Never Be Overwhelmed Again

In today’s world, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. We live in a time of excess information and much of it is misleading. But supposing you’ve separated the good stuff from the stack, it still feels like there’s so much to learn…

Take this site for instance. I’d like to think that we have a ton of excellent information here, and receiving daily notes of thanks from readers affirms my assumption. But, meandering through the pages, it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed. Just as you thought you had a handle on everything, you realize, wait…I need to learn that…and that…and that…and…eventually, you feel so overwhelmed that instead of choosing action, you choose inaction. You do nothing.

That’s what happens when we feel overwhelmed. We shut down. Nothing is possible and we stop progressing.

But, it’s quite easy to rid yourself of this madness. Feeling overwhelmed is nothing but an inability to see the big picture. When you see how information is logically grouped together and how these groups are inter-related, your brain can understand on a conceptual and emotional level that the subject at hand is approachable in a structured and simple fashion.

The power of logical groupings

Depending on who you ask, there are roughly 640 muscles in the human body. Imagine if a body builder had to focus on each one of these muscles each time he went to the gym. In about two minutes, he’d get frustrated, overwhelmed, and leave.

Of course no body builder would ever think like this. They’ve greatly simplified the muscles into a small handful of logical groupings. From these groupings, they can quickly craft a plan of attack to build the body they so desire.

The power of logical groupings can be yours in a flash. Applying this idea to jazz improvisation, how can we logically group anything we may encounter in the practice room?

Let’s take the following ten articles:

  1. Transcribing Is Not Transcribing
  2. Slash Chords Made Easy
  3. Using Polyrhythms
  4. How To Acquire Useful Language
  5. Hearing In Color
  6. Fundamental Ear Training
  7. The Lost Art Of Looking For Nuance
  8. Developing A Concept Of Swing
  9. Building Your Repertoire
  10. Never Forget a Tune Again

A quick glance at these articles could leave you thinking like you have way too much to practice, and have no idea where to start. Logical grouping to the rescue. We’ll go through each article and label it with an underlying theme and then hopefully, we can see that they all lie in similar groupings.

Here’s our list again with appropriate labels for each article:

  1. Transcribing Is Not Transcribing – Transcribing
  2. Slash Chords Made Easy – Chords
  3. Using Polyrhythms – Rhythm
  4. How To Acquire Useful Language – Language
  5. Hearing In Color – Ear Training
  6. Fundamental Ear Training – Ear Training
  7. The Lost Art Of Looking For Nuance – Transcribing
  8. Developing A Concept Of Swing – Time feel
  9. Building Your Repertoire – Tunes
  10. Never Forget a Tune Again – Tunes

Well, we are getting closer. We’ve gone from ten separate entities, to seven. We can transform this list even more by making our groupings more general, but still accurate:

  1. Transcribing Is Not Transcribing – Transcribing
  2. Slash Chords Made Easy – Concepts, Language
  3. Using Polyrhythms – Concepts
  4. How To Acquire Useful Language – Language
  5. Hearing In Color – Ear Training
  6. Fundamental Ear Training – Ear Training
  7. The Lost Art Of Looking For Nuance – Transcribing
  8. Developing A Concept Of Swing – Concepts
  9. Building Your Repertoire – Tunes
  10. Never Forget a Tune Again – Tunes

By adding the category “Concepts” we can lump together all sorts of stuff while retaining meaning; these are concepts that we can apply to tunes. Now we’re down to five groupings.

Creating groupings like this helps you see that when new material is presented for you to practice, that it’s not something completely new and unrelated to work on, but instead, it fits neatly into how you’re thinking about things already.

Groupings applied to practice routines

By using these labels, we can create groupings for everything we want to practice, thereby clearly conceptualizing our practice routine. Here’s an idea of what this might look like:

  • Sound – working on the tone you produce on your instrument
  • Instrumental technique – controlling your instrument
  • Tunes – learning melodies and harmonies from recordings, and learning to play proficiently over them
  • Concepts – any sort of device that can applied to a harmonic. rhythmic, or melodic situation
  • Language – a melodic line transcribed or inspired by your hero
  • Transcribing – copying things from recordings

Supplemental activities done outside of actual practice time:

  • Ear Training
  • Piano Skills etc.

In general, most everything you want to work on can fit into one of these categories. You want to work on a new rhythm? That’s just a new concept. You found a new line you like? That’s just language.

When everything fits neatly into these groups, your mind can conceptualize the big picture. You know there’s more to learn, but you can clearly see with every new thing you encounter how it fits into the schema you’ve created.

And you don’t have to use the groupings that I’ve specified here. In my experience, these will provide you with a solid way to think about everything you’re working on, but feel free to augment or diminish the framework to fit your needs.

The power of inter-related groupings

Once you realize that everything you’re ever going to practice fits into a small handful of groupings, learn to understand how the groupings relate. Once you understand how they relate you can hit multiple topics at once, thereby completely conquering your feeling of being overwhelmed.

For example, I used to give very specific time allotments to each of the categories listed previously, but years later I came to the conclusion that I could excel much more quickly if I practiced things that hit more than one grouping at a time.

For example, if I were to take a line through all keys chromatically up through the horn, paying close attention to my fingers and tone, making sure to play with complete ease, I’d not only be practicing language, but also, sound, and instrumental technique.

Immediately following, I could then take that line and apply it to a tune, at which point I’d be strengthening my language while simultaneously working on tunes. And immediately following that, I could apply that same line to that same tune, but practice the concept of harmonic anticipation by using the line a beat early, which would put my focus on tunes, language, and concepts.

Not feeling overwhelmed and getting a grip on the vast wealth of knowledge at your fingertips is easy. Use the notion of logical groupings and understanding how these groupings relate to kick your overwehlmed-ness to the curb. Everything can be classified this way. Do it and your brain will thank you.