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Free Excerpt — Play It by Ear

Free Excerpt

Chapter 1
Walking on Sunshine: Singing the Praises of Friendship

Phil came to see me many years ago when I was just beginning as a psychotherapist. “I have a hard time keeping friends,” he said. “I usually hit it off with people at first, but that never seems to last. And now even my own family won’t have anything to do with me. I can’t figure it out—whenever I’m with them, I try to make sure everyone’s having fun. So what am I doing wrong?”

Throughout my career, I have met countless well-intentioned men and women like Phil who have difficulty interacting with others. In counseling them, I have observed that in order to lead a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life, we must know how to make and keep friends. Socially isolated folks tend to struggle with depression, illness, and lack of purpose. On the other hand, those with good friends are more apt to thrive emotionally and physically, and are more capable of maintaining rewarding relationships in all parts of their lives.

Early on in my therapy work, I relied heavily on the behavioral techniques I had learned in graduate school, techniques that involved homework assignments and prescriptions for change. Although somewhat helpful, this approach just didn’t seem to be doing the trick for Phil, and both of us were becoming frustrated at our slow progress. Our sessions felt static, and I began questioning my therapeutic methods. I knew I needed to break free of them, but I was having trouble finding an alternative that would add spontaneity and meaning to our work together. Fortunately, I did discover a more effective way, stumbling upon it in an unexpected place—on the bandstand during a jazz performance.

Can’t Catch Lightning in a Bottle
Prior to entering the psychology field and for nearly two decades afterward, I performed as a professional musician. Since my early childhood, all types of music, but especially jazz, have filled my life. Two of my uncles played in swing-era big bands, and my dad—my first drum teacher—had been a pretty fair drummer back in the 1930s and ‘40s. After graduating from college, I played drums full-time and eventually moved to Reno, Nevada, where I earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and performed with jazz groups and show bands while expanding my practice.

One Friday evening in the mid-1970s, my trio and I were accompanying Joe Williams, the great jazz and blues singer, at Harold’s Club in Reno. The small room was packed with jazz fans who had been rewarding us with their full attention all night long.

For our last number and for a change of pace, Joe called a relatively new tune, “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” a bossa nova we all knew but one we hadn’t yet played together. Almost immediately, the four of us slid into a rich, interactive musical groove, and Joe sang a number of inspired improvised choruses before ending to strong applause. As we left the stage, we were smiling and chuckling about how good our final jazz conversation of the evening had felt.

The following night, toward the conclusion of our first set, Joe turned to us and said with a big grin, “Let’s play ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love.’” We tried repeating some of the same musical licks that had helped make the tune so much fun the night before, but they all fell flat. Unfortunately, despite our determined efforts, we performed the number in a lackluster fashion.

We walked off the stage, not saying much, and then as we were exiting the backstage area, Joe said, “Damn, same lesson again—you can’t catch lightning in a bottle.”

That was all he said but it started me thinking. Concisely but subtly, Joe had explained to us that we had all fallen prey to that old seducer: expectation. Because we had had such a wonderful time performing the tune the previous night, we tried to replicate the experience, and, of course, we were reminded that jazz doesn’t work like that. On the contrary, jazz playing demands spontaneity. A unique jazz improvisation can’t take place if musicians attempt to reproduce past successes in a fixed, specific way. To do so is, indeed, like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

Our uninspired performance—and Joe’s comment afterward—also brought home for me how we often seek comfort by trying to find a magic formula for creating the perfect relationship or handling life’s challenges. Despite the wisdom of some teachers who have tried to convince us that such formulas do not work, the desire for them remains alive and well. We only have to look at the number of best-selling self-help books with titles beginning with phrases like The Six Secrets for . . . , The Magic Key to . . . , or The No-Fail, No-Risk Path to . . . to see how desperate people continue to be for a foolproof recipe. We want the ability to easily control the outcome of every situation and avoid unpleasant surprises. Yet when we do rely on scripted black-and-white approaches, we usually don’t achieve what we had hoped for—and feel disappointed with the results—just as we did that night in Reno.

This insight prompted me to look more closely at the parallels between jazz and human nature. At that point, I had already taken part in thousands of “jazz dialogues.” When everything clicked into place—when the jazz players let go of expectations and stayed in the moment—there was nothing else like it. The musicians completely immersed themselves in the music, taking turns soloing while the others listened carefully and responded with musical support, a synchronicity with unlimited creative possibilities. It occurred to me that I could enjoy similar benefits away from the bandstand by applying the jazz player’s flexible, improvisational practices to all interactions—and I could help my clients do the same.

I began by changing how I related to Phil. Instead of mapping out each session ahead of time, I listened to him the way I listened to the other jazz musicians while performing. I surrendered any preconceived ideas about how to change him, and our therapeutic discussions turned into spontaneous jazz dialogues. Phil seemed more relaxed and receptive, probably feeling less pressure to change. The hours became much more alive and satisfying for both of us.

Collaborating like this made Phil feel safe enough to examine the beliefs and fears that drove his actions. We soon discovered that his formula for social success called for dominating get-togethers, often interrupting others and changing the subject in an effort to entertain. His belief about what should happen made him anxious, crippling his ability to communicate with an open mind. Because his friends and relatives had grown tired of his controlling behavior, they often snubbed him, worsening his anxiety, which further reinforced an illogical belief that he needed to take greater control of the situation.

Phil came to recognize that his rigid social script pushed away everyone around him. Once he learned how to let go of his expectations and stay in the present, respectfully listening and responding to others—in other words, once he learned how to interact like a jazz player—his life greatly improved.

These positive results encouraged me to work with other clients in a similar manner. Since then, I have had the privilege to help hundreds of men and women replace their limiting attitudes and behaviors with the fluid, accepting ones of a jazz player. With a new lighthearted, affirming perspective, they were able to loosen up and engage with others in a more immediate, genuine way.

I have written this book to help you identify and eliminate your own self-defeating patterns. Within these pages, you will discover how to cultivate the interpersonal spontaneity that leads to greater harmony and intimacy. I hope that, like my clients, you will go on to create stronger, more fulfilling relationships.

Over the years, I have turned many times to the world of jazz for both professional and personal guidance. I am reminded every time that like the art of playing jazz, the art of building close, lasting friendships is actually an improvisational process, not a fixed formula rooted in expectation. I have also noticed that those who succeed at friendship have unknowingly adopted the ways of skilled jazz players.