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7 Ways To Maximize Your Jazz Improvisation Practice

Here’s the big misconception among students of jazz improvisation:

Practice makes perfect.

Or perhaps the updated version: Perfect practice makes perfect.

We all know we’re supposed to practice. The more you practice the better, right?

Wrong. There’s something much more important than ‘logging hours’ in the practice room.

And yet many cats spend hours mindlessly running scales, drills, patterns…

…mindlessly noodling on some tune, ‘working’ on stuff they can already play and generally spinning their wheels in the practice room. With no significant RESULTS to show for it.

As long as they put in the time in the shed they feel good about their efforts. They put in four hours today. Awesome. That means they will definitely become a monster player some day. Right? Wrong.

Here’s what I mean:

The number of hours you spend in the practice room does not equal the amount of progress you make as a jazz improviser.

Instead, what matters is the RESULTS you achieve each day with music.

Tiny result + tiny result + tiny result…

Over time, those results can add up to some serious improvisation chops.

You see, WHAT you practice and HOW you practice are just as important as HOW MUCH you practice.

And in this teacher’s opinion more important.

Quality beats quantity. Every time. And it makes for a more enjoyable journey through jazz.

But, how do you make sure you are getting the most out of your precious practice time? Let’s dig into that, shall we?

7 Ways To Maximize Your Jazz Improvisation Practice.

1. Deliberate Practice

Much has been written about the concept of Deliberate Practice over the last few years. I encourage you to check out the book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. That book, by Geoff Colvin, digs deep into the topic.

But here’s my take on it. Deliberate practice means purposeful practice. Put another way, it means improving a specific element or aspect of your playing ON PURPOSE.

Let me explain. Typically, you see two main types of practicer. Let’s give them names to help tell the story:

First, we have Marvin. Marvin goes to his music lesson on Thursday afternoon. His teacher assigns a new standard for him to work on. Marvin’s teacher wants him to be able to play the melody of the new tune from memory.

Marvin takes his assignment home and is ready to start learning the tune. He goes into his room, picks up his instrument, puts the lead sheet on the music stand and gets to work.

He proceeds to hack his way through the entire melody from beginning to end, butchering a section here, annihilating a phrase there, dropping a few beats hear, flubbing his way through the bridge and ultimately gets to the end. Whelp, he’s put in his time for today. Until tomorrow…

Then tomorrow comes. And it’s time for Marvin to hit the shed again. So he goes into his practice room, picks up his ax and takes another stab at the melody. Again, he plays it from start to finish making dozens of mistakes and poorly executing the melody in at least 37 different ways. He reasons that practice makes perfect. If he just keeps putting in the time every day eventually he’ll get it.

Today, Marvin has a little more time to practice. So he plays through the entire tune a few more times before he calls it a day. He ‘practices’ it in this fashion every day until finally, it’s time for his next lesson.

He shows up and hacks his way through the tune showing some, albeit minimal, improvement on the piece since last week.

His teacher says “Nice job, Marvin, that was pretty good. Now work on this new tune for next week…”. Thus perpetuating this cycle of mediocrity…

Enter Fran. Fran takes a very different approach to learning the tune.

Awhile back she discovered the practice concept of ‘divide and conquer’ and she uses a framework I call the power practice paradigm.

Here are the steps in the power practice paradigm:

Determine your desired result (What’s your target? What’s your goal?)
Find the Very Next Step.
Practice until you own it.
Push the envelope

Using this basic paradigm, Fran approaches the tune in a very different way than Marvin.

Step one: She begins by getting clear about her desired result. By next Thursday when she has her next lesson she wants to be able to:

Play the standard effortlessly from memory emulating the style of Miles Davis from a recording she has of him playing the standard. She wants to be able to nail the notes, the rhythms, the phrasing, the articulation, and the tempo. And play along with Miles as accurately as possible.

Fran knows that working on the entire tune at the same time is a recipe for failure. She knows that she must divide the goal into tiny steps that she can absorb and nail one at a time. She begins by thinking through her practice plan for the next 7 days.

An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of progress.

After a few minutes of mulling it over, she comes up with the following basic plan.

Day 1: Listen to the entire melody 5X to let the overall shape and sound soak into the ear a little bit.

Then she’ll break the tune up into bite-size pieces – perhaps 8 bar phrases – and she’ll listen to each phrase one at a time until each phrase becomes familiar.

Day 2: Practice singing along with each phrase one at a time. Then practice singing each phrase one at a time without the recording.

Day 3: Find the notes of the melody on her instrument, one phrase at a time. Use the lead sheet or a transcription to help if really gets stuck.

Day 4: Practice the notes and rhythms, again one phrase at a time, until they are easy.

Practice connecting the phrases - 2 at a time, 3 at a time, etc – until she can easily perform the entire melody on her instrument.

Day 5: Record herself playing the melody. Listen back to the recording 5X and answer the following questions: is she accurately hitting the notes? Is she accurately executing the rhythms? She’ll then focus in and fix any issues one phrase at a time.

Day 6 -7: Continue to record & critique and compare her recordings to the Miles version. Methodically dig deeper into the details like dynamics, articulation, rhythmic duration, etc. Again focus in on these details one at a time and phrase by phrase.

Now, that’s a lot to work on in one week. It really depends on your level and current ability. Your plan might take a month. Or it might take 2 days. It depends on you. But the principles are the same.

She zooms in on a musical detail and purposefully works on it.

Now, when she goes to her lesson a week from now, she’s gonna have a very different performance than old Mediocre Marvin, isn’t she?

Fran very deliberately worked on her ability to play that standard, one piece at a time. At the end of the week, she will have improved her ears, learned from the tradition, increased her musical awareness. And she’ll be exponentially better at phrasing melodies.

Those benefits will, of course, carry over to the next tune she works on. And the next. She’ll continue to learn jazz faster as she continues to get better at the learning process.

2. Practice At The Edge of Your Ability

Have you ever had the privilege of watching a really good player practice? They sound good, right? Even though they’re practicing. There’s a reason for that and it’s not necessarily what you think.

Here’s the deal. When you practice, you want to experience success nearly 100% of the time. Meaning you want to be able to execute what you’re working on nearly 100% of the time. Whether it’s scales, melodies, improv concepts, reading, etc. In this way, you’ll reap the maximum benefit from your practice sessions.

And to experience success nearly 100% of the time you must be practicing at the edge of your ability. You practice targets can’t be too hard. And they can’t be too easy. There’s a sweet spot that is slightly past your current level of ability. So that it stretches you and causes you to improve. But you can actually play it. It’s ‘challenging but doable’ to quote my mentor Hal Crook. That’s where you want to exist in the practice room.

If you're butchering your practice you're working on stuff that is too hard.

This is what Marvin was doing in the previous example. He was trying to take on the whole tune at the same time, but he didn’t have the ability to do that. So he butchered it. Again and again.

And here’s the big problem with that approach. You are a creature of habit. We all are. Just about everything you do in life is affected by your habits in some way. Everything you play on your instrument is a habit. Dave Liebman explains that the point of practice is to turn the unfamiliar into a habit.

Here’s another quote from an article Liebman wrote:

The goal of any practicing is to instill new or changed behavior via repetition towards habitualizing the activity until it becomes instinctive and can be accomplished without conscious thought.

With every repetition you make during your practice sessions (and your life!) you are creating and/or strengthening neural pathways & networks in your brain. This is how habit is formed and intensified.

Marvin was repeating musical mistakes and melody hack-jobs over and over and over. He was repeating failure over and over and over. So what do think he was programming into his brain? Mistakes, failure, and hack-jobs!

This is why it’s so important to practice at that edge of your ability. So that excellent execution of the musical material becomes habitual and effortless. And so that success becomes habitual. Marvin is doing the opposite of that in the practice room.

Fran was right there at the edge of her ability. She broke everything down into easy steps that her brain could absorb like a sponge. She learned the tune at a high level, fast. And she also continued to build and strengthen her excellent musical habits in the process.

So no matter what you’re working on in the shed, search for the edge. Find it and push forward on that edge every day with your playing. And as you do your progress with music will accelerate. There is no doubt about it…

3. Make Everything You Do (Musically) Serve Your Ear.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that #3 in this list is the most important.

Music is the art form of the ears. It's art made by, for and with your hearing. Period.

The problem is that many, maybe even most, students of jazz come at the art form from a completely technical and theoretical point of view. They think about things like what notes to play over what chords, what fingers to push down, what scales & patterns they know that they can use and so forth.

They do this in the practice room but also at jam sessions, on the bandstand, at recording sessions and even when ‘playing for fun’ by themselves in the basement.

Now, don’t misinterpret this to mean that theory and technique are not important. They are very important. And they have their place. So does thinking while you’re playing.

But the ear is far superior to thinking when it comes to guiding your improvisations, tapping into your true musical voice and acting & reacting at lightning speed on the bandstand.

Thinking is slow, methodical and laborious. It’s also typically uncreative, uninspired and dispassionate in the context of jazz.

So thinking, theory, technique and the like must be relegated to serving the ear. These are powerful tools for learning and expanding your musical abilities. But when we create, improvise and perform let that all go and just play.

Now, that sounds easier said than done, right. That’s because it is. It’s not a switch that you can just turn off and on. It’s not like some magical ability will come to you from the ether if you simply stop thinking and ‘just play’.

***You must first cultivate the habit of letting your ear be your guide over time. And you also must cultivate your listening and playing skills. You must train your ears, sharpen & expand your awareness, develop your macro view of the music, feed your musical memory and practice letting your ears be your guide.

So, should you work on technique and theory? YES! Use your thinking brain to help you learn. Put on your lab coat and your thinking cap when you’re in the shed. But you must also cultivate your ear. And your propensity to trust it.

Here are a few things you can do to this end:

Listen to music you love. Listen a lot. Not just in the car or while you do the dishes. Schedule dedicated listening sessions into your daily practice. This is not a luxury. Listening is mandatory. Listen as deeply and as attentively as you possibly can. Stick with one record or track or solo for a while and really get to know it intimately.

Learn bits and pieces (or whole solos & records) of the music you love. Completely internalize these bits and pieces with as much detail as possible until you can hear and play them ‘auto-magically’ without thinking.

Record & Critique yourself daily. Record something and listen back 5 times +. Over time this will help you develop your macro sense of the music. Over time this will make you more aware of what you’re playing in the moment. It took me years before I listened to this advice (from Hal Crook) and formed a regular habit of recording & critiquing. But when I did I saw dramatic changes in my playing in just a few weeks. It’s so powerful. It’s way more important than that long laundry list of b.s. on your practice routine. Cut out at least half of all that technical stuff and start working on your ears.

Remind yourself on a daily basis that your ears are superior when it comes to improvising and playing music. Meditate on this fact. When you find yourself thinking on the bandstand (if you’re a human, you will) just notice it, acknowledge it, and let it go.

Practice letting your ear guide your playing while improvising. Play completely free to experience this: no form, no time, no meter, no rules. Or, simplify the context you’re improvising in to experience this: one chord, 2 notes, or any other parameters that simplify/limit the context. It will take time. But if you do all 5 of these steps on a regular basis you will radically change your playing.

4. Learn By Doing

I first came into contact with this law back in 1997 when Hal Crook threw me out of his ensemble.

It was a depressing day to be sure.

But it was a major wake up call for me.

He said I didn’t need to be a better instrumentalist. He said I needed to be better at playing with people. He advised me to go schedule a session with other cats every day for a year. Then I was to call him back to set up a session with him, to see if I was ready for his ensemble.

I did it, just like he said.

And it was one of the biggest turning points of my playing.

The second time I really came across this idea, it was explicitly laid out as such on a recording I watched of Hal Galper giving a jazz master class. (I’m a big H.G. fan!) In the master class, he specifically came out and said: “jazz is a music you learn by doing”.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do.

  • Hide in your practice room running scales & patterns.
  • Wait for the day when you have enough chops together to start improvising.
  • Then improvise by yourself in your practice cave for a while.
  • Then think that eventually, you’ll be good enough to go out and kill it at the local jam session.

Don’t Do That!!! Let me save you the trouble. It doesn’t work.

First of all, scales & patterns & exercises are important.

Do that stuff for SOME of your daily practice.

The key word being ‘SOME’. Go through whatever method books you want, learn the etudes, transcriptions etc. I’ll leave it at that since I know you’re probably gonna do that stuff anyway.

But then start to improvise in your daily practice.

Right away.

Don’t wait until you’re ‘ready’.

It’s like having a child. You’re never ready to be a parent until after you’ve already had a child!

So just start improvising.

I don’t care how long you’ve been playing.

Jazz is all about improvisation.

So start to improvise now. Start to do the process now.
Start to record & critique yourself doing it now.
Start to play with other musicians as soon as possible.

It doesn’t matter if you can only play 3 notes on your ax. Improvise with those 3 notes. Explore, experiment and see what you can come with.

Then add a fourth note.

But if you’re reading this post on this website I’d bet you have MUCH MORE than enough going on musically to start diving into regular improvisational practice.

5. You Need Vocabulary To Do It

Like I mentioned before, jazz doesn’t come from some magical place.

It’s not luck or chance or DNA.

Every single great jazzer, dead or alive, put in the time to hone their abilities.

Of course, they put in quality time.

They cultivated their ear, they spent plenty of time ‘doing the process’ and they developed a deep & rich vocabulary to do it with.

Let me give you a little analogy.

Suppose you wanted to become a Russian poet. You wanted to write poetry in Russian.

Only the trouble is you don’t read, write or speak Russian!

Would you just practice ‘letting go’? Would you just practice noodling on paper and writing random letters assuming that you’ll just sorta figure it out over time? Would you just wait for the muse of Russian poetry to show up and make it so that beautiful Russian words would simply flow out of your hand and onto the paper? Would you assume that other Russian poets simply had a gift from God that you didn’t have?

No! You would learn Russian!

Here’s a good path you might take:

  1. You’d start by learning some of the basics of the language: alphabet, grammar, the sounds, etc.

  2. You’d also learn a little vocabulary – words you can use in the various situations of life: “What time is it? What is your name? My name is Jimbo. I like jazz music”.

  3. And you would practice using it by reading simple books in Russian, watching T.V. shows in Russian, speaking simple sentences in Russian with your friends & teachers.

  4. You would also use it in the real world – assuming you were in Russia – by dealing with people the best you can: ordering a coffee at a cafe, telling the taxi driver where you’re going, asking for directions, talking to people you meet along your travels.

  5. Along the way, you would pick up new vocabulary from the people you met. And you would also become aware of which situations you needed more vocabulary for.

  6. Then you would go back to your hotel and look up the words you needed. You’d learn & memorize them. You’d practice using them in sentences by yourself. You’d practice using them with your practice partners (your friends, teachers, etc.).

  7. Then, once again, you’d get experience using them in the real world. And, if you’re paying attention and you’re eager to learn & improve, each time you practice using this vocabulary in the real world you’d get more fluid and natural.

You’d begin to learn the subtleties of the language. You’d become more articulate, more clear and you’d be able to effortlessly function in more and more contexts using your Russian language skills.

Stick with it and before you know it you’d be writing poetry. Bad poetry at first. But better and better over time.

It’s the same kind of process with jazz.

You learn by doing. But you need vocabulary to do it.

And let me be clear about this. You don’t need ALL of the vocabulary before you can begin to start practicing ‘doing it’.

You can start by developing vocabulary over one chord type in one key.

And gradually over time, you’ll build up your vocabulary so you can function in many different harmonic contexts (i.e. over the many different common and less common chord progressions and tunes).

Before you know it, you can survive and thrive in just about any musical situation you find yourself.

6. It All Comes From The Tradition

We now know that you need vocabulary to play jazz and that you ‘learn by doing’.

So where do you get this vocabulary?

Well, some of it you’ll work out. As you practice playing, exploring and improvising you’ll discover & develop ideas you like. You can work with those ideas to develop flexibility with them, combine them with other ideas to create new ideas and practice using and applying them in all keys and various musical settings.

But, you must also look to the great tradition of jazz to draw your inspiration from and to find many more new ideas.

There’s an old saying. I have no idea who said it. But it goes like this:

Good players borrow. Great players steal. Good players will swipe a lick from say, Wes Montgomery. They’ll learn it in whatever key Wes played it on that recording. Then whenever that particular chord progression, in that key comes up they’ll play it if it happens to come to mind.

That’s the equivalent of learning one simple phrase in a foreign language: ‘What is your name? My name is Chris.’ That’s the only way I know it and I can only use it that way in that context.

That’s borrowing the phrase.

Stealing it is a totally different ball game. And let me clarify. We’re not trying to take someone Else’s creation, use it on the bandstand, and take credit for it.

We’re trying to take some vocabulary that really speaks to us and make it into our own.

We’re gonna put it through the wringer – digest it, process it, and assimilate it into our own piece of jazz vocabulary. Borrowing – playing it verbatim – is more of a ripoff.

Here are the basic steps you can take.

  • Choose a piece of vocabulary to cop. Ideally, it’s something you need for a specific harmonic context like two-fives. And it absolutely should be music that you love and want to make into your own.
  • Learn and master the vocabulary as is, with as much detail as you can possibly absorb and recreate. Practice it until it is impossible for you to play it wrong. Until it ‘plays itself’. Until it is as easy as brushing your teeth or using a fork to eat your dinner. Remember to simplify and practice at the edge of YOUR ability as needed.
  • Take the line, lick, phrase, etc through all twelve keys. Master it in all twelve keys. Is this a lot of work? Hell yeah. A lot. But do it. Even if it takes you 3 months to do one lick in all 12 keys. Because once you do it a few times it will get easier and easier and easier. And that kind of musical control will set you apart from the mediocre majority.
  • Take it through the wringer. Begin to slice, dice, chop, augment, diminish, flip, flop, spin, fragment, stretch, squish and otherwise alter the vocabulary in any way you can come up with.
  • Change 1 note. Change several notes. Change different notes, different combinations of notes, etc.
  • Augment the rhythms. Change some of the note values, leave other alone. Then change different ones.
  • Experiment with the articulation, the tempo, the time signature.
  • Make it fit into different harmonic contexts.
  • Play it backward. Invert the intervals.
  • Add notes to the front of the lick. Add notes to the end. Play fragments of the line. Add notes to the front of the fragment. To the end. Rearrange the fragments.
  • Combine it with other vocabulary, other fragments, other variations.
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

This is a process of experimentation. What can you come up with?

Now, a lot of what you find may sound terrible at first! That’s just fine. Because some of what you find will sound fantastic. When you discover a musical gem, master it and make it yours. Practice it until it becomes natural and easy to play.

You will get better and better at this process the more you do it. It will happen more quickly for you and more natural for you.

But, I’d be willing to bet that it will be very hard and uncomfortable for you at first.

That’s Normal!

Do this regularly: Cop awesome vocabulary that you really love.

And also vocabulary that you need for a specific chord progression or tune.

Then, put it through the wringer and make it your own.

At first, you may spend a week exploring one idea. Maybe even more.

Over time you may find that you can put a phrase through the wringer in a day or two.

But do this process and you will become an incredibly creative player with a bottomless wellspring of creative ideas.

Instead of just ‘practicing more’ I want you to practice ‘better’ I want you to practice smarter and more effectively. So you get results from your practice and so you get better and better each day.

7. Follow through on a tried and true method.

Do you want to know what one of the biggest indicators of musical success is?

The Habit of Follow Through.

And it’s where many cats fall short.

I get it.

There’s just so much stuff to practice. It’s very easy to fall victim to ‘shiny object syndrome’.

Shiny what?

I’m talking about any new thing that comes along that looks like it could help your music. That gets your interest and hooks you in. It could be a new YouTube lesson that pops up in your Facebook feed. Something your friend is working on. A new method book you pick up at the music store. Anything that distracts you and gets you to change course too soon.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. There are so many great resources out there. And jazz is a complex journey.

There is a lot to learn.

Getting pulled off course is super easy.

But failure to follow through on your short-term musical goals – i.e. your current practice routine, plans, methods, etc – will result in never hitting your long-term goal of becoming a solid improviser.

So, step one is to find a tried and true method. It could be a method book by a great jazz musician. It could be your private teacher’s method. Or it could be your own plan to conquer a topic that is currently important to you.

Step two is to get clear about your goals with the method and then follow through to completion.

There you have it!

I recommend you take one of these 7 concepts at a time. Read it through a couple times. And begin incorporating it into your own practice and musical learning process.

Overtime as the quality of your practice sessions improves, you’ll start to get the results with jazz you really want. It’ll start to happen faster. And jazz will start to become really fun to play.

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