Focusing on Musical Growth

Bassist Thinking

Q: I know you’ve written a lot about ways to invent new exercises and different ways to find new challenges for yourself, but sometimes I’m not sure what I’m working towards exactly other than just trying to get better. I suppose that’s enough but… any thoughts?

A: Actually, yes. The big turning point in my development came with an important turning point in my perspective and focus. As I was feeling much the same way you are (knowing that I wanted to improve, but feeling a little vague about what I was actually working towards), I started trying to really visualize the kind of player I wanted to be.

I imagined what bands and music I wanted to play. I imagined what type of gigs might realistically come my way. I then imagined what type of gigs I might hope for, regardless of how “realistic” I felt it actually was.

While there wasn’t an overnight change, I continued to do a bit of focused visualization. You could call it meditation or visualization, but the important thing is that I would often try to quiet my mind and just truly visualize myself in the role of my dream gig, playing the music I really loved, etc. It began to make me feel like I had a bit more of a connection to who I wanted to be as a musician.

This, in turn, made it easier to evaluate who I was in contrast to who I wanted to be (this is also helpful in life and life’s situations, in a general way). As I evaluated what separated my current self from my ideal self, it became more apparent what I should work on and, just as importantly, why I would be working on it. I had an endgame in mind.

I like the idea of visualizing an end game. It gives me a goal, no matter how large or small.

I recently was offered and accepted a European tour this summer, subbing for a fantastic player, with a stellar cast of musicians. The tunes are very cool but some of the charts were a bit ugly (scribbled over, not quite matching forms of recordings I was given, warped scans, etc.) I spent the better part of a day re-writing a handful of the charts and making notes and my own scribbles over the remainder, trying to get a clear roadmap going. I felt a little frustrated afterward and felt that I was pushing a boulder uphill (the tunes are a mix of fairly straightforward, easy-ish to medium difficulty reads peppered with some real bears. Tough unison lines, etc..). The band sounds wonderful and I was feeling like it was going to be tough to really get inside these charts. I then went to my go-to chill method.

I laid down, closed my eyes, and thought about my end game. I decided that now that I had legible (or semi-legible) charts to work from, I would erase that part of it from my mind and focus on what my goals were. I decided to set the bar as high as possible, being that I wanted the band to feel as comfortable and gelled with me on my first rehearsal (if we get one) or first gig as they did at the end of their last tour with the usual bassist. They sound very gelled and you can tell that they’ve been touring and becoming one sound. They play together fantastically (based on a live recording I got). It may be unrealistic, but setting the goal of jumping right in as if I’d been on the road with them for years and filling the role without fumbling around looking like a deer in headlights when they deviate from the chart (which would mean that I really know the tunes, not just the charts, so I can jump between sections or take the occasional left turn and abandon the form, if necessary). It gave me a clear focus and a clear direction.

In short, I had a moment where I felt overwhelmed (primarily because I’m on the road almost entirely from Feb up until this tour, so was feeling pressed for time), so I sat back and visualized what I wanted and what it would take to get there. I got 100% inspired to hit the shed and, just a few days in of running the tunes each morning, prioritizing tunes with tough lines, I already feel like I could do an adequate job on the gig. By summer? I should be just fine.

Meditation and visualization help to clear away the clutter and hone in what you need to focus on. Getting a clear picture of your goals and seeing the path to achieving those goals is paramount to success in any venture, be it personal, business or artistic proficiency. No matter what you’re struggling with or what you’re working towards, visualization is a very handy tool and one worth exploring.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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