The Importance of Being Reckless


What are the qualities that excite us most in a musician? The more I listen, the more I try to find music that surprises me. In a climate where any genre of music from any corner of the globe is accessible instantly, being shocked or bewildered is an increasingly rare occurrence. This desensitisation through sheer volume is a result of the music like water phenomenon once expertly articulated by David Bowie. So, in a climate like this, how can we as musicians still surprise our audience? In reality, as music and art in general becomes gradually more institutionalised, people have less inclination to take risks. Whole courses based around an ethos of conformity and compliance leave little room for the innovators. The qualities that make these innovators so unique (stridence, brashness, a playful irreverence for the rules) are incompatible with mainstream education and will in fact probably be quashed in this environment.


Shock Tactics



Part of the problem with recklessness is that it can feel dangerously close to incompetence. By operating at the edge of our artistic ability and experimenting in waters untested, we open ourselves up to whole realms of failure. It’s really a question of ego: despite appearances the innovator is often the least egotistical musician on the stage. By having a willingness to fail publicly and triumphantly, they often end up making the kind of art we gravitate towards. Paradoxically the musician who doesn’t take a risk is most guilty of hubris. By not being willing to make mistakes and clinging to a projected self-image of competence, they may never develop. Developing the former ethos, what you could call rational recklessness, is still remarkably difficult; after all it’s not enough to simply be uncontrolled. The aim is to achieve a mind frame that can help you access all of your available musical facilities but distribute them in a completely unrestrained way. Not an easy task.



Kafka – Absurd Innovator

In Practice

Ways to develop this approach: Next time you’re in a high pressure situation, visualise you’re alone in the practice room. Most musicians I know consider themselves much better in the practice room than on stage. The lack of an audience and social restraints opens up the musical mind for exploration. Although the reasons for this seem obvious, it doesn’t make it any easier to access this freedom in public. Try taking a mental picture of your most unrestrained moments in the shed and then recall them during a gig. It’s also important to be rational about the consequences of failure. One of the largest barriers for a musician to maximise their potential is the fear of making mistakes. Just one slip up, so the thought process goes, and the whole charade of competent musicianship will slip. In reality most of my favourite musicians make mistakes all the time. They’ve just learnt to be realistic about the consequences of those mistake, namely the lack of them.

Next time you’re feeling uninspired or nervous, try and find freedom from your own expectations and let yourself veer closer to that state of rational recklessness.




Filed under Opinion Articles

4 Responses to The Importance of Being Reckless

  1. Well said Sam. Couldn’t agree more!
    Great website…

  2. Excellent stuff Sam! Really enjoying trawling through your website. Jason is quite right, as well as very talented.

    Whilst I totally agree when you say “One of the largest barriers for a musician to maximise their potential is the fear of making mistakes.” I’m not sure, as pleasingly articulate as you are in putting your point, if I agree wholeheartedly with this prior passage: “Paradoxically the musician who doesn’t take a risk is most guilty of hubris.” And yet you’re spot on when you say “By not being willing to make mistakes and clinging to a projected self-image of competence, they may never develop.”

    It’s certainly a question of ego, as you point out, but I might choose to substitute cowardice, or conservatism/dullness, for hubris. And I say this as someone who’ll readily admit that my own biggest stumbling blocks are fear of failure and not doing enough disciplined practice (the latter feeding the former, perhaps?). I’d almost rather agree with you completely tho’, because hubris sounds so much stronger and bolder than cowardice!

    This whole area reminds me of what Picasso said – Grayson Perry mentioned it in his recent Reith lectures – about trying to regain the freedom and spontaneity of childhood as an adult artist. It’s so tricky! And I think that it’s not just education that stifles the risk-taking side of our musical (or indeed other) natures, but the ever more codified and stratified state of our commodifying consumer culture. It’s such a common assumption these days that everything should occupy a pre-labelled niche… what will the marketing team do if they don’t know how to sell it?

    Maybe my views are off-kilter – I dunno? – but most of the music that surprises and thrills me, especially in terms of risk-taking and independence of spirit, is from years gone by*. I’m sure, or rather I hope, that there’s loads of great stuff happening now, somewhere (possibly leaking out via the internet, perhaps?), but I almost never hear it in the mainstream.

    * My views as expressed here, and my penchant for sounds of yesteryear, may be connected to or influenced by one of my lines of work, writing Recycled, a ‘classic album’ column for Drummer mag! Mind you, chicken and egg, and all that…

  3. Hugo

    Where do I start? Well in the form of a confessional I guess. Here it is…I found your site, briliant by the way, looking for anything on Alan Jackson, as it looks like I might be attending the Jazz Academy winter jazz thing in December where I understand Alan teaches…So, anyway, there I was looking and found the Roy Haynes 32 bar solo music, listened to it on youtube…loved it and came here to read more. I’ve been studying drum kit, with various teachers, for a couple of years and felt I wasn’t getting that far with my playing…I recently attended the Original Jazz Summer School in Cardiff and was in an eight piece band, mostly sax players along with a piano player, guitar and bass being very amusingly taught by Geoff Simkins the very fine alto player and all round wonderful musician who started out on drums so that was a helpful. Geoff really opened up my playing, for example I had never traded fours, never done a 16 bar solo, well, never done a 1 bar solo actually. The point I’m attempting, rather long windedly, to make is that I never allowed myself to make a mistake, never put myself in that place, played it safe and almost wanted to be invisible. As a beginner in the jazz world and after being exposed to some great teachers at Cardiff I’ve recognised the importance of ‘taking risks’ if not nothing is gained or learned. I’m now on route for more improv. and although currently playing blues, mostly, I don’t see why that risk taking can’t be applied to all forms and styles, for though jazz is the place I feel more uncomfortable in which tells me to stay there and engage in the listening to and interpreting of…for me what is proving to be the most difficult but ultimately most rewarding of musical, I hate to use the word, ‘genres’, but there you are I’ve said it now!! Finally, the big confession… I took up playing drumkit two years ago at the age of 62. I’m coming up for 64 and know for sure I don’t have enough time left not to make as many mistakes as I can, but, it won’t stop me trying to make all the right mistakes! As Thelonius Monk once, reportedly, said after a disappointing improvisation…”I made the wrong mistakes”

    Thanks for a great blog it is going to help hugely.

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