Last semester was the most productive musical period of my entire life. The amount of musical language, style, experience, and techniques I learned were numerous and essential. I worked especially hard at swinging jazz tunes, an endeavor that seemed to intrigue me the better I became. Yet suddenly, just as it all seemed to be making sense, I experienced burnout. Severe burnout.
I remember memorizing a tune from scratch in a little over an hour and thinking, “is this really it?” Standards seemed very formulaic and limiting, and I didn’t want to simply shed a mixed up collection of ii-V’s, and their substitutes, the rest of my life.
Fortunately, as most non-ignorant adults know already (unlike my 20-year old self), music goes beyond the little licks and figures we absorb in the practice room.
Over break, I explored other genres with the intent to kindle a new fire; a love for more than “sophisticated” jazz. Funk, spiritual, various fusions, satire, country, psychedelic rock, and a lot more. I went to several live shows (wished I could do more, but poor college student here).
It’s true; probably no other style is as harmonically difficult to master as jazz. But it’s still hard as hell bring it, really kill it on stage with the simplest of tunes. That’s where the magic happens, on stage. Connecting with people, whether they’re sitting down in a nice button-down or screaming and grinding. The role of a musician isn’t to shred sweet licks but to say something meaningful, and I found a lot of meaning in a lot of new music.
I’m reminded now of the fact that everyone is susceptible to burnout. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, and countless jazz greats also played a ton of other styles. Miles and Trane led the way for things like fusion and avant-garde. I saw a video of Yo-Yo-Ma playing with a funk/groove band in an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. If he’s branching out, I certainly can’t expect to be satisfied with jazz or even jazz-X fusion my whole life. So I shouldn’t get down on myself for feeling burnt out after last semester.
That means I’m dedicated to “diversifying my portfolio”. I’m learning to love listening to other things and playing other things so that I don’t run out of musical steam altogether. If I tire of funk, I can move to blues. If I get sick of blues, I can play rock. I have an avant-garde show coming up soon.
The trick for me is not to think about the music intellectually. It will never be stimulating to see “vamp on an F power chord” for instance. The way to really get into a new style that’s less harmonically complex is to visualize myself on stage, visualize the intensity I can bring with the band, how great it feels to simultaneously shred yet not worry about making every little change. To connect with that audience.
It also helps to think about writing music. How can I be extremely expressive with a verse-refrain song? Everything little thing has to count. Lyrics, dynamics, together-ness with the band, focused message, and the nuance of playing each note in a way that’s communicative with the audience. It’s a different way of being expressive. More of it happens in the moment compared to the well-prepared classical or jazz piece. I ask myself “How would I play this so it moves me?” There’s always an answer, and the process of finding it is both challenging and fun.
Realizing this has been, among other things, very calming. The pressure is off. I can play anything that sets my soul on fire, regardless of how simple or complex it is. Since I have found my own way of having fun with it, I don’t care anymore if jazz snobs belittle it. Likewise, jazz still has a place in my heart, but I appreciate it for many different reasons. Bringing that intensity so often found at live rock shows to a jazz standard is what really makes it killing.
If the threat is burnout, I now feel diversified against it.