A Focused Practice Session for Jazz Musicians

by Ron Kearns

Date Posted: May 04, 2016

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Quite often I have students complain to me that even though they practice two or three hours a day they don’t seem to be making the headway they want in their playing. My first question to them is “how are you practicing?” The answer is usually that they are working on scales in many forms, arpeggios, exercises from method books, etc.

Quality Beats Quantity

My next comment usually floors them. I tell them that it’s not the quantity of practice time but the quality of their practice time. If you don’t have a focus in your practice time it’s like pressing the gas pedal while you’re stuck in mud – the wheels spin fast but you’re not going anywhere. To get the most out of a practice session, you must have a goal. Once you establish what you’re trying to achieve in your practice session you can concentrate on specific needs.

Set a Goal

First, decide on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re having trouble with technique, use etudes or exercises that will help you gain facility getting around the horn. If you need to slow things down in order to have clean, even fingerings, then choose exercises that will enable you to achieve that goal (digital exercises).

Don’t leave that exercise until you have accomplished your goal. The mistake most players make is to decide to finish this goal later or on another day. That is a big mistake because if/when you come back to it, you’ll be doing the same thing again and probably hit the same wall again. Practice to perfection. It may take a long time initially, but in the long run you’ll find that once you’ve acquired a particular skill it stays with you.

Choose Appropriate Exercises

The second problem my students point out is that they learn lots of licks but can’t manage to work those ideas into their solos. My suggestion is that they use exercises that they feel help them with their solos and immediately try to apply those licks to a song they are familiar with. The exercise as written may not work but it will trigger the brain into modifying the exercise into usable segments. You may need to alter a few notes to get the lick to work (use a minor third in place of a major third, etc.), but the important thing is to create a relationship between the licks and the song while both are fresh on your mind.

"To get the most out of a practice session, you must have a goal." - Ron Kearns

Map It Out

Songs based on rhythm changes can use ii-V-I turnaround patterns on the A sections. If you’re working on turnarounds, experiment with them. The worst thing that can happen is that you have to alter some notes and that you will become fluid with turnaround patterns.

A lot of players try to write out solos before a gig and then find out the rhythm section goes somewhere different than they expected and the solo doesn’t work. My suggestions are:

1) use written solos/transcriptions for practice only and

2) try mapping your solo rather than writing them out.

Mapping is simply sketching out the chord progressions (changes) with an idea of where you want to go, not where you have to go. Most players get lost in the changes because instead of actively listening and communicating with the group, they want to dictate where to go. This is not what’s intended in jazz performances. The true jazz performance experience in combo playing is the interplay that takes place on the bandstand.

One of the things I enjoy most about improvising is that I have to actively participate in the composition of a song on stage (improvisation, after all, is spontaneous composition). I have often compared this to tight rope walking without a safety net. The reality though is that as long as I know the form and follow the changes, I do have a safety net. My technical development should prepare me to have the facility to navigate the most challenging turns and spins.

The most important part of any practice session is related to getting your ear, fingers and brain to be on the “same page.” This is an individual assessment on your part and no book or private teacher can tell you exactly what you need to do. One of the things I have my students do is try to learn everything in all twelve keys. What most of them notice is that when they return to the original key, it is less challenging than before because it becomes the “familiar” pattern in comparison to the other keys. The ear is forced to discriminate pitches and hear intervals (quality and quantity). Sing each of the exercises you want to play. It may be difficult at first but as you force yourself to do it you’ll discover that it becomes less taxing.

"It is better to achieve one goal than to have a practice session that achieves nothing." - Ron Kearns

The biggest problem of not having a focused practice session is that you try to achieve too much and accomplish very little. I have my students use what I call an “elastic” practice outline. You may intend to accomplish one goal but during the process of practicing you discover you’re finding something difficult or challenging. When that happens, stop and work on that problem. Once you have worked out that problem then you can proceed with the next part of your practice. If you don’t finish everything you thought you were going to accomplish, it’s okay because you have achieved something positive. You can either lengthen your practice time or pickup where you leave off next session.

It is better to achieve one goal than to have a practice session that achieves nothing. Once again, it’s the quality of the session that counts. One of my mentors who is known as a jazz legend told me that he works on one song a day. He does that one song in all twelve keys, different tempos/tempi, and with different time signatures, and different styles (Latin, swing, funk, etc.).

One of the best things about jazz play-along books is that they have songs in C, Bb, and Eb. Learn those straight out of the book and you only have nine other keys to work with. There are CD players and software programs that will allow you to change keys of a song without affecting the speed. Some even allow you to increase or decrease the speed.

Listening to recordings by jazz masters will help you see how to apply some of the exercises you’re practicing. Many exercises in jazz books are based on what these masters did in real time. You may not understand their logic but you can learn their licks. Play along with the recordings and try to use some of the licks you’re learning from your method books in real time. It may take time but if you focus your attention on specific goals your practice time will be more efficient. Focused practice makes perfect!

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