August is finally here and with the approaching end of summer looms the shadow of the fall marathon season. Across the country runners are stepping up their training for races that they’ve been preparing for since the beginning of summer. As I have started to prepare for my own race, I’ve thought about how the concept of training for a big race relates to the idea of practicing towards substantial goals as a jazz musician.
Part of the reason that a marathon, triathlon, or any other race is appealing, is the pure challenge: an impressive feat that takes an enormous amount of sustained effort and a goal that many people aim to accomplish at least once in a lifetime. Running a marathon is achievable, thousands of people do it each year and have been doing it for years now, but the actual effort and determination required to run 26.2 miles separate the runners who actually train for the distance and finish it, from those who intend to but never get around to it.
In the three to four months that it takes to train for a marathon, a complete transformation takes place. Regardless of the fitness level that you start at, you have to train extremely hard for months to be able to complete the race or finish at your goal time. In other words, a marathon is not something that you can just go out and run with no preparation and expect to perform well. It is only through long-term goal setting and a detailed training schedule that you can achieve this giant leap in your level of skill.
This concept of marathon training can be very useful when applied to achieving long-term goals as a musician. As far as practicing is concerned, jazz musicians are usually very disciplined about getting time in shedding everyday. We make sure to cover technique, theory, and whatever we happen to be thinking about that week, but when it comes to bigger goals that can’t be achieved in a few practice sessions, the results are not as consistent.
Jazz musicians always seem to talk about needing to know more tunes, wanting to transcribe more solos, needing to write some original compositions, or record an album of originals. It is big goals like these that we intend to work on and complete, but somehow never get around to. What is lacking is not the motivation to set these goals, but a method of sustained discipline to finish the task over a longer period of time. By using the steps that it takes to train and complete a marathon, jazz musicians can create a practical way to reach long-term goals that are always hanging over their heads.
Set the Date
The first step to running a marathon is to sign up for one; simple as that. By registering for that race you are committing yourself to being able to run 26.2 miles on a specific date. This can be a daunting task in itself because you’re essentially agreeing to do something on a future date in front of a lot of people that you are unable to do currently. Many times, because we are not prepared or capable of doing something, we avoid committing to doing it until we’re ready. Ironically though, we will never be ready for something until we commit to it and challenge ourselves to learn it and complete it.
As with many things in life, the most challenging goals often turn into the most satisfying accomplishments; obstacles that must be overcome by learning a skill or gaining knowledge and completing tasks that you were unable to before. In terms of goals as a musician, aim for the skills that you don’t have now, but want to master.
These should be things that can’t be accomplished in a week or two, but take sustained practice over a period of weeks or months. Maybe your goal is to transcribe five Clifford Brown solos or to really learn ten Monk tunes inside and out. These are goals that aren’t achieved quickly, but will take some time and repeated practice to accomplish at a high level to benefit from.
The next step after setting the date, is to find a way to make sure you stick to your training plan and complete your goal. When you set the goal there should be a consequence if the goal is not achieved. Usually when you sign up for a race there is a fee involved and once you’ve paid your hard earned cash for something, you are less likely to abandon it.
How many times have you made a list of tunes to learn and made it a week, and then gave up after the initial try? The want and intent is there, but there are no consequences for not staying with the task until completion.
Say for instance that your goal is to record an album of your own original compositions. Set a recording date and buy some studio time. You can be sure that after spending that money and seeing the deadline approach, you’ll push yourself and have those tunes ready by that date.
Maybe you aim to learn a certain set of tunes and be able to solo effortlessly over them. Schedule a jam session with some friends and have those tunes ready by then. When we pay money for something or have people depending on us or judging us, not when we’re just relying on ourselves, we tend to make sure we’re playing at our best.
Create a Training Schedule
Training. Intense practice. It is what separates people that achieve their goals from those that want results without work. Focused time spent striving and pushing yourself each day to improve and grow. With the date for your goal set, the next step is to devise a specific plan as to how you will complete the task. For marathoners, this is achieved through the use of a training plan: a set schedule with specific daily and weekly runs or workouts, to ensure that you perform your best on race day.
For the most part no one sees you training; no one will know how many miles you ran that day or how fast your interval runs were, except you. It is not a glamorous activity and you will not get recognition for each training goal, but it is a time to challenge and be honest with yourself. It is the time to work on fundamentals and improve little by little, focusing on every aspect of your form to improve. Ultimately, the motivation and pressure for each workout comes from knowing that you have that race date looming on the horizon.
For musicians, the training plan can be a set schedule of tasks and goals that you want to achieve each day in the practice room over the space of weeks and months, leading up to that final goal. Perhaps your goal is to learn a number of standards by a specific date. In this case, create a practice schedule that incorporates listening to recordings, learning the tune from the recording, and reviewing the tune so that one you learn it you will remember it in the future.
Make sure that the schedule is challenging enough that it pushes you, but not too ambitious that you don’t retain what you are learning and end up frustrated. If you find you can learn three tunes a week, after three months you will have 36 tunes down, a pretty solid repertoire in that space of time. Considering a completely random rate of learning tunes without a schedule or deadline, twelve tunes in a month is a good start to achieving a goal of finally learning all those standards.
One of my professors used to say that after all the shedding and hard work in the practice room, the “gig was the reward,” an opportunity to perform and a chance to have fun and be creative with other musicians. The same is true after all those months of training for a marathon.
On race day you finally can have fun and share the experience with thousands of other people. After all of that training, you will have confidence in your ability to perform regardless of how others match up to you and can enjoy the simple act of running with a free mind.
The race is not about winning. There are always people better than you out there, a lot of them when it comes to running a marathon, so the race is about having fun and getting satisfaction in that you realized your goal; you now have skills or can accomplish something you were unable to before.
Like performing or improvising, when you run a marathon it is obvious whether you have done the work and trained hard or have not done enough; you either can finish the race or you can’t. There’s no faking it.
The more we improve as musicians, the more difficult it is to make those leaps in skill level and understanding that were common when we were just starting out. By setting challenging long-term goals and working on them for weeks or months at a time, just as a marathoner would, you will begin to see dramatic improvement once again. The permanent gains come from sticking with your goals until completion, and that lies within the responsibility each of us has to our art form.