During the summer of 1991 I was introduced to Jazz. The small farming town I lived in had a music program much larger than could be expected for a school of 450 students. As an incoming freshmen I was asked if I wanted to be part of the newly formed Jazz Ensemble. As a country kid I knew nothing of Jazz and was eager to learn. I showed up for summer rehearsals and agreed to take Jazz band as a zero period before regular school began.
Towards the end of that first year I attended the Reno International Jazz Festival with my small country school ensemble and was encouraged by my director to attend as many clinics and other performances as possible. I went and sat through combos, ensembles, and clinics and walked away having no idea what I had just witnessed. I was raised on pop music. My friends and I listened to a steady stream of classic rock, metal, punk, and were learning about bands like Alice in Chains and Nirvana. Our classmates were feeding on Garth Brooks and Randy Travis. What I knew of music in general was that a song consisted of a few chords with maybe one face melting solo placed strategically towards the end that lasted a few short seconds.
When I sat and listened to a combo play and dance their way through every note known to man I could only hear the sound of someone just mashing keys. I couldn’t recognize the music for what it was. I didn’t have the language to speak and I have distinct memory of making fun of those people with my barely teenage knowledge of what I thought music was.
I continued to play Jazz throughout High School. My skill and understanding grew and while I never achieved a level of mastery I was at least competent at making music. By the time I entered college I had firmly placed music in the hobby category of my life as I pursued my major. I still enjoyed playing but had never put the time into music to make myself better.
The friends I made in college were musicians and I spent a lot of my down time in the music building. There were many times that I would walk down the halls past rows of closely spaced doorways that led to small rooms. From these rooms could be heard the muffled sounds of saxophones, trombones, trumpets, flutes, pianos, and guitars. I would walk by and hear scales played up and down, fast and slow. I would hear single notes attacked and held for as long as they could be held. I would hear a lick or two bars of music played over and over and over and over again until they were perfect.
To be good at something it must be done over and over again. Practice, reveal, revisit, practice, reveal, revisit, practice. An endless cycle of what looking at what you want to do, what you have done and what could have been better.
There is a term we use often where I work. Constructive dissatisfaction. At times this is a very positive thing. To be constructively dissatisfied is to not rest upon that which you have accomplished. It means looking at what you have done and looking for ways to improve upon it in an ever more challenging pursuit of perfection. The danger with constructive dissatisfaction is paralysis. It is easy to work at something and never want to bring the results of that work forward because it isn’t perfect. If we wait for a perfect product or action we will never make it out of that small practice room. We will hold that note for eternity. We will repeat those same three notes over and over again until we don’t know what it is we are trying to play anymore.