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The Woodshed: Input - Output: The musicians Yin Yang

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JJ Rocks Article # 40:

Have you ever had a musicians block? You know, its like a writers block but instead of not being able to write anything you just cant seem to play up to par. That my friend is a result of an imbalance of input and output. I also refer to that as a musicians Yin Yang, which is basically trying to maintain the balance between how much you play and how much you listen. So I have learned that if I want to be playing or writing music at my best I must keep those elements balanced.

I have observed in many of my students through the years that sometimes they would spend much more of their time practicing than listening. And they loose the motivation needed to keep their creative motor running. They would be inspired at a lesson and practice very hard on a piece of music, but when it came time to improvise they were just copying the lines that I gave them. And they would look at me like thats all you showed me. And when I asked them what they listened to that week they would just shrug their shoulders. Its as if they thought they were supposed to use their practice time to listen to some input but were afraid to because they didnt want their homework to suffer. I guess they couldnt see the input trees because of the output forest.

My best input comes when I listen to some music while Im doing something around the house that doesnt use up my brain cells. Stuff like dusting off my work center or cleaning my drums. And dont forget that bathroom time! You might as well crank up the music while you are attending to another kind of output. But I guess its different for each individual as far as what is the best listening time. The main point is when the music is on, you really have to listen, not just tap your foot to sounds in the background. And believe me; if you really listen hard you will feel it because your brain will actually feel tired. But its a good tired.

Now how about those students who listen to music all the time and think that they are getting better because they are practicing in their head. Well, all I have to say about that is its all in their head! If you want good chops you have to think about one piece of music and master it. Too many young students just keep skimming over thousands of pages of written music and tabs while bragging about their CD collection. But output has to do with focused repetitions and not skimming or talking a lot. So again there is an unbalanced want to be musician who finds themselves in a rut and eventually stops at one level for the rest of their life and gets no farther than a weekly blues jam session at the local bar.

Balance is something that you will see me write about and use as analogies many times. Im even writing a musical called Between the Tides and a novel called The Apple Tree that are based on finding ones balance in life. So this article is yet another way for me to convey to my students the importance of the balance between how much they listen to music, and how much they play it on their instrument. And the way to find it is simple. Just look for the weaknesses in your playing. If your chops are great and seemed to be well oiled, but your improvisation is in a rut, you need more input. So get out something new and challenging and seriously listen to it until you are almost sick of hearing it.

If you head is full of music and you can turn it on like a radio, but your technique is like a weekend parking lot jammer, then sit down and practice on the lines that you know first, then get as creative as you can until your hands are feeling like they are going to run away from your arms. But I guess by know you all realize that you wouldnt have to go to either of these extremes if you just keep your balance.

Balance is an eternal checkpoint on the highway that runs through your life. The day that you stop pulling over to check your balance is the day that you wind up taking a permanent exit that leaves you off in a town called satisfied. And if you want to be a great musician, you will never want to wind up there.

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