Resetting Your Mindset About Jazz Improvisation

The funny thing about learning a new skill is that we often carry our first experiences around with us for years. You might try drawing or you may try learning a new language and without realizing it, the outcome of this first attempt, good or bad, will greatly influence your future mindset.

We all make these subconscious mental notes about a skill when we first try it, but different people deal with these obstacles in different ways. Some welcome the prospect of a challenge and set out to master difficult things, while others accept the outcome as fate and define themselves personally.

For instance, if someone has difficulty attempting drawing, they quickly arrive at the conclusion “I can’t draw!” Rather than putting in the effort to dispel this notion, they make this assumption their reality. This defeatist attitude is the culprit that is stopping us from reaching our full potential.

Thinking about jazz

As musicians, we make the same subconscious mental conclusions about improvisation on a daily basis. The musical skills that are initially difficult we define in our minds as “hard” and the ones that are natural and quickly acquired are, you guessed it: “easy.” In the same fashion, we define ourselves according to these initial experiences.

For example, if reading music proves to be difficult, we label ourselves as bad readers. If at first, learning melodies by ear is challenging, we accept that we have terrible ears and avoid learning anything in this manner. If this task is really difficult, we must be deficient at this skill, right?

We do this for any number of things when it comes to improvising: playing double-time lines, playing in the high register, hearing chord progressions, transcribing solos, playing in odd meters, learning tunes from records, articulating, sight reading, the list could go on and on. In attempting each of these skills, we’ve unconsciously pre-defined them in our minds. If we don’t have success on our first attempt, it’s “hard.” Once we’ve defined a skill – that’s it, it’s set in stone.

The dangerous aspect of this type of thinking is that we pattern our actions around this mental framework. If it’s hard in our minds, we expect a struggle every time we encounter it and if it’s labeled easy in our minds, we envision ourselves succeeding at it. We naturally gravitate towards things that are easy and give us positive results and we avoid the things that we fear or have a lot of trouble with.

Holding on to those old mindsets and approaching your practice in the same way can severely limit your musicianship and bring your progress to an immediate halt. We’re constantly evolving as musicians, so our mindset about the practice of music should not be stationary. The good news is that we don’t have to hold on to these “definitions” that we’ve made for ourselves. Even though it may seem like it, they’re not set in stone.

Recognizing your mental barriers

The biggest barrier to improving as an improviser are the mental restrictions that we unconsciously place upon ourselves. You can’t see these restrictions because they’ve shaped the way that you think about the music – in fact, the mental process itself has become the barrier. To change this cycle, you need to look at yourself. Think about an area that is giving you difficulty in your practice and ask yourself these questions:

How are you approaching this trouble area in your practice?

What thoughts are going through your head as you practice it?

What was your first experience like in trying this skill?

Is this skill fun, or does it feel like a chore?

Do you have negative feelings about learning this skill and avoid it during practice?

The answers to these questions will show you if you’ve created your own mental barriers around a difficult task. If you had a negative experience when you first attempted something, it may be affecting your approach to this day. Once you’ve identified a mental barrier, it’s time to reset your mindset.

Resetting your mind

Breaking through your mental barriers and resetting your mind about improvisation is much simpler than you may think. Those troublesome areas of music don’t have to continue to hold you back and knowing how to overcome them can turn your playing around very quickly.

Below are seven techniques that will allow you to reset your mind and remove those frustrating mental barriers:

1) Clear away mental clutter

The first step to resetting your mind is to clear out any mental clutter that is hindering your thought process. Consciously get rid of negative thinking or useless thoughts as you practice and perform. If it’s not directly related to the music or aiding your performance, throw it out!

2) Don’t worry about the outcome when you’re learning

One of the biggest roadblocks to learning is stressing out about the outcome of a process while you’re in the middle of doing it. This type of mental barrier is all to common when we are preparing for a big performance or an important audition.

For example, if you’re practicing ear training and worrying about missing a note or how you sound to people listening, your mind is going to be distracted. Or, if you hit a wrong note while playing an etude and think: “What if I sound this bad on my audition? What if I play like this on the concert?” This just adds more anxiety to an already volatile mix.

The reason that you are practicing something is that you want to acquire skills and improve your musicianship. You’re not going to sound great right away, so focus on practicing, learning, and improving little by little, not on negative outcomes or failure. Trust your abilities and concentrate on the music itself.

3) Be persistent

The reason that many of these negative and limiting mindsets persisted for all these years is that you gave up after the first few tries and didn’t push through until you made some progress. You just accepted that is was hard and left it there. If you want to see improvement, you need to keep going even if a project is extremely difficult.

Most skills are rarely mastered on the first try, so don’t give up if your first attempts are not successful. It may take you weeks or months for you to see some progress when you’re working on a skill within improvisation. Remember, if you stick it out and work through these difficult areas of your playing, you’ll see progress.

4) Attempt things that are difficult for you

The key to improving is working on the skills that you’re not good at yet. Playing the exercises and concepts that are easy for you will continually keep you in the same place musically. If you want to break down your mental barriers, you need to attack the areas that are giving you trouble – not avoid them.

Focus on those trouble areas in your playing and work on overcoming them. Make those aspects of improvisation that you’ve defined as hard the focal point of your practice. Those parts of your musicianship that you’ve defined as hard don’t have to remain that way.

5) Take away the pressure

Are you practicing exercises and transcribing solos because you think you have to or that others are requiring it of you? Does learning improvisation feel like an assignment, done to please others?

If so, you are doing it for the wrong reasons and adding needless external pressure on yourself. You should be learning improvisation because you want to and it should be fun. Learning should not be homework or a stressful job requirement. Play for yourself because in the end that is what matters.

6) Focus on the present

When a task seems overwhelmingly difficult, we often second guess ourselves and focus on our short comings. As we attempt to master it over and over again, all that we see is this huge barrier that won’t budge.

In these situations, instead of thinking about past failures or trying to conquer the problem in one sitting, try a different approach. Break up the task into manageable pieces that you’ll work on everyday and use laser-type focus on each one. This way, your past mindsets won’t control you and you’ll have a small achievable goal that you can accomplish each day.

7) Visualize success

One thing you’ll notice about your current mindset are the physical reactions they cause in your approach to the task. If something is labeled hard in your mind, your body will be tense, you’ll feel anxious, and you’ll be expect a negative result. However, on the flip side, if a task is defined as easy in your mind, you’ll be relaxed and focused as you’re performing it.

The major challenge that you have in resetting your mind, is turning those “hard” areas into “easy” ones; changing those feelings of fear and anxiety into confidence and focus. An effective way to accomplish this is to use visualization.

Visualize yourself approaching that difficult task calmly and confidently. Picture yourself executing it with ease and enjoying yourself in the process. Changing the way something is defined in your mind is the first step to changing how you perform it physically. Don’t underestimate the power of visualization, it’s proven to be the most useful aspect in learning anything from sports to public speaking.

You have to start somewhere

Your first attempt at improvising a solo may have been a disaster. You may have had a horrible time transcribing your first solo. You may have to start at square one with ear training. Reading music may be a constant headache for you. You might not know a single tune called at a jam session…

There are many challenging things that you attempt as a musician that don’t go well at first. Don’t let these things define you as a musician or a person. More importantly, don’t let a negative experience or failure stop you from pursuing these activities in the future.

Use the ideas above to remove your mental barriers and to take on the trouble areas of your musicianship. With a little hard work and dedication, tasks that were once defined as difficult or impossible in your mind, can suddenly become achievable and easy with a slight shift in your mindset.