Why Perfection is The Enemy of Jazz

Everyone hopes to be perfect one day. Play with perfect intonation, the perfect sound, perfect lines…But what if I told you that the whole idea of perfection is actually what’s holding you back? That aiming for some self-imposed ideal of what’s perfect could not only be hurting your practice, but taking the fun and self discovery out of the entire process.

Playing jazz is one of the most individual pursuits that you could possibly embark on…I mean, just think about it…Charlie Parker, Monk, Trane, Oscar Peterson, all the way up to Kenny Garret, or Roy Hargrove…every single one is so unique, so original, so themselves.

Yet often the way we’re taught to approach jazz is anything but individualistic…

It’s as if there’s a standard way to play and think about jazz with accepted norms of what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. That each chord takes a certain scale, each instrument is supposed to sound a certain way, and that every jazz musician should approach the music in a similar way.

But this idea of perfection is exactly just that – An idea, created and reinforced by our surroundings, our influences, our teachers, our friends, and primarily, ourselves.

Over time, this idea of what perfection means in terms of playing, sound, technique, and even jazz itself tends to govern and limit how we approach the music…

How Our Idea of Perfection Arises

We didn’t always have this idea of perfection in our mind…at one point we had the joy and curiosity of what could be…

And we played jazz because of a vibrant energy that we felt from engaging with the music…but as we got further into studying, analyzing, and intellectualizing jazz, our flame stopped burning as brightly as it once did.

It all started with our first obsession of a musical hero…

Imitating, copying, and deconstructing what your favorite players do is essential to the process of learning jazz. But in the process, we often get lost in the player themselves, elevating them to such grandeur, that we could never hope to accomplish such a high level of musicianship ourselves.

Our hero takes on this “perfect” image in our mind and from then on, everything we do from our sound to our melodic lines is measured against them – we create this idea of hero perfection, where they’re doing everything perfectly, and we’re so far away from being like them.

But our idea of perfection doesn’t stop there…

As we study the technique, sound, and repertoire of our instrument, an image of instrumental perfection comes to light, where we cement the idea in our mind of what it means to have “great technique” or a “great sound”, even though both of these are up to individual interpretation – for instance both Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk have a great technique, touch, and sound, but are completely different.

We’ll even go as far as building an idea in our mind about what it means to play and approach jazz in a “perfect” way – we have this idea in our head about jazz perfection, which dictates everything from the tunes we play and the solos we transcribe, to our general attitude about what it means to be a jazz musician.

All these ideas of perfection we subconsciously, or consciously, create for a reason – to help us understand what we like and what we don’t like, moving us closer to our ideal, which in itself is a useful tool.

BUT, the trouble happens when we are so ATTACHED to our idea of perfection that we fight our own individuality, creativity, enjoyment, and exploration, leading to discouragement and loss of interest.

It’s this unintentional obsession with perfection that leads us straight into a brick wall, putting us in a box of limitation and destroying what otherwise could be a fun, productive, and rewarding experience.

So, how do we recognize this obsession and overcome each type of perfection that might be holding us back??

How to Overcome “Hero Perfection”

Learning from our heroes is great and it’s probably the most direct way to learn the jazz language. By playing along with the recordings of the masters, you absorb the details that simply can’t be communicated on the written page.

Use your heroes to get inspired. To get motivated. To understand the inner workings of jazz improvisation…Use them as a model to discover, define, and create your musical self.

However, if you feel like you’re getting obsessed with being them rather than yourself, it’s time to take a look in the mirror…

3 STEPS TO BREAK FREE FROM “HERO PERFECTION”

  1. Be consciously different than your heroes – Make active decisions, choosing to play differently than your heroes. For example, if they played a tune in the high register, try the lower. If they played loud, play soft. If they played a tune fast, try it slow. Departing from their choices will help you discover your own musical identity.
  2. Strive to create and define your musical self – Approach learning from your heroes as learning about yourself. Ask yourself…what do I like best about their playing? What don’t I like? What would I change? What would I add? Often, we accept everything they play as gold, simply because they played it!! Rather, build on what you love, leave what you don’t, and make the information your own.
  3. Allow yourself to confidently experiment – Constantly ask yourself…How can I take what they’re doing and go beyond? If this were a movie, what would the sequel be like?

Use what you’re learning from your heroes to stand on the shoulders of giants, not to sit in their shadow.

You don’t have to do things the way your musical hero did them. Their approach defines a single way in the unlimited possibilities of what’s possible. Learn from your heroes, but make your own decisions about the player you wish to become, consciously going against the grain.

How to Overcome “Instrumental Perfection”

One of the aspects of jazz improvisation that can easily capture you is impressive technique…We hear guys like Michael Brecker and think, “I NEED to play like that!! I NEED technique like THAT!!”

Or sometimes it’s a lot subtler…

When I was in school, there was an accepted norm of what it meant to have “good saxophone technique” – certain scales and patterns played at certain speeds, a specific type of tonal concept, a basis of how to approach the instrument itself…

And like learning from your heroes, this is a necessary step. Giving you a fundamental idea of what it means to have “good technique” or play with a “good sound” gives you somewhere to start.

But much of the time, this isn’t treated as a starting place, but instead, a set of rules that matter more than anything else, and like studying our heroes, we can easily get obsessed trying to aim for this self imposed technical standard – Playing perfectly in tune, playing with perfect technique, playing with a perfect sound.

There’s a difference between putting in the DAILY practice time toward bettering your technique and sound…versus getting obsessed with HAVING to play the instrument perfectly.

In jazz…virtually nobody plays perfectly from an absolute sense, the way a classical player might aspire to. Often in jazz, the intonation is slightly off, or the upper register is squeezed, or the articulation is not clean.

Jazz is NOT a perfect music!! Your heroes are NOT perfect and they even allow themselves to MAKE mistakes.

Although jazz musicians work very hard every single day on their technique, intonation, and sound…during performance, these aspects of the music take a back-seat to telling a story, taking chances, and creating an exciting musical vibe – These are the elements in jazz that truly communicate to an audience and affect them.

Get over the notion that there’s a single “correct” way to play your instrument or that you can’t make a mistake. This is jazz, not an audition for the the New York Philharmonic

And If you’re constantly obsessing about perfect technique, it’s time to re-frame how you think about this goal…

3 STEPS TO BREAK FREE FROM “INSTRUMENTAL PERFECTION”

  1. Let yourself be at your current level – Everyone starts out by being a beginner. That’s a fact. Be comfortable with your current ability, but make daily progress toward improving your instrumental technique. Don’t get frustrated that you can’t play as high, or loud, or as technical as you want to. Your technique and sound will naturally build over time as you make small daily gains.
  2. Let yourself make mistakes – Jazz is riddled with so called “mistakes!!” These moments are part of what make this music great.  You don’t need to play it safe all the time. Remember, the goal is to actually improvise and be in the moment, so learn to let go, focus on your inner musical voice, take a chance and aim to play what’s within you. Jazz improvisation is not about playing your instrument with utter perfection – It’s about expressing your improvisational voice, message, and story.
  3. Approach your instrument as a lifetime journey – You have your whole life to improve your technical facility on your instrument. It’s never a completed job or a task that’s completely done. It’s something you work on daily and progress at slowly. Take your time and make steady sustainable improvement.

Don’t let the obsession of trying to play your instrument perfectly stop you from learning to convey strong improvised jazz melodies and to solo with confidence. Instrumental perfection is not something to obsess over. Simply integrate technical exercises into your daily practice routine, and dedicate yourself to your practice.

How to Overcome “Jazz Perfection”

What is jazz??

Chances are, if you asked 100 different jazz legends, you’d get 100 different answers, but when you’re learning how to play jazz, it sure doesn’t seem that way…

Sometimes it feels like you have to think about and play jazz in one way and one way only – that you have to study a set of specific players in a specific order, that you have to learn specific language, play specific tunes, and approach jazz a specific way to be a “proper” jazz musician…

But it’s time to abandon this whole notion that there’s some strict definition of what jazz is or what it can be…

When I was in school, some teachers used to tell me, “If you don’t double on flute and clarinet, you’re never going to work…” and “you have to be able to play funk, rock and roll, and every aspect of jazz if you want to get gigs…” and “You gotta know hundreds of tunes…” and a million other things that they believed…

But the truth is this…

There’s no one set of rules for jazz musicians to abide by, and there’s no one way it’s supposed to be played or approached.

There are all kinds of gigs out there, including the option of creating your own. And, there’s no one way to approach playing, performing, or working as a jazz musician in today’s boundless world. It’s up to you to determine what you want to do with the music, what you love about it, and what direction you want to take it.

So if you ever feel yourself being constricted by other people’s definitions of jazz, follow these steps to untie yourself…

3 STEPS TO BREAK FREE FROM “JAZZ PERFECTION”

  1. Resist the dogma about what jazz is – There’s no single true definition of jazz. Magazines, history books, teachers, and more will try to define what it is and what it takes to be a part of it, but all of this is simply their definition. To me, it’s a language built by the jazz legends of the past, carried on and expanded upon in all sorts of interesting and unique directions, and most importantly, something that has the possibility to go anywhere.
  2. Explore what jazz means to you – What does jazz mean to you? As you get deeper and deeper into the music, the answer to this seemingly simple question will evolve and change, just as your approach to the music will change.
  3. Take action – Whatever jazz means to you at this point in your development, try taking some sort of action in that direction. Don’t ignore the fundamentals, but find ways to incorporate your understanding of the music into your approach. For example, if jazz is all about playing interesting melodies right now, do something with that. Or if it’s about syncopated rhythms, go in that direction for awhile. Whatever it may be, use it as inspiration to move in that direction.

I can tell you what jazz is not…it’s not a stale art form for the history books!!

True Perfection: Embracing “Flaws” and Playing from the Heart

Jazz is less about perfection, and more about imperfection – discovering it, accepting it, and embracing it…

To understand this, go ahead and listen to John Coltrane playing the popular ballad, My Ideal

From the very first note you can tell it’s him, and it’s not from his perfection, but rather his unique imperfections.

The way he scoops into the upper register from the very start…

The notes he plays slightly out of tune, like the two held pitches in this phrase…

The way he articulates and feels time…

These are just a few of many slight imperfections in John Coltrane’s playing, yet it’s these idiosyncrasies and his “imperfect” tone that make him sound like him.

Everything goes back to the way we are…physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, musically…the way we hear music in our mind, the way we visualize sound and time…the way we are…

You cannot separate yourself from the music you create. You will always be the largest part of the equation, and with it come your imperfections…

But these “imperfections” aren’t anything of the sort – they’re actually the unique traits that make each one of us ONE in 7.53 billion.

The Imperfections ARE what define you and your voice.

Kurt Rosenwinkel said it best when he mentioned Picasso’s thoughts about flaws (:46 seconds in)…

This doesn’t mean you don’t practice constantly and strive to play in tune, or to play with a beautiful sound…it means that through your struggle to play in tune and play with what you consider to be the most beautiful sound possible, you don’t get hung up on the inevitable imperfections that will be in your playing.

You learn from your heroes, you aim for flawless technique, you strive to be the best and most complete musician you can be, but at the end of the day, you let your imperfections become a central part of your playing…the stuff that makes you unique.

Your heroes aren’t perfect, no one plays your instrument absolutely perfectly, and not a single person can define exactly what jazz means. Perfection in jazz is an illusion, so stop beating yourself up for being you. Take chances. Be yourself and embrace your own unique musical voice.

Remember that your true voice in jazz doesn’t lie in the obsession for perfection, but through embracing your own imperfections from a daily process of curiosity, interest, self discovery, and enjoyment.