Zen and the Art of Blasting


Hello everybody,

It’s been awhile so I thought I’d catch you up to speed with what’s new.

Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t write a post last month. That’s because I was in a serious funk. The primary reason for this was chemical imbalance due to caffeine withdrawal (sounds ridiculous, I know). I am still undergoing the process of weaning myself off of caffeine (mainly green tea) since January of this year, and it has been my own special version of hell. Turns out that caffeine is a drug, and when you guzzle up to a half-gallon of coffee or tea daily for 12+ years, it seriously messes up your brain.

Ah, sweet elixir of life.

(Side Note: If after years of drinking caffeine you need it to feel like a normal person, READ THIS. It is the most honest, accurate portrayal of caffeine addiction/withdrawal I’ve read, and it helped me).

At any rate, in this downward spiral of depression, anxiety, and paranoia, I decided to hang up the trumpet up for a few weeks (only playing on gigs), until I felt like a regular, happy person again. I figured forcing myself to practice in such a hellacious mental state would do more harm than good, so I spent the time enjoying other pastimes; mainly drinking water, sleeping, and reading.

During those deepest days of woe, I had the privilege of FINALLY reading Kenny Werner’s, Effortless Mastery. This book has been on the scene for quite some time, and if you have not checked it out – DO IT.

At its essence, Effortless Mastery is about recognizing and alleviating your negative attachments to playing music, and performing on our instrument. Once you recognize which of your attitudes are hindering your ability to perform at your highest level, you can begin to heal your relationship with music, and cultivate a life and practice style that leads to mastery. To get the message across, Werner walks you through some really nice meditation techniques, and it’s all quite well and good.

What I really enjoyed was the idea of practicing from a meditative, Zen-like place. Experiment with the visualization or idea that someone or something else is “playing” your body. You are not in control of anything; just a puppet on strings, and the interested observer of your body’s actions while YOU are played.

It’s actually quite fun to realize the sounds you’re capable of producing on the horn when practicing from a non-judgmental standpoint.  You may also be amazed at the vast difference in your playing level when you begin experimenting with this idea – and not from the “man, I’m really burning” perspective, but rather, the more humbling, “man, I beginning to realize just how loose I am” point-of-view!

My own personal experience was finding tones that I may have previously considered “easy” were suddenly a ¼-step flat, my range dropped off A LOT, and I found myself otherwise fracking notes all over the place. However, it wasn’t all bad, and practicing from a detached place led to my throat being wide open, the airstream pummeling forward without interruption, and long-held bad habits started to melt away! With all of this happening, I felt my body coordinating to find an easier, more natural method of playing.

Once identifying with the state of being the detached observer while practicing, Werner then suggests using this new focus to practice only one bit of musical information at a time until you have mastered it. Werner describes mastery as being able to play it perfectly, every time, without thought.

After reading this I sat back and thought to myself…”have I done this before?”


Have you?!?!

Since then, I have been practicing a melody over a ii-V-I progression exclusively for the last 2 weeks. The line itself is not very difficult. However, tiny issues keep showing up. Transitions from one note to the next might have some junk in them, the different pitches may or may not be out of tune, getting the entire thing fluid and effortless has proven to be more time consuming (and at times frustrating) than I thought it would be.

The good news is that I really feel a fundamental improvement to my playing by sticking with each discrepancy until it gets better. It seems that any tiny mistake, given attention and space to improve, leads to positive change as a whole. It’s nice.

Of note is that I’ve put all other forms of practice or technical maintenance on hold. As far as I can tell, practicing this way has only helped my chops, and I’m actually feeling much better on gigs without all the routine playing. However, I do occasionally notice a low-level anxiety about the prospect of “losing” something, either technical or strength related, so I guess I’ll just have to see how long it takes for things to slide, or if they ever do.

Of course you’ll be one of the first to know.

You can check out Werner’s book here -> Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within (Book + CD set)



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2 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Blasting

  1. Great post James. I came across Kenny’s book years ago and really dug it. I think it’s time to dust it off again. I still remember some lines from the accompanying CD (“don’t you want a big piece of that pie?”).

    In the 15 or so years since I read that book, I’ve become a pretty regular meditator, so I bet I’d get a lot more out of it this time around.

    • Hi Peter, thanks for dropping by. Glad you enjoyed the post – and yes, that piece of pie bit is great! Be sure to keep us posted on any developments. Take care and I hope to see you around sometime! James

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