Please use a discerning gaze when reading these claims, which deserve critical examination. This documentation represents a snapshot of my internal landscape at a certain point in time in my life during my collegiate career.
Exploration of Circumstance:
Cats back in time didn’t attend music school to learn jazz. Cats used to roam and work. And work and Play.
I have a beautiful opportunity to receive an education, and I am misdirecting my attention, aiming to achieve, playing to achieve, not playing to play.
I consciously now choose to transform my drive to “achieve” scholastically into a drive to explore musicality as deeply as possible.
All of the tools are present. I can improvise, I just have a small amount of experience actively thinking, performing, and expressing as an improvisor over standard jazz repertoire.
Now is my chance to explore simple ideas with the vocabulary I know and to apply them with focused intent.
This one takes me back. God, music school is such a blessing and a curse. The theme in this journal entry is repeated often in lots of my notebooks from my college career – how can a person resolve to maintain their creativity, their heart, and their spark in the factory-like environment of academic jazz?
For me, it was never true that I wanted to or needed to specifically learn how to play Jazz. I loved the guitar and was kind of at a loss trying to figure things out on my own. It definitely didn’t cross my mind that I could take private lessons with a teacher outside of a university, so I assumed my only option was to take myself to college. When I got to UT, I was presented with two option: Classical Guitar, or Jazz.
Hmm, well Classical was nice but seemed a little too stiff to me. I guess that meant I was going to study jazz.
When I got to school, I had some basic facility and coordination. I knew my cowboy chords, I had a few nice Major and Minor 7 voicings, a melody or two (Autumn Leaves, which I auditioned with), and some basic arpeggio awareness, (though I couldn’t have articulated much about what I was doing), and off course a good ol’ single position minor pentatonic/blues scale.
I stumbled through a (likely) sub-par audition and was graciously admitted to the University of Toledo Jazz Department as a guitar player.
For me, I felt like I was severely handicapped for every year of my career spent in music school. I felt like I had to work 8 times as hard to understand basic concepts that some of my peers and contemporaries had been jamming with for years.
Throughout all of college, through both my junior and senior recital, I felt like an imposter. I was much more content to try and get my basic physical coordination together on the guitar than I ever was to learn repertoire. Repertoire felt like something I was never ready for.
How could I learn repertoire if I don’t know the basic mechanics of the instrument?
I spun in circles trying to understand Triads, 7th chords, notes on the ax (fretboard), scales, and cells. And my god, you can play each of those different forms in nearly infinite permutations. Triads live on 3 string sets, that’s 4 sets of 3, or Bass, Tenor, Alto, and Soprano string sets. There are 3 inversions of each triad, that’s 12 different shapes for a single chord. And there are Major, Minor, and Diminished triads, at the bare minimum. That is 12 Shapes times 3 different qualities, or 36 shapes for the 3 basic qualities of C. So we have 36 different shapes to learn for C major, C minor, and C diminished. And there are 12 keys (at a minimum), which gives us 36 shapes for each root times 12, giving us 432 different shapes and positions to play if we want to know all the basic triad forms in all keys for Major, Minor, and Diminished. And this is just ONE way to look at triads, because they can be constructed in different directions and ways across the guitar.
We haven’t even touched scales.
The volume of information was so vast, the demand so high, the sense of development so imperceptible, that after four years, I found myself asking, “What the fuck am I even doing?”
Forget musicality, I don’t even fully understand how this fucking instrument works. I can move “up” in how many ways? I can play arpeggios how many ways? I need to be able to do what to pass my sophomore scale barrier?
Dude, I faked the SHIT out of that. If they were to call a random scale in a random position, I would have been FUCKED.
It made me feel sick. And I hated it. I couldn’t even remember why I was playing the damn thing.
Eventually I got to a place of anger. I was going to do it because “Fuck all of you, I’ll show you,”
which in reality was a miserable failure. I felt like a miserable failure. I couldn’t remember changes because I didn’t know which voicing were best to use. Do I use drop 2’s? Drop 3’s? Shell voicings? Which way was best for me, a beginner? But guitarist Peter Bernstein says that the root position Major 7 Drop 2 sound like crap, so he recommends just grabbing the chord tones you really like. And Be careful when you are playing with a piano player, you want to fit together like a puzzle. Don’t step on the piano players toes. And say something meaningful for your solo. Jesus. It’s so flat.
I hated it. I was never good enough. How was I supposed to integrate nearly 100 years of musical tradition in 4? It’s not possible. It didn’t matter how hard I pushed, how much I worked, how late I stayed up to practice. I felt like Captain Jack Sparrow at the beginning of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, sailing into the harbor standing at the tip-top of the mast, inches above the water, the rest of the ship sunk ages ago.
That’s what graduating from music school felt like, for me. The ceremonies and celebrations felt hollow. Sure I graduated with honors and bells and whistles, the ravenous academic benchmark satiated in the grids and forms I needed to pencil in to pass, but me? Why did I do this?
I have a better handle on what I need to work on, but I did NOT become “My ability to fucking play bebop.” Nor did I “Become my ability to stay rooted in any chord changes and take a coherent solo.” I crashed across the finish line feeling like an internal failure, dressed up in regalia that didn’t match my heart, and then I was pumped out into the world to “figure it out.”
So yes, I learned a lot. I became aware of ways to think, I developed a framework for understanding and practicing new concepts, and I finally learned a tune or two.
Looking back on my process, it makes my heart hurt. I see how hard I worked, how much I resolved to “do it,” and you know what? I did do it, but it hurt. Maybe I was just weak. Maybe I still am. But I did it. I started and I finished. And that means something, if only to me.
But maybe strength doesn’t come from never being weak. Maybe strength is something that you build, that you decide to continually show up for, something that you choose, amidst the waves of overwhelming demands.
I know it’s sensitive, my relationship to music. Part of me believes my value as a musician is tied to my ability to “pass,” to be judged well by those fucking people making the benchmarks. And yes, I know I need a thick skin, I know I need fail to grow. I know I need to be uncomfortable, to be rejected, to fall, to break. I know all of those things. I do.
And I know that the dichotomy of passing or failing is not the only way to relate to music. Sometimes I still need a reminder, something my teacher Jay Rinsen Weik told me as I was getting to the end of my wits and contemplating quitting music all together – Pass or Fail, did I show up? Did I contribute? Did I learn something? Because if I showed up, contributed, and learned, then whether I pass or fail, I always will win.
Sometimes it gets hard. Sometimes it seems to stay hard, but son, you gotta make it so you can win, you gotta be on your own team.
Don’t let the critic inside your head get you down folks. Keep at it and dig in.