Developing a positive frame of mind and a Max Roach story

Hey Improvisers,

When I was a teenager, I became serious about learning piano. And although I didn’t know it at the time (in the late 1970s/early 80s), I enjoyed a huge advantage over many of you who are reading this:

I didn’t see or hear many note-perfect performances.

In fact, I didn’t see or hear many performances at all!

As with anything else, there are two sides to this coin, so to speak. On the one hand, today’s aspiring pianists can hear more wonderful recordings that ever existed before, and watch countless hours of inspiring videos of pianists playing the music they love.

But this comes with a price: The compulsion to play perfectly.

This compulsion to play perfectly can be emotionally devastating if it interferes with our enjoyment of the playing process at any given moment. I’ve seen beginning improvisers play a nice phrase and immediately stop because “that was terrible.” Actually… it was… a nice musical phrase! Just like Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, and Billy Joel play all the time.

Let’s take a step towards developing a healthy, positive frame of mind when playing piano, shall we?

For starters, let’s end the habit of saying “sorry” every time we hit a wrong note.

Imagine if every time you spoke to someone, you both said “sorry” every time you used a word that wasn’t “perfect.” Or left a sentence unfinished. Or forgot to use a 5-syllable word in a sentence.

Besides being totally unnecessary, that would interfere with the flow and enjoyment of the conversation, wouldn’t it?

Last week, I was sightreading through some music with a world-famous musician who is at the top of the classical music world. We both played some wrong notes from time-to-time, but whenever he played a wrong note, or missed a note, he invariably said “sorry.”

Note note note note sorry note note sorry sorry note note….

Fair enough. The professional classical music world can be brutally competitive, so I understand why he’s developed this habit. But we were just casually sightreading through some pieces for our own enjoyment. There’s no need to apologize while sightreading 99% of the notes correctly! It’s not like you throw a ball over your friend’s head and they have to run 50 feet to get it. I was simply enjoying the music and spending time with this person.

When I taught piano to a lot of young kids, I’d have them say “whoopsidaisy” instead.

Wrong note – “whoopsidaisy.”

Yes, it’s best to smile and keep playing. But if you must say something, please let it be “whoopsidaisy.” Give it a try – it’ll probably make you smile.

Here’s a tune I first played during those halcyon teenage years. It’s Duke “Jordan’s “Jordu,” which was famously played by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet.

Jordu: Journey Through The Real Book #195

Any mention of the drummer Max Roach brings a smile to my face, partly because I got to know him in the 1980s and he once picked me out of an audience as a young person who was proof that jazz can be taught. (He also told the crowd that I was at the “cutting edge of modern jazz” but I’ll forgive him from exaggerating to prove his point about the value of jazz education.

Max’s name also makes me smile because of a memory I have of taking my friends to hear him play a concert in New Haven, Connecticut around that time. After the concert, we went backstage to say ‘hi’ and were delighted to hear some guy loudly and repeatedly referring to Max as “Hey, Macaroni!” Roach, who was used to dealing with such characters, smiled and took it all in stride.

Max Roach had developed a positive frame of mind for his music, and we can too.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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