Why you SHOULD demonstrate inability

I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
~Pablo Picasso

This became a credo of mine…attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.  ~Bette Davis

Attempting the impossible in order to improve is very different than attempting the impossible because you don’t know any better. A few posts ago when I wrote of the useful technique of chaining and backchaining, as an example I told the story of my disastrous high school attempt to play the Hummel Concerto in Eb 25 years ago. This was an example of not knowing any better, and the experience did a fair amount of damage to my teenage psyche and had a temporarily adverse impact on my pursuit of music.

Many years later, as I entered Northwestern University for a graduate degree in music education, I attempted another seemingly impossible music endeavor, but this time I was doing it consciously in order to improve, and was scared spitless. I’d signed up for an audition to play the solo chair in the top Jazz Ensemble. A bit of info on Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music is required to understand my fear: as part of a private school on the northern outskirts of Chicago, the NU music school is one of the best music conservatories on the planet; many of its performance faculty are current or former members of the Chicago Symphony, and graduates often earn spots in major symphonies. Though slowly changing, it’s primarily a school for Western Art Music (aka classical music), and the players here are both superb and passionately dedicated to the art of Music.

Fortunately for me, the school’s focus at the time was primarily classical and the jazz program received less attention (Victor Goines is now the director); but many of the same classical players also played jazz and they were amazing. Since I was interested in improvising, I decided to sign up for the audition. To my utter surprise, I made the cut and began to experience the giddy, twice-weekly mix of excitement and horror that marked my two years with the group under the direction of the great jazz drummer Joel Spencer. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m a good player, but improvisationally speaking, I was in way over my head and had the least amount of experience (by far) with traditional jazz improvisation in the group. My attempts were often disastrous and frequently embarrassing, sometimes publicly so. Not fun. But the reason I got the gig was my willingness to improvise, my willingness to just put myself out there and make the attempt despite the fear, my willingness to improve. This was in part a result of a new way of thinking for me. I knew being in the group would be an opportunity for musical growth, just as I knew that growth can sometimes be painful, especially if the growth happens quickly. Or publicly.

So where did the fear come from? Goal Theory might shed a little light on this. There are 3 aspects of goal theory, each with polar opposites. I’ve mentioned these before. Here’s a simple breakdown of the 3 dimensions of Goal Theory:

mastery/performance: We believe that the ability to do certain tasks is a process of learning and incremental growth; or we believe that people have innate abilities (“talent,” or “giftedness,” or “natural ability”) that allow one to show exceptional (or even mediocre) ability.

task involvement/ego involvement: Closely related to the above, we are either involved in the task itself and do it for its own sake, or are interested in supporting our ego through doing the task. The research record tells us that there is a link between mastery orientation and task envolvement, and performance orientation and ego involvement. In addition, task involvement results in deep learning strategies, while ego involvement results in surface learning strategies. It’s a robust finding; many studies in very different fields back this up.

approach/avoidance: simply put, we approach tasks that demonstrate our ability, and avoid tasks that demonstrate our inability. This is especially true if we hold the performance and ego-involvement aspects mentioned above. We avoid situations that make us look bad. However, if we adopt a mastery/task involvement focus, then we approach situations that help us learn, even if they make us look bad. This is easier to say than it is to do as I attempted to illustrate with my personal story.

My fear of improvising with the group came partially–maybe largely–from the fact that I had aspects of the performance/ego orientation in my approach to music. I had only just discovered this theory and it was a revelation to me, one I immediately tried to implement in my approach to music, despite how hard it was. I had a greater desire to play Music than I did to avoid tough situations that might make me look bad; but it was a close thing. It was (and is) difficult to overcome decades of the old mind-set. This is partly because on paper these theories seem cut and dried, clearly delineated. They make good sense. In practice they’re a sloppy ill-defined mess that are hard to identify in oneself, let alone eradicate.  Most of us–or at least I–have a complicated mix of these orientations and moving toward a mastery/task/approach mind-set can be difficult.  But most worthwhile things are, right? And that’s the point of this post.

Can you catalog your own tendencies? Do you fear looking/sounding bad when you play music? Are you concerned with your image or are you more focused on the music? Do you seek out challenges or do you avoid tough musical situations because you’re afraid of failure? If you’re like me, it’s a multi-faceted mix of all of these things and more. The important thing is to push your boundaries, to dare to fail, and perhaps, given the right circumstances, to demonstrate publicly your lack of ability. As Goethe said, “Be bold. The mighty forces will come to your aid.” I have proof in the form of a recording that took place after my two years of striving and struggling and a good bit of publicly demonstrating of my own lack of ability. I think it paid off, but you can judge for yourself.

I’ve included two clips at the bottom of the post. One is a flugel horn improvisation I did with the NU jazz ensemble, on a ballad by Bob Mintzer called I’m Glad There Is You.  And the other is some fiendishly difficult section work I did (again on flugel; a type of trumpet) on the Bob Morgan tune Mayday. The album (and yours truly) got some kudos in a review by Jack Bowers on the All About Jazz site.

Take care, and good luck with your practice.

I’m Glad There Is You (excerpt)
May Day (excerpt)

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