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August 1, 2009
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Marriage & Jazz

by Michael D. Williams

(LDS Life, August 2009)

Great marriages-like great music-are created through shared vision, practice and willingness to make a few mistakes along the way.

A student in Child Development class last semester turned me on to a great online performance by Jon Schmidt, the pianist and composer who has a strong local following. Jon and his cellist buddy begin with a light, romantic tune-"Love Story" by Taylor Swift-and jazz it up until it melds into the rocking pop tune "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay. It's not just the unexpected transition from one distinct music style to another, but the playful exchange between two talented musicians that grabbed my attention.

(For full effect I suggest you take a look at that video. I'll wait here while you go to and search for "Jon Schmidt love story". It's alright, I'll still be here. It's the summer break here on campus, and I don't have much else to do, right?)

Okay, now that you've seen the video I think my thesis will make a little more sense: Creating great music and creating a great marriage have a lot in common. Both require practice, teamwork, some sort of shared vision of what they are seeking to create-but also willingness to take a few risks and occasionally fly the seat of one's pants. Let's take a closer look at a few of these.

Start with a key in mind. I once had a guitar teacher who wanted me to feel the rush of creating music "on the fly" with another player. Dale suggested we have a "jam session" after my third lesson! After patiently listening to my fearful protests (for about 20 seconds) he flatly explained that it really wasn't that big a deal; we simply had to agree on the key in which we would play and then go slowly.

The key signature is just a fancy way of saying that we have decided before hand which notes will be used and which will not. After that, my teacher explained, it's just a matter of playing with the handful of notes we've agreed upon-in various combinations-to create something that feels good. As long as we pretty much work within these basic notes and timing we can't go too far wrong. He also hinted that the music will probably sound best if we begin and end on the root note-the one after which the key is named-and hit it often throughout the number.

Let it suffice to say that my career as a jazz performer never really took off. But my marriage certainly has been a success. (At least I see it that way, and really hope that Ruth, my wife, does ,too.)

Ruth and I agreed on a few shared values-notes to be played and notes to be avoided-before we began marriage. We have refined them over our many years together, but haven't strayed much from what we chose in the beginning. As long as we have remained within those bounds that we set, we've done amazingly well. We both try very hard to focus on the "root notes"- kindness, respectful playfulness and kind thoughts of each other.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that I'm in a duet with an exceptional partner!

Practice makes, well...pretty good! We all recognize the benefit of practice to help us locate and strike those right notes when making music. It would be silly to expect ourselves or others to be very good at something at which they have not put forth regular, sustained effort. But a good number of people put little focused energy into developing and practicing those very behaviors they have decided were so important in the beginning. I often hear clients and students alike say, "That's just who I am; my partner will have to get used it" when referring to some selfish or destructive tendency.

You've heard the term "practice makes perfect". My guitar teacher told me that "only perfect practice makes perfect". I should practice the desired skills the way I'd like to see them incorporated again and again until they became second nature. Otherwise, I'd just end up playing like a non-musician. Marriage is certainly no different. If you want to be a good marriage partner, act like a good marriage partner! Intentionally demonstrate those very qualities you'd like to have in your marriage until they become your second or new nature.

The best time to practice those skills is right now, whether married or single. I am pretty sure that God sent me to Denmark at 19 so I could have experience that would help me to become a good husband when I got home. But here I am, a grandfather, still learning and developing my marriage skills. I'm hoping that I'll be pretty good at this some time during the millennium.

That means I also need to be tolerant and patient with other developing musicians. It can be especially difficult when encountering some new challenge or opportunity, like adjusting to a new child or our first teen. But sometimes you just gotta cut the new guy some slack!

Don't be too scared to create a few "happy accidents" along the way. To those who are scared thy will make some really dumb mistakes in marriage I say, "Darn right you will! So get over it and get on with life!"

So I will leave you with one last jazz lesson: Whether soloing or playing a duet the slight, temporary deviations from the key notes add depth and variety. In fact, these "accidentals"-as they are called-create just a little bit of tension in the listener. But when they are "resolved"-another musical term-the listen feels relaxed and satisfied. The trick is to not stray too far or too often, or there will be more tension than resolution. Dale reminded me that when I miss an intended note on the guitar, which I most definitely will, I can just slide my finger up or down the fret board to resolve the note, and the music will be better for it.

I think (or hope) the applications for marriage are pretty self-evident.

So next time you enjoy some great piece of music, I hope you appreciate the method behind the magic. More importantly, I hope you come to see that this amazing challenge we call marriage is one big, beautiful, exciting jazz improvisation.


Michael D. Williams is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in practice in Rexburg. He also works as adjunct faculty in the Department of Home & Family. He currently teaches courses in Family Relations, Marriage Preparation and Marriage Skills.

He and his wife have 5 children and two grandchildren.