Eager to Improve? Don't Make This Common Mistake in the Practice Room

by Eric O'Donnell

Originally published to JazzAdvice.com

In case you were starting to mistake jazz musicians for super-humans…

Or highly talented individuals that know thousands of tunes, have perfect pitch, and transcribe solos in mere minutes, I thought I’d write a post to correct that picture in your mind.

In fact, I want to show you one of the most important rules when it comes to learning to improvise.

I want to show you why absorbing one solo or a single tune into your bloodstream is a good thing.

And I want to show you that unless you do this, you’re missing out on the best kind of practice.

Let me show you what I mean…

Too fast & too furious in the practice room

The problem with the way many players practice jazz improvisation is this:

they are simply trying to do too much at once.

Daily practice becomes a mad rush to cram in tunes, transcribing, memorizing licks, scales in all keys, technical exercises, and ear training.

But despite all of this time and effort, lasting musical progress somehow continues to be elusive.

And here at Jazzadvice, this one of the most common themes we hear from people around the world that are learning to improvise and improve their musicianship – they are overwhelmed.

There is simply too much information out there…and the frustration comes in trying to keep up.

It’s understandable. Many improvisation resources bombard you with music theory information, instructors push you to transcribe solos, and jam sessions put on the pressure to learn more tunes.

But the pressure also comes from inside of us – we’re ambitious and competitive. We push ourselves because we desperately want to get better.

At some point however, you need to start seeing improvement in your playing. You need to start achieving your musical goals…

So how do you absorb the music you’re learning?

Improvement starts with a change in your mindset.

A change from all the jazz theory, the competition, the information overload, and the frustration of trying to keep up…

So take a deep breath.

Good, now relax. Here’s the deal: You have time. A lot of it. There’s no rush to the finish line (actually there is no finish line) and there’s no spiritual or artistic enlightenment that you’ll achieve by learning 500 tunes.

Practice is about making progress with your artistic voice and skill level one day at a time. Remember, you’re doing something you love, so make sure you do it right!

Pick one solo, one chorus, one transcribed line, one scale or one tune. Now you’re going to learn the s#!t out of that thing. Take your time and don’t stop until it’s absorbed into your DNA.

Here are a few articles to check out that will help you to sharpen your focus and master that one thing:

Pick one tune to master:

Or choose one solo to ingrain:

And remember it’s all about slow practice.

At the end of the day, it’s not so much the information you’ve memorized as the skills you developed while doing it.

Sure you’ve memorized a bunch of tunes, but what can you do with that information?

Can you play it by ear, have you developed language to navigate each of those chords or the entire progression? More information doesn’t equal more skill.

When you spend the time to master each tune or solo you’re developing skills that will last with you forever.

5 Good Reasons for Mastering Small Amounts of Material 

Before you finish reading this and head into the practice room, here are 5 things you should remember about making your goal to absorb this music on a deep level…

If you read interviews, watch videos, and listen the stories of great improvisers you’ll hear the same theme over and over again.

A young player finds one record that sticks with them. They wear out the record, listen to every note, sing it in their sleep, and absorb every last detail.

Today we have instant access to every jazz album ever recorded. Thousands of songs, tens of thousands solos…It’s a gift, but also a curse.

Because there is so much material, we never really spend the time to focus on and master one thing.

So pick that one album, find that one solo and become obsessed. Spend a week, a month, six months and absorb it into your bloodstream.

Improving as a musician is all about quality over quantity.

When you take your time, remove the pressure, stress and self-doubt from your practice mindset you’ll be much more productive in learning and retaining information.

You’ll have time to focus on all the minute details of the stuff you’re learning.

Because it’s the little details that pave the road to improvement. The way you breathe, the articulation, slowly taking one idea through every key.

It’s okay to spend 30 minutes imitating the way Freddie Hubbard plays one phrase… in fact it’s necessary if you want to see real improvement in your playing.

Do you have trouble memorizing tunes, remembering chord progressions, or making progress?

It all goes back to the way you practice.

Rushing to learn tunes out of a real book, focusing on chord names instead of the sound of chords, trying to learn 5 tunes at once.

This type of practice will hold you back in the long run.

Instead focus on one tune for an extended period of time – listen to it, learn the chord progression by ear, sing and play the melody, and repeat it until you can play it in your sleep.

This way you’re improving your ear, expanding your repertoire, and retaining the information. And when you go to perform this information will be at your fingertips.

It’s true…

Practicing this way is slow. You’ll feel like you’re falling behind when you isolate your attention on a small piece of information. Like you’re going back to the basics when everyone else is working on the “advanced stuff.”

But keep going. No great solo or tune is too easy or below you.

Spending a few weeks or even a month on one solo can feel like you’re moving at a snail’s pace, but this time will payoff.

You’ll be mastering the things you learn. You’ll be retaining concepts, techniques, and skills that you’ll remember for good.

Most jazz standards share the same basic chords and progressions

So the benefits of learning one tune or solo correctly apply to every other solo or tune that you learn. Mastering one tune completely is the best way to approach the entire jazz repertoire.

Remember, you don’t have to climb the entire mountain today, you just have to take the first step.

If you take your time and do it right, you’ll have something to show for your time in the practice room.

And this will make a tangible difference when you go to perform. You won’t be scrambling to remember the chords, or trying to make a solo with scales, or staring at a real book without relying on your ears.

Remember this…

The point of learning tunes or transcribing solos isn’t to see how many you can get through…

It’s to see how many can make a difference in your musicianship.

What epiphanies or revelations can you have with one chord progression or line? How much time in the practice room does it take to leave a lasting effect on your ability to improvise?

Instead of going through the motions in the practice room or rushing to do everything at once, take the time to absorb one piece of musical information into your bloodstream.

And when it’s time to perform, the difference will be obvious!

Read the original publication here.

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