What if we got our dopamine from playing saxophone?

This past week I had a great saxophone player at my house for a few days. We were working on filming the content of an upcoming course for BetterSax.

I noticed something about this particular musician while spending a lot of time with him, that I have noticed in other musicians that play at a very high level and seem to do it effortlessly.

Musicians like these are addicted to playing their instrument in the same way that you or I may be addicted to checking email or social media, playing video games or watching Netflix.

I understand why I spend/waste so much of any given day on these things. Science has documented this, and we have all read the articles and books about the dopamine we get from these activities. We are evolved to survive in a certain set of conditions, but modern life is completely different than what we are built for and the dopamine we get from eating chocolate now just makes us fat, rather than helping us to survive.

Addicted to Saxophone

It is widely known that many artists and musicians who are/were addicted to the process of making their art were also addicted to other substances and activities that were often detrimental to their health and well being. The type of person that can easily become addicted to playing the saxophone or writing novels could perhaps just as easily become addicted to alcohol and drugs. This is pure speculation on my part as a layperson, but it seems logical.

Those of us who would like to spend more time on the creative pursuits we love and less time on the mundane time wasting activities we do so much would do well to ask ourselves, “what if I replaced the dopamine hits I get from my phone, email, chocolate, video games, tv, alcohol etc with dopamine hits from playing and listening to music, reading good books, exercise, and creative work like writing or filming quality videos.

Speaking for myself, the difference this sort of shift in daily habits would make an enormous difference in my life.

Benefits of replacing screen time with music

Imagining that I swapped all the time I spent on what we’ll call undesirable behavior with equal time spent on desirable behavior the list of potential benefits is quite enticing.

Losing weight/better health

Less stress – because suddenly I have plenty of time to do all the things I must do as well as ample time to do all the things I want to do. This is a productivity and health benefit.

Increased happiness – Nothing compares to the sensation of having completed worthwhile tasks. Whether they are work related, doing a workout, finishing a book, or having a great practice session, these things make us feel good in a way that checking email, skimming the news headlines or completing Wordle in 3 guesses never can.

Better relationships. As a parent, I’m always trying to limit the time my daughter spends on devices and screens. I want her to play in the real world, read books, practice piano do her homework etc. But who is limiting the time I spend on devices? What about the time we are all, the whole family in the same room, each in a separate world in front of a tiny screen? I’m not against the devices, I love them and think they offer a tremendous amount of value. They are also the most addictive things in most peoples’ daily life and just like with sugar, cigarettes, alcohol and video games, we need to limit ourselves precisely because it is so difficult to do so.

I want to set a better example for my own children so rather than just telling them to put their devices down, I will do the same.

Breaking the bad habits

Yes, it is tricky when you also use the devices for your work and creative pursuits. I am writing this on my computer right now. The challenge is not checking email, or social media, reading comments, watching YouTube videos etc. All the addictive things that are just one click away.

All those undesirable behaviors are easier to start than the desirable ones are. Not by a lot, just enough to win out most of the time.

One hack that I have found to work incredibly well though is simply writing things down on paper and leaving that paper in plain view on my desk.

Right now I have one piece of paper that has 2 lists. List 1 is all the things I’m allowed to do today. Practice, listen to music, read, yard work, exercise, film video content and write. List 2 is all of the things I am not allowed to do today. Touch my phone, email, video games, sugar/alcohol, use the computer (other than for tasks in list 1).

I have another list of things I want to get done today. When I make these lists at the beginning of any given day, I get so much more done than if I had not made the list. It is an extreme difference in productivity. Today is Sunday so I’ve also made a list of all the things I would like to get done this week.
Since I have been good and have not done any of the things on list 2, I have already done everything on list 1 before 10am. If I had allowed myself anything from list 2, I would conveniently make it take the entire day to finish all of my tasks. Every time I finished something I would reward myself by checking email, scrolling social media, having a snack etc.

Now, I can only choose from list 1 when I finish a task. The irony is that list 1 is the things I actually want to do! The things that make me feel good and make my life better. We do the things on list 2 because there is part of us that tells us they will make us feel better but instead them make us feel worse.

There is one thing on my to-do list that I still haven’t done, and that is practice the saxophone. I’m going to start that now, but with a new intention. Rather than practicing as though it were my duty, I am going to just play the saxophone in the same spirt as I might play video games or watch Netflix. I am just going to enjoy the activity and lose track of the time.


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Peter Horah says:

Wow this is really interesting! I never thought of separating my tasks this way – it is usually one list with numbered priorities ! I really like the idea of doing less of the computer stuff and reducing screen time! Maybe……if you were to do a video on this….you might want to interview a psychologist or behavioral specialist that can help us focus on the music and practice whilst reducing the distractions?

Ian L Taylor says:

A most interesting blog, Jay, and if I may say so, it contains a lot of sound common sense. Nice one!

Roy Harrison says:

Thank you for your interesting article. I have always wondered if wind players get more of a “high” after practice than other instrumentalists due to the increased circulation of oxygen from all of the extra breathing involved.

Rex Decker says:

Thank you Jay, this is a superb observation. I’m good about making list one but I have never even considered making list two. Consequently, there is a meandering through the list as compared to what you just described. I’m going to try that.

Comment pop quiz. I’ve been looking for a blog with tips on how to keep that Buzzy sound out of the tone of my saxophone when my mouthpiece is no longer dry. Is that a worthwhile subject for a YouTube video? Top tips for dry lips? Get a clean tone in the spit free zone? Hold your head high and keep the sound dry? I don’t think anything is too tough an assignment for you, Jay. Am I the only one interested in having a clear tone through a microphone?

Franco says:

Agree with your post, Jay. A lot of time is wasted on silly activities, like watching telly, or social media.



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