Mental Skills in Jazz Applied to Modern Life
I play jazz not for the improvement in mental agility or psycho-motor coordination that it gives, but for the sheer enjoyment. But I have thought about what playing jazz requires our brain to do. And how these skills are in fact required for daily living in the modern world, which is characterized by a need to deal with the deluge of information we are constantly exposed to. We have to find ways to handle all this information and let it be the basis of decision-making. Managing information includes classification into categories, forecasting possible scenarios, prioritizing, and optimization of time and resources and abstract pattern recognition.
Having these skills is actually at the heart of all modern jobs that cannot be replaced by machines. The human skills listed below, and which in my opinion are what we practise when playing jazz, are what gives us the advantage over robots which are ever-increasing in their intelligence.
Getting to the root of the matter, or cutting out the noise, or grasping the essence of an issue. In jazz improvisation, we have to make almost instantaneous decisions on what to play, choice of notes, phrasing etc .and take calculated risks that it will not go wrong. This means that we have to deconstruct the song, and take away whatever unnecessary details, leaving only the bare essence of song’s structure for us to improvise upon. For example, all chords however complicated their extensions can basically be divided into major, minor, and dominant chord. And at an even higher level, the song can be dissected into tension and relief sections. And so we improvise based on a simple underlying structure that yet allows us the freedom to add in the frills. This rubs off in daily life as we manage information to extract only what is required in the context of the situation at that point in time. In this way, you are also seeing the bigger picture, seeing the forest and not the trees, and having a helicopter vision of the problem.
Flexibility, or getting to the destination by more than one route, or achieving an objective by a number of possible ways. In jazz improvisation, we have to begin and end at a ‘destination’ i.e. the end of a verse or a chorus. And we can do it in so many ways limited only by our imagination. And so it rubs off on us when we are dealing with everyday issues, that we become quite creative in coming up with several possible solutions. We also tend to acquire flexibility in our outlook and in dealing with others for we have seen that there are always many ways to define a problem or to achieve an objective.
Prioritizing and optimizing resources. Jazz improvisation entails making use of whatever resources we have, in whatever time we have, to do our stuff. And good improvisation involves testing the boundaries of the song’s structure, taking calculated risks, walking on the edge between dull predictability and total chaos. Definitely these skills are important for modern jobs and everyday life. In the competitive modern business environment, every task, every project has a time constraint, trade-offs between choices, and a need to take calculated risks and to be innovative.
Balancing the Right Brain with the Left Brain All too often, modern jobs emphasise left brain activities of logical analysis, control and sequential execution of tasks. However, in my opinion those who are able to utilize right brain capabilities of holistic, intuitive understanding, epiphany, out-of-the-box thinking, are one level higher than purely left-brain individuals. In modern life, it is natural for the left brain to dominate over the right brain because of the emphasis on quantitative analysis. But jazz improvisation constantly urges us to use our right brain. For if our jazz improvisation were all left-brain derived, making use of theory and modes and scales, but not hearing the beauty of the song, it would be merely technical and not musical. Thus, this jazz skill of not allowing the left brain to dominate rubs off on us in daily life and we develop our intuitive, sixth sense to at things from a holistic perspective, capturing in a few seconds all the non-linear dynamics of the situation, that even hours of left-brain analysis will not be able to accomplish.