Learning Music Is A Long Game

Nov 29, 2022
The long and winding road for musicians to learn music.

Isn’t it funny how impatient we are? We always want to be able to do something…NOW!  This seems especially true even before we undertake any kind of learning process.  For instance, if you throw a basketball towards a hoop and you miss it wildly, what’s the first thing you think?  Most people think “Well, I’m obviously no good at basketball!”.

A better statement would be “Well, I’m obviously no good at basketball…yet!” 

Even better, “Well, I can’t WAIT until I get better at basketball!”

Even better, “Well, I’m GOING to get better at basketball!!!”

Doesn’t it seem like we just give up before we even allow ourselves a chance to learn something?  It’s like we quit before we even begin.  It’s like we surrender before we’ve even given ourselves a chance to fight.  Sometime, we make lots of excuses.  

Boy, do we miss out on learning some cool things with this attitude.  

After I graduated college and spent a year playing with my band in New York City, I made the bold move to continue advancing my musical skills at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles.  I enrolled in a school that attracted the most promising musicians from all over the world (our school was practically the UN of music students!).  Considering this brave decision to mix it up with these young musical heavyweights, you’d think that I’d understand a little something about surrendering to the learning process.  You’d think that I’d finally gotten the fact that true effort equals true reward, and that you only lose if you don’t play the game in the first place.  

But boy, did I have so much more to learn about…well…learning!

I felt I had gotten the understanding of patience in the learning process (“patience” being one of the 3 P’s Of Music Mastery).  I was about to get a pretty big lesson when I walked into Dave Pozzi’s room. 

Dave is a monster amongst giants.  He led the Big Band and 3-Horn Band classes at MI.  These classes were so intimidating that most students kept a wide berth from the rehearsal room.  It was a pressure cooker of music, with the top session players in LA just waiting for you to make a mistake.  At least it certainly felt like that.  Despite his sweet and giving personality, Dave was the most intimidating of them all. He had played with Henry Mancini, Mel Torme, Celine Dion, David Foster, Johnny Mathis, Jeff Berlin, Diana Krall, Billy Childs, Bob Crosby, Louie Bellson, Doc Severinsen, and was even asked to perform at the 1992 President’s Inaugural Ball at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.  WOW!

Yeah, THIS guy watched me humiliate myself 6 hours every week.  I think his sides still hurt from laughing. (Side note: Dave was a sub in one of my touring bands about 10 years later, where I would taunt him by saying “How’s it feel to be in the hot seat NOW, pal??!”.  He just smiled and blew my face off with his playing.  Damn you, Pozzi!!!)

Right, I was about to tell you something about patience before Dave’s bio sidetracked me.  What’s this article called again?  Oh right, let’s get around to explaining the title. 

I walked into Dave’s room that one day as he was quietly sitting there alone reading a book. Again, as kind as Dave was (is), a lot of students wouldn’t even get up the nerve to come in and ask him questions during his open-door counseling sessions.  I would try to hit them every week to ask about things that weren’t in any textbooks.  “Dave, how much should I charge for a demo session?  No, it’s not a union gig. Sorry, what’s a ‘union gig’?  How do I get in the union? Why should I get in the union? What should I charge for a local gig as a sideman?  How about an out of town gig?”

Seriously, find me ANY book with this information!  Dave and a lot of the teachers at MI were constantly peppered with these questions from me.  

But, damn it, I’m digressing again!  I may be a Practice Warrior, but I sure do get sidetracked!

Dave looked up from his book and gave me a great big smile despite probably being just slightly disappointed that he knew his reading time was over.  “Hey Christopher!  What’s up?”  Dave and I made small talk.  I asked about my recent performance in his class, and he gave me encouragement while giving me things to improve. I told him how I had been playing big band jazz since I was 15 years old and that I really enjoyed it. 

“Have you ever considered playing upright bass?”

“Yeah sure.  I even took some lessons with Putter (Smith, upright bassist to the stars and former Bond Villain…literally NOT a joke!!).”

“Well” he said “You could get more work if you also played upright bass, especially if you like jazz.”

Truth be told, I did like jazz, and I did end up playing in various jazz groups my entire career. 

However, it wasn’t the ONLY thing I wanted to do.  I also knew I would enjoy being an ELECTRIC bass player more, and only had a mild interest in adding upright to my skillset.  I didn’t articulate any of this to him, however.  I just fell into a tried and true cop out. 

“Well” I said “Anyway, it’ll take me at least TEN YEARS to be at a truly professional level!”

Dave’s eyes feel on me hard.  “Ten years, huh?  How old are you now?”

“Twenty four” I answered. 

Dave folded his arms in a way that made me very, very nervous.  I knew he was going to call me out, but I had no idea how he was going to do it. 

“So you mean that, by the age of 34, you could be one of the top upright bass players in LA?”

“Yeah” I said, stiffening my spine a little. “I very well could be.”

“I believe you” he said.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Ha ha, I thought.  The mighty Pozzi agrees with me!

“So what’s your problem, then?” he demanded.  

I would say that a lightbulb went off in my head, but it was more like a lightening bolt.  For me, ten years was a TOTALLY UNREASONABLE timeframe for ANYTHING!  I couldn’t even imagine what being 34 years old would be like.  How many teeth would I still have left?  To hell with that…how many MARBLES would I still have left??  34 years old?  That’s like…ancient!!

But I immediately got his point.  When it comes to learning music, you’ve got to play the long game.  You’ve got to stop thinking about how long something takes to learn and just get busy learning it.  Truth be told, I started to get very excited about the prospect of being a top upright bass player by my early 30’s.  Who would I get to play with?  Where in the world would I be touring?  What new doors and opportunities would it present me?  

So, how did it feel to be one of the top upright bass players in Los Angeles by the age of 34?  How the hell should I know??  I have no idea!  I didn’t even get started!

You see, with Dave Pozzi’s truth bomb, I was left with no more excuses.  If I wanted something, I just had to work for it.  No dreaming, no wishing, no fantasizing and no excuses.  It didn’t matter how long it took.  It was all about the effort.   If I wanted something bad enough, I just had to put one foot in front of the other and begin the joyous work that all great musicians have been through. Ten years?  Who cares?  If you truly want something, nothing should hold you back!

With this new mindset, I had to actually think about whether I really WANTED to add upright bass to my musical arsenal.  You see, you can live in a fantasy world where everything other than your lack of effort can be your excuse for not succeeding.  Once you realize that your future is truly in your hands and that anything is attainable in proportion to your own effort, you only have your own mental limits holding you back. 

With my mind cleared, I decided I actually DIDN’T want to put in the effort of playing upright bass.  The thought of reaching that skill didn’t excite me as much as improving my piano playing, expanding my electric bass playing, developing my songwriting skills and working on my nascent vocal ability.  Those were the skills I didn’t mind spending years and years developing.  That’s where my true passion was.  But I was only allowed to make this decision on my own after having this lame excuse of “It’ll take SO long” blasted out of my psyche.  

At the time of this writing, I’m 53 years old.  You would think part of me is saying “Damn bro…if only you listened to Pozzi, you’d be KILLING it on upright.  Maybe you’d be playing in the LA Phil.  Maybe you’d be cooking with Wynton!”  But I don’t think that…not at all.  I love that I’ve spent the past 30 years developing the skills I mentioned earlier, in addition to many other skills that are important to ME; skills that I’m still developing, since music is a life-long journey. If not for developing these skills and the practice techniques to learn them, I wouldn't have been able to create a method of practicing that can work for anyone!

Because of Dave’s wisdom, I don’t worry about how long something will take to learn.  I just have to have my drive be equal to my desire, and I can accomplish any musical goal I want.  This is the joyous mindset of knowing that learning music is a long game, but not necessarily as long as you think!

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