Use well what I’ve got

The older I get, the more I realise how finite I am. Colds, emotional turbulence, a brain that turns to mush after a day of work, forgetting to take food out of the fridge, having to choose what friends I spend time with and how many nights I can do things after work before my body gives out.

“Limited time only! Buy now! Hurry, sales must end!”

As much as I hate such blatant appeals to our fear of missing out, these ads have a ring of truth. The sales will end (even if it’s only for the five days until the next weekend sale) and we too reach the end of our strength, our time, our energy, our money and our health.

Seven years ago I started my first year at university studying jazz vocals. We had classes on music theory, music history, ear training (as an aside, I’m a huge nerd with ear training – the only game I have on my phone is called “Functional Ear Trainer“), and improvisation.

The appeal of jazz is in the freedom it gives you as a musician. The freedom to improvise, to play different harmonic structures on the fly, to try out whatever ideas come to mind. But it’s freedom can also be overwhelming.

Learning to play jazz is a huge undertaking. There is so much vocabulary and technical ability to memorise and understand and get “in your ears”. Knowing where to start when it’s your turn comes to improvise, or what to practice after classes, is a challenge.

“Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by… What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.” – Thelonious Monk

Our improv class tutor gave us a sheet of “limitation exercises” – pick one scale, pick one melodic structure, sing only two notes in each phrase – and they helped fine tune my understanding of the concepts I was playing while also giving me a safe space to play in.

Limitations play a big part in creativity, as does structure and rhythms and routine. They become an anchor point, a target to aim for in an otherwise totally expansive universe.

Using limitations to create something including creating a life, doesn’t mean discarding a sense of possibility.

It means understanding where my limits are and how far I can push myself. It means focus and finding the next place to start.

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