On "Becoming a Musical Philosopher" and the word "Should"

David’s Video

@ImproviseForReal David just reposted this video in another thread, and it got me thinking. I’d like to share some of my thoughts.

So often we look to others with “Should I ______?” We seek advise about what we SHOULD or should not do. We seek the opinions of others regarding the path we’re on. As Tony Robbins put it, “We should all over ourselves.”

David’s video reminds me that no one knows our path better than we do ourselves, and no one is going to be a better advisor to ourselves than ourselves. I see in the multiple saxophone Facebook groups a recurring question, “Should I get such and such brand, what reed should I get, etc.” and then there are, in reply, as many varying opinions as there are replies.

I shared in another thread my stunted musical growth from my childhood until my early 60s, when I truly began the work to become a musician. I worked with the first teacher who was willing to shape the lessons around me and my learning style, vs the way it SHOULD be done. I have always been an unconventional learner, as many with Asperger’s are.

I spent 2-1/2 years with her gaining proficiency with my instrument, learning all my scales, building the muscle memory, attaining a sense of rhythm and time, learning how to articulate in the jazz language. One thing was a constant goal: being able to improvise. And this is where I hit a roadblock. She was trained to be a music educator, and therefore tried to teach me improv the way she was taught to teach it. It never connected. I would get frustrated, and we eventually fell into this pattern of my getting assignments that I could have assigned myself, and me doing the work, and having this cycle repeat itself with me no closer to improvising.

Then one day I had a breakthrough when I started playing my horn while my wife was singing and playing either Stand by Me or Summertime. All I did was listen and play using the pentatonic scale of whatever key the song was in. When I shared this breakthrough with my teacher, she kind of put down that I was using the pentatonic scale rather than improvising over chord changes, so it always felt like what I was doing was ‘less than.’ It kind of made me feel like an imposter.

I couldn’t get her to help me move in the direction I wanted to go, which was to explore this new (for me) way of musical expression. So I went off on my own to explore it. Then I discovered IFR, and the world opened up to me. I started to learn tunes based on the numbers. I transcribed all the tunes I wanted to play into charts based on the numbers. I found that there was no such thing as a difficult key, and could play tunes in any key.

The sing the numbers tracks, for me, were the most valuable part of IFR–as I gained more from them than anything else in the program. I would play with my sax in the dark as a daily meditation.

I was thrilled to find like-minded people in this forum who have done similar things like @DavidW.

The bottom line is that we make our own paths. There is no 'should." “Should” is limiting. Our inner guide, that part of us that draws us on a soul level in a particular direction, is our compass, and it won’t lead us astray. No one’s ‘should’ for us is better at guiding us than our own soul.

I really appreciate David Reed’s sincere desire that we find our own path, his revulsion of dogma, and his nurturing spirit. He made a discovery, shared it in what to me is the most useful book on music, and has done so without a guru vibe. There are so many online programs that lay out a rigid structure, filled with what one ‘should’ do. But what works for some doesn’t work for all.


@woodyhaiken Thanks for starting this topic. I agree with all you have to say in your post, but especially the ‘bottom line’. I too had been thinking about this earlier today, & considering how I’d describe it. In essence my aim is not to play & sound just like someone else, no matter how much I might admire that person’s playing. My aim is to sound like me. As yet I don’t know what that will be. Maybe there will be influences, there are almost bound to be, & that’s fine, but the blend will be what happens inside. I’m fascinated to find out where the journey takes me.

The IFR approach is the vehicle in which I’m travelling on that journey. :slight_smile:

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@DavidW Isn’t it possible that you already sound like you? You say you don’t know yet what that will be, but if you’re making music now, and listen that music you are making, that is what you sound like. Your thoughts?

While I don’t want to play like someone else, I like to know what they are doing to get the sounds they do and to be able to replicate them at will. I’m not there yet, but IFR seems to be a great way to proceed with that goal.

To an extent the answer is probably yes @woodyhaiken. :smiley:

For example, if you were to listen to the ‘homework’ tracks I posted to Jelske’s Improve courses (i.e. me improvising over IFR backing tracks), you might well spot motifs (especially rhythmic?) that tended to crop up and which might well be elements of the developing ‘my sound’.

However, I’m still very much a beginner with voice, ear & instruments.

I only ‘discovered’ I wasn’t realy tone deaf just over 3 years ago. It’s not yet 3 years since started I guitar. I’m only a few months into Chapman Stick (I play a bit of keyboard too, starting with that before guitar, but it gets lowest priority in practice now).

I have a long way to go on technique before I can reliably produce (& reproduce) the sounds I wish to.

That’s both with respect to interpreting & reacting/responding to I what hear externally, and to externalising what I ‘think up’ internally.

That said, what I can do now would appear ‘magical’ to the me of 3 years ago. Indeed it seems pretty magical to the me of now. :slight_smile: I look forward with hope to further development. :smiley:

Me too. Similarly, while improv is the thing I most wish to do, that doesn’t stop me choosing to learn existing tunes too. Existing tunes are after all examples of things that work! :wink:

I spent years trying to work around a very poorly developed ear. I was essentially digging myself into a hole, trying to learn to “play a guitar” in a very mechanical way without developing any real musical sensibility.

When I started working with IFR, David suggested I put the instrument down for a bit, quiet my hands, and develop my ear. I’m incredibly thankful for that advice. Another resource that had a big impact on me was “The Musical Mind of Bill Evans”, where he talks about something along the lines of being true to yourself in your development as a musician and not confusing yourself by pretending at complexity. I like the t shirt Tomo Fujita wear sometimes: “don’t worry. Don’t compare. Don’t expect too fast. Be kind to yourself.”

I try to avoid thinking in terms of “what should I be doing”, but I do still seek out ideas that I haven’t considered before to broaden my perspective. For example, I recently watched a video that suggested exploring arpeggios from the third instead of the root (3-5-7-2). I started playing these over the song I’ve chosen to focus on (take the a train), which has been a lot of fun. This just sounds more more satisfying to me, adding in a little more tension, but not so much that I’m confusing myself.

@Darren that’s exactly what I’m talking about! Personal growth as the goal, music as the vehicle and means. I’ve discovered so much about myself through music after having a life where music was out of my reach for 90% of it. It’s like walking a trail: you can walk the same trail day after day and never have a day that you don’t see something new. And there are so many other trails!!

My favorite musical trail is the album “Kind of Blue,” and particularly “So What”. It never ceases to surprise me or inform me of something new.

I’m am so glad to find so many like-minded people on this forum. I have been learning from IFR since January 2020, but only just discovered this forum.

Thanks for mentioning “The Musical Mind of Bill Evans!” I’m going to find it and absorb it. Great meeting you via the forum!


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@DavidW when I first started on the sax, it was with the hope of being able to play and improvise jazz. Then I started playing with my wife, and music has never been more fulfilling. We play 60s, 70s pop and folk because that is her style. But it has given me an avenue for improvising with a live musician over relatively simple progressions. Now, while I love jazz–it’s still my favorite genre–I love playing with others even more. Where I live, there is no live jazz. I’m in a town that is at least an hour from anything that even resembles a city–both Prescott and Flagstaff Arizona are more like large towns than cities, and Phoenix is 2 hours away. The live music here is all blues, country, rock or pop. So I’ve adapted, and in doing so found my own voice in the mix. Over and over I hear–never expected to hear a sax with that kind of music. But it works for my musical partner, our audience, and especially for myself.

That made me chuckle @woodyhaiken :smiley: I’m over an hour from anything that even resembles a town (it has a population a little over 2000?). The nearest city is over 3 hours away; it was only recently made a city & if you saw it you might well still think it a town?
The nearest real city would be a 6hr drive away. I’ve not been to either city (or any other) for over 5 years.

However, it works for me, and for my partner. We chose to live here & hope to remain. You might describe us as sociable hermits? :wink:

I’m perfectly content to play for my own amusement. She is musical but has health issues and nowadays has other priorities than making music herself, so she sticks to listening. She is delighted that I finally worked out how to sing properly & recognisably! :smiley:

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Lovely conversation, @DavidW, @woodyhaiken, @Darren and @Neil_Burnett. I’ve nothing to add but I just wanted to confess that I’m learning a lot from you all. This week I’m just beginning to work on intro videos for the lesson pages in the IFR Jam Tracks courses, which is something I have wanted to do for a long time. It probably goes without saying that my #1 priority in these intro videos is to help new students believe in themselves and to create a safe, nonjudgmental space for creative exploration and connection. All of your conversations in our forum are helping me so much to understand your own personal discoveries and insights, which gives me ideas about how we can help lead new students to the same personal breakthroughs. So thank you, thank you, thank you!

@woodyhaiken @ImproviseForReal @Darren @Neil_Burnett I’m not sure quite how this relates to anything particular, but here seems as good a place as any to mention a thing I’ve been observing for a while.

Along the path of my musical journey, & somewhat to my amazement, I seem to have become a ‘multi-instrumentalist’ of sorts! Put another way I can make basic but increasingly intentional musical noises using keyboard, guitar and (albeit just one hand at a time at present) Chapman Stick.

A thing I find fascinating is that when improvising, what & how I feel drawn to play is quite different on each instrument. To an extent this may relate to relative (in)competance, but I believe it’s more fundamental than that; each instrument ‘speaks’ to me & reacts to what I do in a different way.

This extends to voice too. Around a year ago, over on Musical-U I did a course on what might be called free-form improvisational singing - sort of a bit like ‘skat’ but even freer & more personalised. The course instructor was Davin Youngs. When doing that (which I continue to do) I find I tend towards yet a further different style! What’s more on an occasion when I was filling time while sat in a car parked in a remote location in a very different environment to where I usually practice I found that what came out was different again! At home my vocalisations generally feel to me to have a ‘latin’ flavour. Sat where I was in a car looking out at & surrounded by rugged mountain & European Atlantic coastal scenery what came out had a distinctly Celtic feel!

As I wrote at the start, I’m not at all sure how this relates to anything in particular, but I think that in general it does fit into the ‘Musical Philosopher’ thing.

Does anyone else find anything of the sort happening, i.e. varying instruments or environments making significant differences to what you produce?

Hi @DavidW, that definitely happens to me! As a lifelong guitarist and recent trumpet player, I notice that my musical personalities on these two instruments couldn’t be more different. I think it’s partly due to the different timbres and emotional qualities of the instruments. Melodies that are absolutely heartbreaking on the trumpet sound completely mundane on the guitar. So that invites you to play the guitar in a different way, making use of its percussive qualities and of course the polyphonic possibilities of the multiple strings. The net result is that my musical personality on the guitar is much more Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and even North African. Meanwhile the trumpet lets me connect with my roots as a child growing up in the U.S. with a jazz musician father.

I don’t think that either of these voices is the “real me”. They are more like two different windows into a single place, each one revealing only part of the story. It makes one wonder what other musical personalities might be lying dormant inside us, accessible only through new instruments that we haven’t even tried yet!

What I love about all the vignettes you described, @DavidW, is that you’re noticing this same phenomenon, that different musical situations can reveal entire sides of yourself that you didn’t know existed. I believe that this is the highest purpose of music or any other creative art form, to help us discover and understand who we are.

@DavidW my experience with other instruments is somewhat different. I don’t have different ‘flavors’ with different instruments. For me, other instruments: i.e., guitar & keyboard have been informative for my main instrument, the saxophone.

My sax journey began 24 years ago with me learning to sight read. I could play the tones that corresponded to the dots, but was very inconsistent in my durations, and my sense of time and meter was non-existent. I could play a tune, and my wife wouldn’t know what it was because my time was horrible.

About 12 years ago, I started learning the guitar. She tried to teach me, but it was a frustrating endeavor for her because of my total lack of a sense of rhythm and time. For me, everything was mechanical. Then we found a jam group where every week about 20-30 people would meet at a restaurant, sit in a circle and play from a predetermined setlist of about 20 songs. I became better at the guitar and better at rhythm because I had to keep up–they weren’t going to stop a song when I missed a chord.

I sold my sax 10 years ago, and was without one for 4-5 years until we retired to Arizona. It was then I that really got serious about learning to play. It took me 2 years of working with a teacher to learn how to play in time. It was a great day for me when she said, “You were perfectly in the pocket.” During that time I worked with a metronome app (I prefer a drum beat to a click) for everything: scales, etudes, etc.

In the beginning I had a lot of trouble playing with a backing track, but eventually I started learning to play jazz standards with a track.

But I digress. My biggest point is that the guitar helped me with rhythm and time. I sold my guitars a few years ago to pay for my saxophones. I just bought a new guitar a few weeks ago, first one in a few years, and was playing with my wife last night. Where before I had to have her tell me how to strum, and I could never quite get it, now I hear the groove of a tune, and was able to follow with her rhythmically and be in the pocket with her. So the work on the saxophone ended up making me a much better guitar player.

@woodyhaiken I used to have a very similar same outcome with my singing! For me rhythm has never been an issue (maybe the teachers who labelled me as ‘tone deaf’ should have pointed me in the direction of percussion? :wink: ). Pitch was the issue for me. If I were to say, “You know the song I mean the one that goes insert attempt to sing the melody” no one (including my wife) could tell what I was trying to convey. The rhythm would be spot on but the melody nowhere to be found.

After getting going with my late start on a musical education, the first time I said “you know the song I mean the one that goes insert attempt to sing the melody” and my wife got the obscure 60’s tune immediately was so good. :slight_smile:

As an aside the fact that I find that my subconscious does know exactly how such a melody went is a fascinating thing. It probably explains why I’ve always been good at recognising songs from even very short snippets. What I’m working on now is trying be able to make deliberate use of that internal database & interval recognition engine! LOL!
A hard task, but verey worthwhile. :smiley:

I appreciate your point, and am delighted to learn from your experience, but I think we are not quite talking about quite the same thing?

For me all the instruments I try to use are melody instruments (on guitar I always finger pick, never strum). The experinece I was describing is what happens when I use any of the instruments, or my voice, to do free unaccompanied improv, i.e. with no extrenal factor such as a backing track to steer me in a particular direction. In that situation the free & in the moment choices I’m drawn to make about the pitches, durations & dynamics of the note sequence that ‘just happens’ tend to take noticeably different directions for each instrument.

I’m not sure the effect would be quite so apparent between a strummed guitar and a melody instrument like a sax?

Does that make sense?

I think there are many, often hidden, cross benefits to having a go with multiple instruments. Very glad to hear that you are back in the saddle with guitar. :smiley:

I know that we’re not talking about the same thing. I find that you have different music styles depending on the instrument and the environment. I don’t have the same experience there. But rather latched onto the multi-instrumentalist aspect of your brilliant post.

Thanks for the confirmation. It seemed more than likely that we were on the same wavelength, but I prefer not to assume.

100% agree. And I think we do this by building a relationship/connection to our instruments and to the sounds/music that we make. We are all different, and therefore our relationships will be different, our journeys will be different.

@mem I’ve worked with a teacher, and learned technique on my instrument, but it wasn’t until I came across IFR that I learned how to become a musician. The music was deep inside of me, but it was trapped with all the ways “it should be done.” When I was willing to walk away from the shoulds, I was able to set that music inside free. :smiley: