Lowering the bar is the antithesis of what we’re taught. Go for the gusto. Be number one. Never accept anything less than the best. We’re told never to settle. I used to believe the same thing, until I discovered that so-called settling brought me much more than I imagined.
A little anecdotal knowledge here: The times I played the worst was when I really wanted to play well. Right before a performance, I’d be running scales and patterns seconds before I hit bandstand. Mind you, sometimes this can be a good thing, especially if you’re not warmed up or if there are few musical passages that you’re still not solid on. My situation was different. I was plenty loosened up physically. It was my mental and spiritual states that were tight and rigid. It was difficult for my creativity to seep through the cloud of neurosis that was defining my musical existence.
Even career wise, the times I was doing the worst in my career was when I I really wanted to be a jazz star. I would be on a huge stage of a major festival playing for a few thousand people, upset about not getting my due. Sounds insane, I know. The funny thing is that if I had put all of that negativity aside and had just try to have fun, I would have played better and possibly put myself in a position to receive more career success.
Today, I’m happy to say that I’m not like that nor do I want any of that. And consequently, I continue to receive more than I ever had when I desperately wanted it. Life is funny this way.
Several years ago, I was hanging out with a colleague. Let’s just say he’s not lacking in the ambition department. During our conversation he mentioned the typical things ambitious musicians discuss: festivals desired, promoters whose rosters we want to get on, labels we want to sign us, etc. He began noticing I had relatively little interest in these things, and he said to me. “Man, now I see why you’re not affected by any of this stuff. You’ve basically given up.”
Of course, this made me laugh. I explained that yes, I had retired my neurotic business obsessions. I wasn’t concerned about playing at the Village Vanguard, or getting signed to Blue Note, or topping the critics polls. I was, however, more concerned with having health insurance, saving for my retirement; and musically speaking, having fun with my musical experiments and connecting with like-minded people. None of these things will get me on the cover of DownBeat, on a major festival or a feature in the New York Times. Why? Because this is all very average stuff. Maybe even stuff that someone who has lowered the bar for themselves would be concerned with.
And this is fine. My goal is to be average. Having just enough to do what I need to do. No more, no less. Trying to be great doesn’t work for me. This is a life lesson that has taken a few decades to learn.
Back to my career-ambitious friend, what he perceived as settling or giving up, I saw as establishing a solid foundation for obtaining happiness. Consequently, my goals are low but my spirits are high. Even in terms of improvisation, I no longer practice to become great, I practice to become solid. Cover the basics and be done with it. If most people heard me practicing, they’d think I was an 18-year-old student attending Berklee. I practice ii-Vs through the keys, patterns, and swinging over standards. Nothing to write home about.
But I’ve discovered that keeping my musical ambitions within limited parameters, lowering the bar, if you will, aiming to simply build a solid foundation, enables me to tap into more under-explored and un-expected territories while improvising. It's similar to the principle of opposites I often talk about.
- If you want to play fast, practice playing slow.
- If you want a big, robust sound, practice playing soft.
- If you want to be become a great player achieving lots of notoriety, strive just to be an average, solid player, known by only a few.
You’d be amazed by the results!