As artists, our ability to think in non-linear ways has not only been our surviving mechanism, but it’s often how we’re able to carve out a personal vision. There’s a common notion in the jazz world that hard work is our competitive edge. The one who puts in the most hours in the “shed” becomes the best player. In certain circles and in certain kinds of music, that may actually be the case. This way of thinking certainly works great for classical musicians. Performing classical music is a very physical process, sort of like figure skating. Musicians are small muscle athletes and figure skaters are big muscle athletes. So a big part of what you do is conditioning. In fact, if you never have an original thought as a classical player, yet, you are technically proficient and well-versed in the repertoire, you will probably do well and be regarded highly. Being a classical performer fits perfectly in the linear paradigm. In this instance, however, I’m speaking specifically of the classical soloist, not the composer.
Jazz—which tends to be more soloists-centered--follows a different path. Hard work and clocking in numerous hours of practice is not your creative competitive edge. Being musically correct and polished might win you points during your college proficiency exams, but these things won’t necessarily give you the competitive edge when comes to creating art. Jackson Pollack could have painted in the traditional way until the cows came home, and it still would not have naturally morphed into to the innovative drip-painting style for which he became known. His innovation resulted from changing his thinking, not his work ethic.
And please don’t misunderstand me. Working hard is a good thing. It’s a valuable and very necessary thing. However, it’s not the determining factor that separates the boys from the men; the artists from the practitioners; the book readers from the book writers. Hard work is the vehicle that gets you there. Non-linear thinking is the map that you follow.
Whenever I conduct a master class discussing these things, I have students try this little experiment. I rattle off a list of words, and they tell me the first thing that comes to mind. It usually goes something like this:
And these are typical responses from most people. Afterward, I explain that this is linear-thinking and that most students, giving the information at hand, follow this most logical sequence. As you can imagine, there’s only but so far this way of thinking can take you. I could give this experiment to 100 students, and it will probably yield similar results.
During the second part of the experiment, I have them think in a non-linear way. In other words, give responses that, on the surface, are illogical. Now the responses are usually something like this:
As you can see, just by slightly changing their thinking, new and fresh responses were conjured up. Non-linear thinking, yielded non-linear results. These new and fresh responses did not come from hard work, they came from making creative connections. FYI: The thought of a fast rhino or a happy rock really makes me laugh.
What’s interesting is that human beings by nature are non-linear thinkers. If you want proof just observe any three-year old. When my daughter was three, she didn’t think twice about wearing a pink sock with a purple sock; or a dress shoe with sneaker. As grown-ups and practitioners of linear thought, this way of thinking is simply wrong. But what we often fail to see is that this way of thinking is often the foundation of innovation. It’s when we’re not a slave to rules and conventions that we can make connections that lead us down new paths. The creative genius works in the same way that a naïve child plays.
In fact, there's a New York based clothing company called Little Miss Matched that specializes in selling colorful, unmatched socks for girls. It began with girls' socks in 2004, and has since began selling clothes, toys, bedding and furniture with same colorful designs. Now I don’t have any recent data, but in 2008, retail sales was at a whopping 32 million. Which is not bad, figuring that all that they basically did was to embrace what we typically try to avoid every time we do the laundry. And I’m willing to bet that the founder of the company was inspired by watching a three –year old think in a non-linear way. Again, this is not something that came from hard work, but from creative connections.
One of my favorite stories of achieving innovation through a single non-linear thought, involves Thelonious Monk. Apparently, Monk and Coltrane were rehearsing and Monk, fascinated by the sequence with which Coltrane pressed the keys on the saxophone, had Coltrane play the saxophone in a non-linear way, where the fingers did not move up and down in a conventional fashion, following the typical sequence of pressing down and releasing the keys of the saxophone. What Coltrane miraculously discovered was that he was able to play split tones, or what we now know as multi-phonics. And again, let me reiterate that this did not result from years of trying to figure out how to play and master split tones, the way in which we go about mastering conventional tones. It resulted by simply changing his thought process. As we all know, fine tuning these things can take a lifetime; discovering them, however, can happen instantaneously.
This Monk and Coltrane story has been the guiding force that inspires much of my non-linear practice. Practicing linear things such as scales, jazz vocabulary and long tones are necessary in helping one become a competent musician. Unfortunately, competence is the only thing that practicing these things will produce. If you wish to achieve originality, a distinctive voice, or innovation, then a non-linear approach must be followed.
When it's time to practice, one thing that I do to get into the non-linear frame of thought is a process called “questioning.” And “questioning” is just as it sounds. I question everything that I’m doing. For example, if I’m practicing a C note, I ask myself the question: Is this the only way to play this note? Then I begin looking for new and under-explored alternatives to playing a C note:
I'll play the C note as overtones with different fundamental starting notes
I'll play the C note with different tonal inflections
I'll play the most ugly sounding C note that I can
I'll play the most beautiful C note possible
I'll play the C note like a flute player, using unconventional fingerings
I'll play the C note like a double-reed player, also using unconventional fingerings
I'll play play the C note while singing through the horn
So as you can see, what started out as an ordinary C note, has now become a path of excitement and new discoveries. And all that I did was to ask one question, which, consequently, lead to numerous and non-linear ways to discover answers to that question. As I've asserted throughout this article, hard work is not always your competitive edge. Hard thinking, however, can leave you without competition. A master of your own domain.