If you were fortunate enough to get to take private jazz guitar lessons with Pat Metheny, what do you think would be the first thing he would ask you to do?
What do you think that Metheny would say is the absolute most important thing to your jazz guitar progress? I'm going to tell you what it is today, and I'm going to attach two PDFs and give you some ideas how you can accomplish it and begin applying it to your music and your playing to start seeing changes immediately and continue watching those changes grow and unfold for the rest of your life.
I recently stumbled across a video of him giving a masterclass to a group of young jazz musicians where he laid out his answer, and it might surprise you. I was so happy to hear what he said. It lines up with my own thoughts on learning and teaching. It's something I started doing a long time ago. I didn't do it because Metheny told me to. I did it out of sheer necessity. Which is why I was psyched when I saw him telling these music students the same thing.
I've used this idea to accomplish a number of things in my life. Most notably... relearning to play music after a medical issue caused me to lose my playing. I was 35 years old, living in NYC and had been a professional performing, touring, recording, and teaching jazz guitarist for almost 15 years - four of which were in New York. But I suddenly lost all of my muscle memory, forgot my entire repertoire, I only had about 5 - 15 minutes worth of practice time before I physically needed to stop for the day, and yet I was somehow supposed to relearn to play. Out of desperation, I went back to doing one thing everyday that helped me get where I wanted to be musically. It's the first thing I ask of everyone I work with one-on-one. In fact, if you were interested in signing up to work with me in my Online Coaching Program, you'd find that before we even meet, just while you're filling out the Coaching Program Request Form, I would ask you about it. Rarely do I come across a student who has clearly put serious time into this one, simple little musical secret.
And it's the same thing Metheny is talking about in this video.
Are you ready for the big secret? It's going to sound too elementary to be useful at first. But it's actually a really, REALLY big deal and quite challenging if you want to take it seriously the way Metheny and I recommend...
I know it might seem a little obvious or even silly. But really think about it. Can you actually answer it? Sure, we all want to 'get better at jazz guitar'... but what does that actually mean. If it doesn't look like something different for each one of us, we haven't actually answered the question yet.
Are you interested in gypsy, old school swing, bebop, post bop, or modern? Do you actually want to perform on a professional level and make a career as a performer? Or do you just enjoy playing and want to be able to hang with friends or sit in for a tune at a jam session? Do you want to teach? At a university or just privately? Are you more interested in single note lines, harmony, or both? Solo guitar or with a group? Are you ultimately just trying to get people's attention, achieve some public praise, and get laid? Or do you have a deep urge to communicate something that words can't convey? Are you interested in sounding exactly like one specific player? A few? Or do you want to develop your own personal, unique sound? Do you want to compose tunes and release albums? Get signed to a label? Post 30 second clips to instagram? Do you want people around the world to know your name? Do you want to tour?
The questions that aren't being examined when we simply say, "I want to play jazz guitar better," are staggering! These are huge, life-altering questions that can make or break our entire musical journey.
Imagine wanting to get into better shape.
Should you lift weights? Jog? Swim? Eat more calories? Eat less calories? Practice football? Practice basketball? Practice soccer?
There's no way to know until we get more specific.
If getting into better shape TO YOU means looking like a bodybuilder, then you're going to have to do one set of activities. If it means being able to run a marathon it's going to mean a different set of activities. If you want to be a competitive mixed martial artist... again, something different.
But imagine not knowing which better shape you want to get into and acting according. Imagine you want to look like a bodybuilder, but you see some YouTube video of a fitness coach showing "marathon runner" type behaviors and telling you that these activities will get you in better shape. You're still getting in better shape, but you're not going to accomplish your actual goals. And you're going to eventually get confused and frustrated and give up.
So we come back to Metheny's question.
"What do you want to do?"
Got a sheet of paper? Take two or three minutes and try to write down your thoughts on this...
What do you want to accomplish during your lifetime? What's most important to you that you want to be able to look back on on your final day and smile knowing that you achieved? What do you want people to say about you at your funeral? What do you want to experience while you're on this planet?
Dream big here! This is not the time to think small or to second guess yourself because you don't think it's possible or you don't know how you'll even be able to do it. It might not all be music-related. Hopefully it's not! Maybe you want to live in France. You want to own a vineyard. You want to release 5 critically acclaimed albums of original, modern jazz compositions influenced in the aesthetic of ECM and with these particular musicians (write their names down). You want four kids, a day job, and you don't want to tour. You just want to write, record, release, get public praise, and live a normal life day-to-day.
There's no right or wrong answer here. We're Babe Ruth, standing with the baseball bat in our hands, and pointing at the fence before the pitch comes. Are we going to hit the homerun? No idea. It honestly doesn't matter right now. If you don't know where you want to get, you stand near 0% chance at getting there. Now is not the time for negotiating, being "reasonable" with yourself, or figuring out how. Just remember the imagination you had as a young child, tap into that, dream as big as you can, and write it down! I recommend you do not write these goals down by saying "I want to," or "I hope one day I will." No. Write these down in the past tense. Like you already did it. BELIEVE in your dreams. Regardless of whether or not they come true. Don't forget, your dream goals are different today than they were 20 years ago and different then they will be in another 20 years. So who cares about whether or not they come true. Put yourself in the mindset of accomplishment.
I released 10 albums to critical acclaim that each sold 100,000 copies internationally.
Have I personally actually done that? Hell no. It's not the point. You need to let yourself feel the experience of possibility without second guessing it. THAT is the point.
If step 1 was the time to tap into your inner child's imagination, step 2 is the time to start getting realistic and think like an adult! What is one small project you can undertake TODAY that will start moving your towards your dream goals? What is something you can accomplish in the next three months that will bring you one step closer towards what you want?
If you want to release 10 critically acclaimed albums of original music, first you need to just record an album! And that means you need to have tunes to record. So maybe your three-month project is to write 10 tunes. Maybe you want to push yourself and say that on the final day of the 3rd month you're going into the studio. Maybe you call a studio, set the date, and put down a non-refundable deposit. THAT will light a fire under you to turn off Netflix and get to work writing!
(Fair warning, you better be ready to write and work your tail off if you put a non-refundable deposit down!)
Or maybe you've never written a tune before in your life and this is an unreasonable three-month project for you. Maybe your project should be finding a living composer who's writing you love and reach out to take a few lessons with them. Maybe you want to schedule the first lesson at the end of the three months so your goal is to write three tunes (one a month) and then wrap up your project by looking at them with your new composition teacher. This will likely lead to your next three-month project... going back and making edits based on their recommendations, and probably writing one or two more tunes based on what you learned.
Or maybe you'd rather take the private lessons immediately, and then spend your three-months applying what you learned and the ideas they gave you to writing tunes. Honestly, this is going to look different for everyone. No jazz school, college degree, or YouTube video can answer this for you. That's what makes it so difficult. And it's also why it's arguably the most important thing you can do for your jazz guitar progress.
Download my free 3-Month Project Planner worksheet and print it up. You can use this to help you plan out the big picture of what you want to accomplish during your three-month project, help you break it down into the smaller goals you want to accomplish during each of the three months, and use the action steps checklist to list out all of the small things you need to accomplish during this time period and check them off as you complete them. It's the same sheet I use to organize my own ventures.
Right now I'm using it to help me create a new series of courses and study materials for The Melodic Triads Study Group and to map out when I want to launch those new courses, how much time I have to build each one, and what all the tiny little steps are that I need to accomplish in order to get these materials ready for the group. Will I fall behind schedule and miss some of the deadlines I'm setting for myself. Probably. But it gives me something to strive for, and it lets me know immediately if I've gotten off track and what I need to do to catch up. But if I didn't have this planner sitting on my desk and reminding me everyday what I need to accomplish, it might take me two or three times as long to get it all done.
This is when we need to get really mature about things. Step 1 is just about dreaming. Step 2 is about narrowing that dream down to most important achievable goal we can get through in the next three months. But here in Step 3 we need to really start working. We need to be disciplined and consistent. We need to get down in the mud every day (or as close to every day as possible) and start moving us toward the finish line of our three-month project.
Grab your free copy of my daily practice journal. I use this to stay focused on my actions and behaviors each day. I'm not perfect with it, and you likely won't be either, but I attempt to fill one of these out every morning. The first thing I do is write down my life-long dream goals. Yes. I re-write them out every morning. Writing them down once in Step 1 is a good starting point. But if we want to develop life long progress, we need to constantly remind ourself why we're doing this. It will also allow you to monitor when your life goals are changing. Not if... when! They will evolve over time. So when filling out this section, don't simply go back to yesterday's sheet and copy it down word for word to today. Take three or four minutes and go back into your child-like imagination and dream up what you want to achieve in your lifetime. This way you will start to refine what you actually want over time, and you will have a chance to make course corrections along the way so you're always headed in the right direction.
After I finish writing out my big dream goals in the morning, I then jot down any motivating quotes I've come across recently... if one comes to mind. Something to get me pumped for the work to come.
That's when I break down my two to-do lists for the day. My music to-do list, and my non-musical to-do list. Both are important. Get specific, and make these tiny little achievable things. For example, don't write down Master Charlie Parker vocabulary. Instead write something like, Learn the opening riff Bird played on x tune, and be able to play it at 250 bpm. Or take the Bird riff I practiced yesterday through all 12 keys. Something with clear boundary lines that gives you a specific activity to work towards. As you accomplish each of these items, you check them off.
The 'Contact List' is another form of a to-do list, but this is about reaching out to others. Maybe they're students you need to touch base with or your teacher. Maybe it's a club you're trying to get booked at or a musician you're trying to schedule a rehearsal with. Maybe it's a friend or a family member you miss and want to say hello to, or maybe it's a doctor you need to call to schedule an appointment with. Just jot their name down in the morning when filling this out for the day to remind you.
The notation and tab section is incase you discover a riff, voicing, or other idea during your practice time that you absolutely love and don't want to forget... you'll always have somewhere to write it down so you can remember it and come back to it later if you want to.
The Daily Listening section can be used in any number of ways. Maybe someone recommends a record to you during the day and you want to remember to check it out... jot it down. Maybe you want to challenge yourself to listen to one new piece of music a day... jot down what it is and a few interesting things about it (who the musician were the were playing on the recording, something great you noticed in the playing, moments you want to go back and transcribe, etc).
Then you'll notice there's another Big Dream Goals section. This is not a typo. Just like I recommend you start each day with three minutes of thinking about the really big goals you have for your life, I want you to end each day doing this again. You should be bookending every day with a few minutes of silent reflection to think about what's important. This way you get in the habit of always comparing your daily actions and behaviors with what you ultimately want out of your life. Are they in alignment with each other? Are they completely unrelated to each other? Nobody is perfect, but the more often you keep an eye on this, the better shot you stand at success on your terms.
And then finally is the Daily Accomplishments And Gratitude section. Nothing is more powerful to our self-growth and ability to undertake and accomplish new goals than maintaining a positive and grateful attitude. Look back over your day and ask yourself what you did that you can feel proud of. Maybe you didn't check off every box on your to-do list. That's okay. Don't go to bed upset with yourself. Did you check off ONE box? That's worth feeling good about. Did you call a friend or family member and make their day? Did you get that Scofield riff up to 175 bpm? Did you learn the bridge to a new tune? Did you write a bridge for a new tune? Did you go out of your way to do something nice for a neighbor? Did you help support another musician... maybe by going to their gig and letting them know how much you enjoyed it?
Jot down some of the things from that day that you can feel good about. You don't want to go to bed feeling beaten down. Find even the tiniest thing to be happy and grateful about. If you truly can't, then just consider that you gave yourself the few minutes at the end of your day to think about it. That alone is worth being grateful for. Many people won't even take two minutes of quiet in their day to even think about something like this. You did. So pat yourself on the back for this.
Getting into bed at the end of the day feeling grateful, and knowing you accomplished something feels incredibly good. I can't tell you how much more at-ease I am when I do this at night. It helps me shake off so much anxiety and allows me to get much better rest. And that means I can wake up feeling more refreshed, grab my daily planner, and do the whole thing all over again.
The process can become addictive. Think about what you love and want out of life, break it down into a three-month project with specific benchmark goals for each month, wake up each morning and figure out what tiny steps you can take for that day to begin moving towards your goals, check them off as you go, be grateful, sleep, and then do it again the next day.
It can create an enormous amount of forward momentum and will help you get truly serious about what you want out of life. Maybe you want to become a professional touring and recording jazz musician. Maybe it's just a hobby for you. Neither is right or wrong and nobody can tell you which path to follow. Only you can. Examine these things with the PDFs I've given you.
I challenge you to print up the two PDFs and try this for the first 30 days. Write down your dream goals, choose a three-month project, and commit to using the daily planner everyday for at least the first month. Watch how it changes your daily behaviors. Will you get more done in that first month than you did the previous month? My hope is that you will see the shifts happening within the first month and want to stick with it to complete your three-month project. Come to the comment section on the youtube video and share with us what your three-month project is. Come back a month from now and give us an update on how well you did. Did you keep up with your goals? Did you complete everything you set out to during the first month? Are you going to continue on with the practice? Come and tell us!