In many instances I would not think of cluelessness as something positive. Being able to accurately assess our abilities is a necessary skill to have if we wish to improve our music and grow as human beings. If we play badly, we should not only understand why we played badly, but understand the necessary steps to be taken to play better the next time.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, here's the problem: Sometimes we can have such a realistic perspective about our abilities that we won't even try. Studies have shown that pessimistic people are much more accurate at assessing their abilities than optimistic people. Sometimes they have such an accurate understanding of their abilities, and the probability of them succeeding at something, that they won't even try. I'm sure we've been at numerous jam sessions where some drummer was cluelessly getting in everybody's way, but instead of being sorry for his performance, he actually came off the bandstand happy and in a good mood. Not only did he not apologize for his performance, he had the audacity to give you his business card and say to you, "Give me a call if you ever need a drummer." Optimistic people like this typically won't let a small thing like limited skill sets deter them.
When I first moved to New York, like the aforementioned drummer, I had no idea how badly I played. Which was good. Otherwise, I would have stayed in Boston forever until I had "perfected" my playing. And I know many players who stayed in Boston for this very reason. In fact, many of my friends with whom I moved here were less skilled than many who opted to stay. And in their defense, some people just don't have the desire or temperament for the hustle and tussle of New York City. I barely had it myself. However, where we lacked in skill, we made up in youth and optimism.
Here's how clueless I was: A few months before making the move, I came to New York to check out the scene (testing the waters, if you will) and I stayed with saxophonist Steve Wilson. Around the second night of crashing on his couch, Steve invited me to go to a concert at the Blue Note to hear saxophonist Bill Barron and his brother Kenny on piano. I can't remember who played bass and drums, but I imagine they were pretty heavy cats. Long story short, I brought my tenor sax to the gig to sit in. I figured, why not? That's what a burning rhythm section is for--to accompany sad ass mother effers like myself who were soon to graduate from college. Besides, how else was I going to get discovered?
After the first set, I went up to Bill, horn in tote, and asked if I could sit in. I still cringe when I think about it. To Bill's credit, he sent me away gracefully. He politely said that they had a lot of rehearsed material to do and that there was no time to let people sit in. And I wished I had ended the conversation there. But then I followed with, "Oh, so it's not that kind of gig." He then looked at me with a stare of someone unimpressed and said: "Right, it's not that kind of gig."
In hindsight, I should have sent him a thank you note for sparing me having made a fool of myself on the bandstand that night. The potential was overwhelmingly great.
I think it's accurate to say that I'm just as clueless today as I was when I first moved to New York back in the late 80s. Mind you, I'm not showing up at the Blue Note to sit in with the Herbie Hancock trio, but I am willing to take artistic chances and choose to remain clueless to how I'm being perceived.
I'm certainly in a better position to assess my abilities and the potential for negative consequences to result from my actions, but I just choose not to assess these things and let my whatever results from my musical actions be what it's going to be. Otherwise, I would go from being the kind of person who tells himself "Yes you can" to someone who says to himself, "Maybe you can't."
Fortunately, I have no big fear of failing--not musically, anyway. When I switched to the soprano 20 years ago, in many ways I hit rock bottom. I had no money, no gigs, and no support system. Most of what I had built up was lost when I decided not to play the tenor sax anymore. What I had left was a vision and a belief that what I was doing was the right thing. Call it insight. Call it cluelessness. Whatever it was, the important thing is that it didn't keep me from trying and I had nothing to lose. And I still don't. I don't headline festivals and I work a day job. No one is banking on me to have musical success so that they can reap the financial benefits. I'm artistically free when it comes to playing music. And frankly, this is the space from which I do my best work. Because I have few financial consequences to weigh, many doors are open to me.
Pushing the envelope is fun. For many, however, it's terrifying. It's the space from which I feel most alive. Most of the things I try are utter failures, I will humbly admit. Most of my students at LIU Brooklyn can attest to this. But when I do discover something new, it makes all of those duds that spring from my creative well, totally worth it. So as you can see, cluelessness is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it's a necessary evil.