Past the Point of Unknowing
Q: I tend to hit a wall while practicing over a tune, where I don’t know what else to play. I know you’ve explained some chordal exercises and other ways to expand one’s vocabulary, but do you have any other thoughts about what to play when you just don’t know what to play?
A: Actually, yes. We all hit a point here and there where we feel like we’ve played everything we know and we just don’t know what else to play. I think it a worthy exercise to actually practice playing through that place. What I mean is this:
If playing over a tune (or even over a single groove), I’d typically play until I felt like I’d exhausted my ideas and had run out of steam. If my pool of ideas had run dry, I’d stop and take a break.
I’ve come to realize that it’s very important to not stop there. There is much to be learned when sticking to your guns and begin exploring with renewed focus in that place of unknowing and in inspiration. Eventually, you’ll come through to the other side having come up with something completely new and interesting. And that will invigorate you and get you excited all over again.
Whenever tiy hit a wall when practicing, try the following:
1. Think to yourself, don’t stop! Keep playing!
2. Try and think of what you have not done. Ask yourself:
- Have I been up high on the neck this whole time? Then change register.
- Have I only been playing inside the scale or tonality? Try and play completely outside the tonality
- Have I experimented with rhythm enough?
- Have I only been playing harmoniously? Make some noise!
- Have I only been free-associating over the changes? Give yourself restrictions (for example, only play certain scale tones for a while and change up your approach).
- Have I only been playing restrictively? Free-associate!
- Have I only been playing fast? Play slow for 10 minutes before ramping it back up
- Have I only been playing single note runs? Try and play double-stops or chords exclusively for a bit
Be sure to be aware of not just what you’ve been doing, but what you haven’t considered yet. Be open to any and all possibilities, which means you absolutely must practice running out of ideas and putting yourself in the position of having to find new ways to be musical.
We’ve all had that moment during a gig where we are given a solo and we just feel completely devoid of solo ideas. I’ve come to believe that this is one way in which I can actually practice what to do when I’m out of ideas.
One more tip: try setting a time constraint on yourself. For example, do not stop playing over a few chords or a loop for an hour or two, no matter if you like what you’re doing or not.
Or try playing until the well runs dry, and then play for another hour.
That’s an interesting thing to do… To force yourself to play until the point of frustration and only then, does the real practice begin? It puts you in a different space. It’s kind of a meditation and I think everyone would do well to explore the possibilities of our abilities beyond the first 5 minutes of inspirational playing.
Take it further! Always…