want to play, playing with a sound and vocabulary that constitutes your ideal? If done thoughtfully and intentionally, taking time away from your instrument can actually help you achieve this. It can give you the much needed time to stop and reflect on what you truly want to sound like. And when you return to daily practicing, you can start with a clean slate, as if you reset yourself, starting anew and feeling re-energized.

Taking time off

Should you really take time off? For how long? If you do, won’t you lose everything you’ve worked on? These are all valid questions and things to think about before you decide to put down your horn for a bit. As with everything having to do with learning this music, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

From my own experience, when I’m really down on my playing, taking several days off helps clear my mind and body from negative habits, allowing me to start fresh when I return. Evaluate where you’re at and if you don’t feel like you’re improving, then something’s wrong and perhaps a little time of will help you regain your focus.

How long should you take off? Again, that’s up to you. I’ve taken as little as one day to as much as several months off. It all depends on what’s going on with you at the time. When I took a few months off, it was because I realized I was completely and utterly sick of how I was playing. I knew if  I kept practicing and thinking the way I was, I’d continue down the same negative dead-end road.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Practicing jazz improvisation can really make you go insane. Playing jazz is much more like playing golf than football: You have your whole life to play and improve. Taking a small amount of time off to reflect on what you want to achieve will prove beneficial.

And will you lose everything you worked on? Well, in my experience, you’ll lose the things you never truly learned: tunes you gleamed from the realbook, transcriptions you memorized from a transcription book, or lines you learned from a piece of paper.

The things you truly learn by engaging your ear: transcribed solos through emulating the recording by ear, lines learned by ear in all keys, tunes learned from the recordings…these things stay. They may need a day of refreshing, but they will be there. It all goes back to developing a solid base, which after you take some time off and return to practicing everyday, you can start to build.

So, if you determine that in your current state of being that taking some time off is right for you, make sure you have a clear vision of what you hope to achieve during your break. Use it as a time to reevaluate your goals, reinvent the player you wish to become in your mind (visualizing where you want to be), and use it as time to refuel your ear with your favorite sounds.

Reevaluating your goals

When you take a break from playing, step back and think about what you really want to do with this music. Often, we’re so caught up in the mechanics of music and instrumental technique that we lose sight of what we’re aiming for. Only when we are not where we wanted to be do we realize that our time could have been better spent.

What do you genuinely want to sound like? Have you been transcribing the players that you truly wish to emulate and build your own style upon, or have you been focusing on people you think you should transcribe?

Spend some time just thinking about who you love to listen to and why. What is it that attracts you to a specific soloist or solo? Having a clear idea of what you wish to convey with your music will make it much easier to know where to focus your practice time.

What do you really wish to accomplish in terms of playing and performing jazz? Is it a stress reliever, a just-for-fun hobby, a serious hobby, or do you have aspirations to play at the Vanguard some day? You may have never even thought about what playing and practicing this music means to you.

Spend your off-time thinking about your goals. You may quickly realize the roots of your frustration. Perhaps you’ve been working on solos that don’t resonate with you. Maybe you’ve been attempting to tackle so much because your desire to be a professional musician makes you feel in a hurry to learn everything. Reevaluate your goals and you may be surprised with what you find.

Reinventing yourself in your mind

The way we play is inexorably linked to the way it feels like to play in our mind and body. Away from your instrument, you can change the way it feels to play your instrument. Sound a bit strange?

Yes, it’s a little out there, but it’s true. The reason great players are reportedly known to sound like themselves, despite differences in equipment or environment, is because they have their solid definition of what it feels like to play stored in their mind and body.

This definition is comprised of: the sound of the instrument, the way the instrument feels in the hands, the way the notes are articulated, the way the air column feels…literally everything. Essentially, the instrument is just amplifying this thing that I’m describing.

If you sit quietly by yourself for a moment and think about what it feels like to play, you’ll notice that you have your own definition of what it feels like to play stored within yourself.

A simple way to alter this stored information is by thinking about what it would feel like to play if you were somebody else. The process of transcription does just this: you’re feeling how it would be to play if you were one of your heroes.

The same thing can be done away from the instrument. Simply hear one of your heroes in your head and think about: what would it feel like to articulate like that? What would it feel like to sound like that? How would my fingers feel to play like that?

You don’t need to analyze it, for instance, you wouldn’t have to think, “I need to make my air like this to achieve that sound…” Your body will automatically respond to just thinking about it. Yes, just by hearing Dexter or Trane in your mind, and thinking about what it would feel like to play like that will change your definition of what it feels like for you to play.

During any break from your horn, whether a day, or a few weeks, you can begin to reinvent yourself in your mind.

Refueling your ear and mind

Time away from your instrument can be just as productive as time on the horn. Armen Donelian in his excellent jazz ear training book, Training the Ear, recommends that you practice ear training for as much time as you spend on your instrument.

When’s the last time you spent as much time working on your ear as you do in the shed? No worries. You’re not alone. Everyone neglects this fundamental practice. Use your off-time to go through some ear training exercises you’ve always been meaning to get around to, but have never found the time for. Here’s a few to check out:

Besides ear training, simply listen to the music you love in a deeper manner than ever before. Increase your listening powers as well as your listening time. Although I have a tough time believing it, Freddie Hubbard said in an interview that he spent more time listening than practicing. Take a hint from Freddie and listen more and more, especially when you’re taking a break from playing.

Not only can you refuel your ear away from your instrument, but your mind too. The process of visualization greatly aids in your chord progression, melodic line, and chord tone recall. Use your break to start a daily visualization practice. Use these to get you started:

Take advantage of time away

Always take advantage of time away from your horn. Music is wonderful because you can take it everywhere you go, thinking about it, and playing it in your mind. Even if you’re improving daily and loving practicing, these breaks ultimately pop up in our lives.

The next time you’re on a plane flight, or during the next week-long-family-reunion, you’ll have plenty to think about: reevaluate your goals, reinvent your concept in your mind, and refuel yourself with plenty of ear training and visualization. If you do this, you’ll return ten times stronger.