The Fear Factor
Posted by Chase Sanborn

In this post I address a common phenomenon amongst beginning jazz improvisers: fear. Fear is a potential element in all music performance; you fear that you will sound bad. Is jazz improvisation inherently scarier than playing written music? That depends on whom you ask. To one group of players, notes on a page represent security because they tell you what to play. To another, chord changes represent security because they let you choose what to play.

Much has been written on ways to combat stage fright, but the best strategy is to be fully prepared so that you expect things to go well. A classical musician can practice each piece until the notes and intervals are ingrained, like curves in a familiar road. There is a sense of security in knowing which notes you have to play and that you have played them many times before. Confidence increases the chances of success. As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

When playing written music, you don’t have to worry about whether the notes will sound good within the context of the piece; the composer has taken care of that for you. As long as you play the right notes in the right order a certain amount of musical success is achieved. That’s comforting. On the other hand, written music holds you accountable. Play the notes as written: right. Otherwise: wrong. This sets aside levels of musicianship that lie beyond playing the right notes but nonetheless, your first responsibility is to play the notes the composer wrote. You can’t get away with changing Hummel’s concerto because your triple tongue is rusty. When there is a high G on a lead trumpet part you either hit it or you don’t. That can be scary.

For the jazz improviser there are no right or wrong notes. You are the master of your own destiny. If your chops are not feeling strong, avoid the high register. If your triple tongue is rusty, don’t triple tongue during your solo. (Only Wynton can get away with that in a jazz solo anyway, and even he abandoned the technique as a flight of youthful fancy.) This is not to say that an improvised solo should be seen as a way to avoid or ignore instrumental faults, just that being able to pick the notes you play offers a sense of freedom, not fear, once you have the tools to take advantage of it.

On the other hand, the freedom to create is also the responsibility to create. Not only do you have to play the trumpet—hard enough that is—you must make up the music on the spot! This can be scary. Some of the most fearful aspiring jazz trumpet players are accomplished classical trumpet players. Since they have set the bar high in one musical idiom, it’s hard for them to let down their guard enough to risk sounding bad in another.

Regardless of musical idiom, personal expression is the goal of all musicians. Here, the jazz musician has an advantage. While a classical player should study the score to understand how her part fits in to the overall composition, the jazz musician must understand the musical structure of the piece in order to craft a part that fits. Being involved in the creation of the music establishes an emotional connection to the music and to the listener.

The jazz musician benefits here as well: there is less of an expectation of ‘perfection’.
When the notes are composed ahead of time, it is assumed that an accomplished musician will play all or nearly all of them correctly. Many a bland classical performance results from fear of missed notes. The jazz player is not subject to the same scrutiny. Flaws can be forgiven as a byproduct of the creative process. Moreover, the jazz player has the ability to fix any ‘wrong’ notes. If you have the wherewithal, you can turn a clunker into a chromatic approach tone. In fact, a corrected ‘wrong’ note is often more interesting than just playing the ‘right’ note. A mistake can be viewed as an opportunity for the jazz musician.

There is an apparent mystery to improvisation. To the uninitiated, the notes seem to be drawn from thin air or divine provenance. I’ve heard classical trumpet players say, “I’d love to be able to improvise but I never had the talent.” I ask them, “Were you born with the ability to play Charlier etudes?” Innate talent is a factor in learning to improvise as it is in all endeavors. However, most successful jazz musicians—certainly this scribe—are the product of a certain amount of talent and a lot of hard work.

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