On Practicing: When, What, How Much

No matter what you play or how well you do it, the one thing that unites all musicians is the necessity of practice. Whether you’re a four year old taking Suzuki lessons or a grizzled professional (or any kind of musician in between) you have to work to maintain and improve your musical skills.

Beyond that universal fact, everything else about practicing often seems up for grabs. Disagreements abound regarding what, when and how long you should practice. In the world of jazz, players and teachers can sometimes get into very contentious arguments for or against various aspects of study. How much time and effort should you put into purely technical exercises? Scales and arpeggios? Learning tunes? Transcribing solos (or not) and mastering the language(s) of the great musicians of previous eras? Ear training, keyboard skills, theory and harmony studies. Whew! There’s a lot of material to cover and a lot of discord among “the experts” over every bit of it.

It seems to me that jazz is ultimately about self expression. If this is true then “practicing” must mean finding ways to integrate all of the tools you need to be able to express yourself in the language of music: your physical technique, your ability to play what you hear and your innate musical instincts. Each of these areas can be divided into smaller chunks in a variety of ways, and how you do that is really up to you. The best advice I can give you is that you cultivate musical mentors in the form of teachers, band mates and the jazz masters of the past and present. But beware of those who insist that their way is the only way, because it is a demonstrable fact that this notion is false.

I’ve been playing, listening to and teaching music for 35 years, and PlayJazzNow exists to help make learning to improvise easier, more organized and (hopefully) fun. I’ve been interested in the “hows” of practicing for a very long time, both as a student and an educator. Lately I’ve discovered some thought-provoking resources that I want to share with you:

For those interested in a neurological perspective on music, a good starting point is Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music. Despite the unfortunate title, Mr. Levitin (a musician/recording engineer/producer turned neuroscientist) offers a serious exploration of the connections between music (from both a listening and playing perspective) and the brain.

The chapter that most interests me presents the venerable talent vs. hard work dichotomy. When it comes to developing true expertise as a musician, is it innate, genetic predisposition that matters most? Or is it what Artur Rubinstein referred to as “sitting power?” I posted a detailed essay about this book HERE.

Dr. Noa Kageyama began life as a violin prodigy and later attained a PhD in psychology. (Hmm, I’m starting to see a trend here.) His blog, The Bullet Proof Musician, is a tremendous resource for advice on practicing, performing and auditioning. A recent post explains how deliberate, conscious, focused practicing is so much more efficient than the more typical mindless “finger-wiggling” variety.

Saxophonist Bill Plake’s blog addresses issues directly related to the study of jazz. He makes a lot of wise suggestions about developing healthy physical and mental habits, learning to really hear yourself, the value of making mistakes, having clear musical intentions and so on. One of my favorite (and potentially controversial) pieces is The Problem with Studying the “Jazz Language”.

Your opinion and suggestions on other valuable jazz related resources are always welcome.

As a reward for getting through all of these words, here’s a fascinating “video transcription” of Miles’ game changing recording So What:




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