What You Don’t Play Matters

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to play, but how often do we think about what we don’t want to play? I’m sure if you spent some time recording yourself or simply observing what you play, you’d find you’re playing some things that you actually do not want to play.

Rather than continue to ingrain these things you don’t want to play, why not consciously decide that you’re not going to play them anymore?

Unfortunately it’s not that easy. Just like a golfer who picks up a bad habit early on spends the rest of his career fixing it, any poor playing habits that we pick up, whether they be crappy lines or undesirable stylistic nuances, getting rid of them is difficult. But even before you start ditching stuff, some self-reflection is in order to figure out what you don’t want to play.

Determine what you don’t want to play

To clarify, what you don’t want to play doesn’t have to be something that you already play; it could actually just be something that you don’t want to ever play in the future. For instance, there’s a famous line called “Indiana Bebop” as illustrated below:

Indiana Bebop

It’s not a terrible line and you do hear people play it, but perhaps you think it’s very generic and boring, or because many people play it, you consciously decide that you’re not going to play it.

Or, perhaps what you don’t want to play is not a line, but a way of playing. This way of playing could be a particular sound, or it could be a specific way of stylizing notes. The point is, you don’t like it and it doesn’t reflect who you are and what you want to say.

Fine. Put it on your I-don’t-want-to-play-list and call it a day.

Take out the trash

Go through your playing with a fine-tooth comb and really examine what you don’t like. In my personal experience, years ago I came to a  point where I didn’t like 90 percent of what I was playing.

Yes, 90 percent. Nearly everything I was playing I really didn’t like. So why did I continue to play all that crap? Well, two reasons. One, at the time, I didn’t know how to rid myself of the garbage, and two, I was clueless of what I’d play instead.

What I found by observing and learning from musicians like Rich Perry is that you can constantly be evolving and if you don’t like what you’re playing, you owe it to yourself to change it.

To start, you have to take out the trash. A great way to do this is to take a break for a few days or even weeks. Taking a break forces you to rethink your concept and makes you reevaluate why you even play music.

During that break, consciously determine what you don’t like about your playing: specific lines, tonal qualities, stylistic nuances…and anything you especially don’t like listening to in other people’s playing.

When you come back from your break, it’s time to get focused. Anytime you play or are about to play one of the things you don’t want to play, stop. Just stop playing. Don’t criticize yourself or get frustrated, just stop playing for a minute.

Remember, the goal is to no longer ingrain this garbage in your fingers and ears.

Be uber-concious of everything you play. Gradually, you’ll become more and more aware of when you’re about to go down your old path and you’ll be able to catch yourself well in advance before the notes come out.

And at the same time you take out the trash, it’s time to fill up your playing with the stuff you actually want to play…

Be Deliberate and rebuild

Being deliberate is the most important take-away from this article. I remember sitting in a master class at William Paterson with pianist Orrin Evans. One thing that he said really hit me. He said, “Play with intent.”

Play each and every note with intent, as if you actually mean to play them. This attitude of being deliberate is what it takes to rebuild your concept from the ground up. Be deliberate in what you choose to play, what you choose not to play, and how you go about practicing.

Often when you walk by the practice rooms of a music college, you hear musicians meandering aimlessly up and down the horn. How deliberate can you be when you’re wandering every which way?

When you’re practicing, it’s so easy to get caught up in “just playing,” and letting whatever comes out, come out. This way of practicing will re-ingrain the crap that you’re working so hard to rid yourself of.

Only practice exactly what you want to. Yes, there’s a time during practice when you play and let anything that comes out, come out: when you’re practicing performance. But when you’re learning language, working on tunes, transcribing solos, or incorporating any kind of new concept, be deliberate and precise.

Play exactly what you intend to play. this is how you train your ears, your mind, and your fingers to work in harmony to play whatever you desire.

What you don’t play truly does matter. As saxophonist Seamus Blake says in the interview below (at time-mark 3:25), “Sometimes it’s what you don’t play [that] determines what you are.”

It’s often difficult to know what you want to sound like. It’s like asking someone who they want to be. But almost anyone can tell you who they don’t want to be. Figure out who you don’t want to be, and then go make it happen.