Listen until it hurts

I often tell people there are two ways to improve your improvisation – get even better at the things you are already good at, or get better at the things you are not so good at.  I want to focus on the second of these right now, and one specific aspect of this in particular.  I want to talk about how to stop doing the things you don’t want to be doing.  That is, how to correct bad habits.

Bad habits often don’t start out as bad.  They might be things we actually went out of our way to learn at one point, but now we realize we overuse.  That lick you took the trouble to practice in all twelve keys, and now you can’t stop yourself from playing it?  That’s the one I mean.  Maybe you don’t want to cut it out entirely, but you want to stop turning to it so much.  I believe the key to this is to teach yourself an aversion to it, and the way to do this is by listening to yourself over and over.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Say that I suddenly poked you in the arm.  Maybe you’d be surprised, probably little more.  What if I did it five times.?  You’d likely be annoyed, but still, little more.  Now imagine I did it five hundred times, right in a row.  You’d develop a bruise, and it would really hurt to be touched there.  To the point where if someone even looks at your arm, you would instinctively turn to protect yourself.

What if we did that with your lick (or other bad habit)?

Listen to a recording of yourself doing the thing you don’t like.  Hearing it the first time, maybe you laugh nervously.  Listen five times, maybe you say, “man, I’ve got to stop that”.  Listen five hundred times, now you develop a “bruise” – a real aversion to the habit.  With any luck, next time you’re playing and you start moving in that direction, that intinct to turn away to protect yourself kicks in, and you avoid it.  Realistically, you might not catch yourself the first time or two, and that’s fine – like I said, you normally don’t want to exorcise the lick from your playing completely.  Just reduce your reliance on it.

This to me is one of the wonderful about recording your own practice sessions, rehearsals, or gigs – the ability to listen to them critically.  Don’t get me wrong – I like to listen to recordings I’ve played on for enjoyment as well.  But I really learn when I start noticing and developing an aversion for the things I don’t like about my own playing.  As I reduce my reliance on these habits, my improvisation becomes more varied, more interesting, and ultimately more personal.

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