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Early this week I was invited to a jam session at a very high-end studio that is owned by the guys who got me started in commercial audio. (I worked at thier previous facility for several years and most of the players invited were regulars who came through back in the day) I haven't seen most of them in 15 years or more, so the whole thing was sort of like a high school reunion. It's an incredible facility too, with 6 AV post production suites and two complete (and seperate) Studios with sound stages, so there were actually two jams going on throughout the visit and everybody drifted from room to room some.

Anyway... We all had a blast, but I realized that most of them (about 15 players or so) hadn't improved one bit over the years. Don't get me wrong - they were all good even 15 years ago (some great), but it was like being transported back in time. The same licks - The melodic ones were still melodic, the speed demons were still fast, but they were all pretty much the same players. A few were rusty, (as in worse - not better) but the cats who had stayed in it - were still at a similar level. I realized (or re-realized) as I picked up a guitar, that I was no different. My sax playing was much improved, but I rarely played sax - even back then, and there was a trumpet player who had switched to bass that was incredible, but that was pretty much it.

The whole experience set me to thinking about ability vs. practice. Truth be told - some of the old recordings they played during lunch (we were also in a band together in the early 80's and recorded an album and a CD together) had guitar work I'd done that rivaled anything I can do today, and I've been working steadily at it since. Now that's close to 30 years ago. You would think I'd have improved in 30 years. Sure, I'm comfortable with a few new chords, and have some new licks, but I'm not much better of a player. I had a similar experience reuniting with an old keyboard player in a corporate band - he hasn't changed a bit either.

So...I've decided that once you have reached a certian level, no amount of practice is going to take you to the next level. It's a bit depressing. It's also probably why I'm digging the whole sax thing so much - Being relatively new to playing sax seriously - I can hear myself improve almost from day to day. The downside is that the speedy improvement has begun to taper off now that I've been playing for a few years. I hear players who are so much better and wonder if I'll plateau before I get to that level. I know it happened with guitar. I wanted Stevie Ray speed, phrasing, and precision, but never got past the Eric Clapton - "Slow Hand" era. Good - but not what I wanted. Now when I play guitar - it's just to track some recordings, or to back up my wife as she sings. Ho-Hum. I've still got a bunch of licks I can learn on the sax though, and I know I can improve my precision, but my speed may be all it will ever be. I'm pretty comfortable that I'll still be diggin' it for a few years but I can see that wall coming...

I've been sort of aware of this in the back of my mind for a while but this "reunion" added a bit of clarity to what bugs me about the whole thing. There's a part of me that want's to believe that with practice I can play like (insert your favorite sax players name here), but I'm pretty sure now that's not the case. And it's a terrible thing to have to admit.

I know this is a long post -but damn. It's also an important issue to me. At this moment I firmly believe Everybody has limits that no amount of practice will overcome. We are all blessed with a finite limit of talent. Anybody care to offer up a "Silver bullet" to kill this beast? Anybody else feel the same?
 

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Thanks for that reflection, Fader. I think it's really deep. I have no silver bullet. In fact, I've been thinking the same thing for quite a while. I think the one thing that can take you a little further is gigging - playing with other people. But I'm old enough that I accept that I play how I play and I'm not about to play differently or a great deal better, even if I practiced for hours every day. But if I was gigging 2-3 nights a week, at least I'd be at the top of my game, whatever the highest level of my game is. The answer may be in acceptance of who we are as musicians and to come to terms with it, to be at peace with it. If you've had the experience of really playing well while playing with other people, that's what we seek. It should be enough. And we keep playing in order to have that experience again. That's really all there is.
 

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I've been having those same thoughts as well. I pull out the horn and practice between gigs to keep the physical chops and technique going, but I've come to realize that I've gotten as good as I'm going to get as an overall player. I'm not going to play blistering harmonically complex bebop lines or screaming high notes. The one thing I think will still happen is the deep soulfulness that comes with maturity. Ever been to a session with a lot of recent grads and an old guy or two? The young guys will lay down all their jazz-education learned stuff, then an older player will play a chorus or two of well chosen, expressively played ideas and stop the show. Happens on gigs too.

So what I'm trying to say is that even though you see the wall coming in one aspect of playing, you've been advancing in ways you haven't even been aware of. Think of old wine, baby.

Nice thread, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
 

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So...I've decided that once you have reached a certian level, no amount of practice is going to take you to the next level. It's a bit depressing. It's also probably why I'm digging the whole sax thing so much - Being relatively new to playing sax seriously - I can hear myself improve almost from day to day.
I agree totally that when you reach that level of experience, practice can become less fruitful. I'm very experienced on the saxophone. I'm not famous or great or a virtuoso, I just put my time in.

But I'm still working, mostly as a recording player and composer/producer, and what I find works better than practice is living life to the full, not just partying, but learning about and from my fellow human beings (love 'em or hate 'em). I think if you are still prepared to learn from what life throws at you rather than trying to get one up on people and prove something, then your music can only get better.

It may be a kind of zen thing, but I would be the last person to say that.
 

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It may be a kind of zen thing, but I would be the last person to say that.
Actually you were the first :)

but living life rather than practicing is always a good idea...

I suspect it's better to find your limits at 50 than 15 though....still a bummer.
 

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Actually you were the first :)

but living life rather than practicing is always a good idea...

I suspect it's better to find your limits at 50 than 15 though....still a bummer.
Well, I"m not actually sure how old I am.

Is it better to find your limits, or to always try to surpass them? (note that I didn't say "Grasshopper")
 

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I have an old friend who says that there's two kinds of 'shedding: the kind you do with your horn, and the kind you do without. I've always thought that the shedding you do without your horn includes study of all things having to do with the human experience, and about that which is ineffable. Yes, you get to a point where improvement on the physical is incremental, and like in Zeno's paradox, you can never reach your goal, you just keep getting half way there, then split that in half, and that in half, forever. It's an asymptote. Heck, it isn't even a smooth line, but once in awhile you get setbacks.

The problem is that your thoughts can be the thing that's setting you back; getting into a mental loop that has positive feedback, until you end up overloaded and shut down. A person needs to know when to decrease the gain on that interior dialogue enough so that doesn't happen.

So, rumination and self-examination are essential, just don't perseverate too much on a single thing when going down the road of self-reflection.

Finally, remember that we all end up in the same place...but if you're lucky, What A Ride!:)
 

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The one thing I think will still happen is the deep soulfulness that comes with maturity.
yea, verily

It may be a kind of zen thing, but I would be the last person to say that.
It is a zen thing

I suspect it's better to find your limits at 50 than 15 though....still a bummer.
But I don't think it has to be a bummer. See hakukani below

The problem is that your thoughts can be the thing that's setting you back .... don't perseverate too much on a single thing when going down the road of self-reflection.

Finally, remember that we all end up in the same place...but if you're lucky, What A Ride!:)
A man's got to know his limitations -- but it's important to enjoy the ride.

 

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I pretty much agree with what you're saying Fader. I'll work on new ideas when I practice, but then on the gig, 9 times out of 10 I'll find myself playing the same old licks when I solo. Rarely, on that 10th time will come out with something new. It might be worth keeping in mind those 'same old licks' might sound fresh to the audience, though.

The one silver lining I can offer is what I at least try to do. And that is try to play what I do know better. Execute it better. Sometimes that happens, even if only incrementally. The other thing that really does help me is to keep learning new tunes. I won't necessarily solo any better, but adding a new tune (new melody) to the toolbox does help, at least psychologically.

Another thing that is not easy, but does help, is to not get too bogged down in the questions "how good am I?" or "am I good enough," etc. While it is important to have that drive (or obsession) to keep getting better, worrying about it a lot can actually get in your way. It helps to look at the bigger picture and lose some of that ego (another zen thing). But that's much easier said than done!

What really works best for me is to relax and enjoy playing the horn and be glad I have the opportunity to do so on a regular basis.
 

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With ALL due respect to you guys who have more life and music experience than I, and maybe I think this because I haven't gotten to your level of experience yet, but I think this is BS. I'll tell you why.

First, what I suspect happens to most guys: they get "good enough," they work at maintaining chops in a way they have discovered works for them, and they grow "musically" by doing gigs and living life. Their priorities change, they get the wife/kids, etc. They know "enough" and are good "enough." The search for new approaches, the desire to pick up possibly useless and very difficult new skills gets overshadowed by the other things in their life.

If they kept adding new, challenging things to their practice routine, tried approaches that conflict with their current patterns, get deep into new players like they might have done during their "formative" years, they'd keep advancing quickly. Maybe not AS quickly, but quicker than otherwise.

I track my progress. I know what I can do better this year than last, and what I do worse. I am constantly learning, and I spend consistent time practicing not just maintanance, but NEW things all the time. I can't plateau where I am because I am not good "enough."

That is the key in your mindset. I'm not saying you all have complexes and feel that you're the greatest. Far from it, from what you've said in this thread. But you don't feel the same pressure that I do, and that's a fact. In my head, I know (intellectually, intuitively and emotionally) that I will never be more than the low end of mediocre if I stagnate now. I'm not good enough to get the work I want, and if I don't advance, I will never get the opportunities that I dream of.

Before anyone can flat-out tell me I'm wrong, honestly answer the question: will your career and/or life be unfulfilled if you don't get a lot better on the horn? If your answer is yes, then your options are to get better or get depressed. For me, the choice is clear, and I do improve steadily. It drives my life!
 

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ok, I'll bite. You're being provocative so I'll be provocative back. I don't think you can comprehend Fader's experience. He recently played with about 15 players whom he had played with about 15 years ago. They were all good musicians, then and now. Yet they hadn't advanced musically in any significant way. Dan, when you have a sample of 15 players over 15 years, get back to us and tell us what you observed.

For that matter, think of several older players who you like and consider how they developed over 15 years of their career after the age of, say, 35 or 40. Did they advance much?

Before anyone can flat-out tell me I'm wrong, honestly answer the question: will your career and/or life be unfulfilled if you don't get a lot better on the horn? If your answer is yes, then your options are to get better or get depressed. For me, the choice is clear, and I do improve steadily. It drives my life!
The flaw in what you say is that there are more than 2 options. Some that I can think of are that you find the things you do well and develop them. You get deeper into the kind of music that is your strength, that is the place where you want to be playing. You learn to do more with less. You develop the ability to use space and rhythm to express yourself. You discover more about who you are musically. You learn to play those things that are most meaningful to you, the things that you can communicate better. And you learn not to play those things that you don't do well, that aren't the kind of music that works for you, the musical ideas that have no meaning for you. I could go on, but it's hard to describe in words what I'm getting at. It's not about learning more obscure scales and playing notes beyond the hearing range of dogs, it's about learning to know yourself. And it's about learning to know your limitations, as much as Fader is bummed by that.
 

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ok, I'll bite. You're being provocative so I'll be provocative back.
You don't have to worry about offending me by making an opposing argument. :)

I don't think you can comprehend Fader's experience. He recently played with about 15 players whom he had played with about 15 years ago. They were all good musicians, then and now. Yet they hadn't advanced musically in any significant way.
The second paragraph of my first post attempted to explain why I think exactly that would happen. Does my explanation seem illogical?

Dan, when you have a sample of 15 players over 15 years, get back to us and tell us what you observed. For that matter, think of several older players who you like and consider how they developed over 15 years of their career after the age of, say, 35 or 40. Did they advance much?
Well, I'm more than 2/3 of the way there in my professional life, and of course there are recordings... I think Chris Potter advanced from the age of 35 on to now. Ralph Bowen improves, Kenny Garrett has explored new musical realms and advanced himself. Christ, look how Trane expanded his horizons between 35 and his death at 40.

The flaw in what you say is that there are more than 2 options. Some that I can think of are that you find the things you do well and develop them. You get deeper into the kind of music that is your strength, that is the place where you want to be playing. You learn to do more with less. You develop the ability to use space and rhythm to express yourself. You discover more about who you are musically. You learn to play those things that are most meaningful to you, the things that you can communicate better. And you learn not to play those things that you don't do well, that aren't the kind of music that works for you, the musical ideas that have no meaning for you.
You are talking about improving your musicianship. Would you not consider that improving as a player? And when you say "...find the things you do well and develop them. You get deeper into the kind of music that is your strength, that is the place where you want to be playing. You learn to do more with less. You develop the ability to use space and rhythm to express yourself. You discover more about who you are musically. You learn to play those things that are most meaningful to you, the things that you can communicate better..." you are making my argument for me. There is no reason to stay at your current ability if you want to move forward. In your own post you have enumerated several ways to do that.

Camus posited that every author only writes one book over and over. Another way to look at it is that everybody has their own ideal reflection of the transcendental, and as we work on our craft, we get better at revealing that reflection in different ways. There's no reason for that self-improvement process to stagnate after several years if you stay motivated.

That's different from saying that everyone stays motivated... once your living is assured (give or take), and you find yourself comfortably playing (and getting called for) the same kinds of gigs over and over, I can totally see why people stop really reaching for the next level. It's called complacency, and I mean that without the normal pejorative associations. It is what it is, and it happens to everyone in some way or another.

I could go on, but it's hard to describe in words what I'm getting at. It's not about learning more obscure scales and playing notes beyond the hearing range of dogs, it's about learning to know yourself. And it's about learning to know your limitations, as much as Fader is bummed by that.
I never mentioned obscure scales. There's more than one way to skin a cat. One guy may learn new scales. Personally, I'd focus on making sure my fundamental ones are down and work on finding better ways for me to use them. I don't accept that "knowing your limitations" is something you have to do as a player unless you lose a finger or a lung, get tendinitis, or start physically slowing down with (REAL) age or something. (Lou Donaldson still plays faster than me.) If you find a technical barrier, the way past it is through the right approach to practice. THAT can take years to find, but in doing so, you have accepted that what was once a "limitation" is merely an obstacle to be overcome.

The neurology has been studied. Your brain keeps creating neural connections-- albeit faster when you're young-- all through your life.
 

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DanPerezSax-Im with you. I have recently been in a shedding period after a couple years off of regular gigging. For me, the best thing has been playing completely different kinds of music. Ive been gigging alot with a tejano band. And lemme tell you, all the licks I usually play just dont work. Also, Im starting to try and realize and mentally categorize all the things I cant do. And theres alot of things I cant do. So, its kind of overwhelming when I think about all the things I need to work on. And sometimes, its depressing too. After reading Fader's post, it reminded me of some recent reuinion gigs I had done recently. I can definitely relate. Several years ago I saw Ernie Watts do a show and my buddie asked him what his secret was. He said that he still practices 4-6 hours a day.
 

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Fader-- I enjoyed your post a lot. I don't know if your conclusion is accurate for every musician, but I'm sure it is for many of them. I think Dan's point, that an individual's viewpoint and hunger to improve affect the situation tremendously, has a lot of merit. Either way, I would love to hear the kinds of stuff you and your Atlanta guys did/still do. Atlanta's got a whole lot of legendary musicians, some of my favorite on the planet.
 

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You'll never catch up. You make your own path.
 

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This is my two cents. I think Fader is saying something which is a fundamental fact for all of us. That is, each of us is born with a lot of talent to do certain things and not so much talent to do other things. If a person has limited talent in playing an instrument they will probably never be great at it no matter how much they practice, study, meditate or otherwise attempt to become great, just like a person who has limited talent in playing baseball will probably never make it to the majors. We should not be depressed by that reality. I have very little talent for playing the saxophone, but I still love to practice 6 days a week, two hours a day and play whatever music I can. Its a tremendous amount of fun for me. Is it a dream of mine to be as famous as Coltrane, Parker or Redman? Darn yes, but I am very thankful to the good Lord for just giving me the physical, mental and financial abilities to play the saxophone at all. As Bobby McFerrin says, "don't worry, be happy!"
 
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