Creative Practicing: A Guide to Improve Your Practice Sessions and Achieve Technical Mastery

with Don Aliquo

Date Posted: July 05, 2016

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The topic of creative practicing should be interesting to anyone who is serious about music making. Unquestionably my music heroes from the past and present were ardent and committed practicing musicians.

Technical mastery, the quality and scope of their musical ideas and expressiveness all point to thorough preparation on the part of these great artists.

The purpose of this article is to give the reader some brief and practical and suggestions for improving preparation.

An Individualized Approach

Practicing clearly requires a consistent effort to make steady progress.

Keep in mind that everyone brings their own musical strengths and weaknesses to a practice session. As a result, we all learn information at different rates and speeds. Self-assessing strengths and weaknesses is one of the most difficult challenges we face as practicing musicians. However, musical problems solved through careful self-assessment are usually the things we learn the most completely!

In other words, ask yourself the following:

-What is working, and what isn’t?

-What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Then figure out solutions to solving the weakest aspects of your playing. If you are having trouble figuring this out, try recording a practice session and/or seek out a musician you admire and take a lesson with them. Most importantly, practice your weaknesses not your strengths!

Setting Goals and the Practice Diary

Setting short term and long term goals are a good idea. Figure out what you would like to accomplish and write it down. The more specific you are the better!

Assembling a practice dairy is an easy way to track progress and keep you accountable for goals. Try and track the essentials like what you have practiced each day, how long you practiced, what metronome markings you used for practicing technique, etc. Your diary could also consist of exercises, jazz transcriptions, really anything that you are using to realize your goals.

Practicing Efficiently

One of the easiest concepts to practicing smarter is the idea of combining practice goals.

The more things you hold yourself accountable for, the more efficient your time spent in the practice room will be. Although many of these may seem obvious, they are examples of how to begin practicing smarter.


  • Technique (Combining technique with tone quality)

If you are practicing scales for the development of technique, strive for the utmost in an even tone quality. In essence, make your technique practice session a tone exercise too!

Actually, I try to adhere to a TONE FIRST philosophy. In other words, if I do not feel I am achieving the sound I hear internally, I do not move on to the next scale. This really should apply to everything I practice! After all, if you can make a scale sound great, think what you can do with a phrase of music.

  • Melodic Ideas (Combining melodic ideas with time)

Practice a melodic or scale pattern in differing rhythmic feels. (In groups of twos, threes, 4’s and 5’s for instance) This will often change the context of how the melody functions over the time in the rhythm section.

Practice melodic ideas and scale patterns in all directions thereby increasing your ability to create more from the same basic material. (Combining melodic ideas with texture)

  • Transcriptions (Combining expression with technique)

After transcribing a player’s solo, work on playing it exactly including all expressive devices etc. in addition to playing the correct notes and rhythms.

  • Tone (Combining intonation with tone quality)

Work on an even tone color and quality while tuning intervals with a tuner or pitch source

I would also suggest practicing within the context of the music you are planning to perform.

For example, work on your intonation while you are learning a beautiful, lyrical melody from the classical repertoire. Actually, jazz playing in general, is the combining of many aspects of practicing, including motivic development, knowledge of harmony, expressiveness and sound, etc. (See the following for more ideas)

Parameter Improvisation

This is a great way to practice jazz improvisation and continually discover and learn new ideas.

Choose a tune you know well and try some of the following:

  • Play through the melody by ear in three additional keys
  • Improvise choruses choosing to limit the parameters you use to create. For example:

1. Improvise using only a few specific intervals (major, minor third intervals or fourths for instance) Saxophonist Greg Osby showed me this!

2. Improvise using a rhythmic motive or clave as the unifying element in all of your ideas.

3. Experiment with different ways to feel the pulse. Using a metronome, experiment with feeling the pulse on beats one and three and then beats two and four. Go further and have the metronome imply other pulses: dotted quarter note, etc.

4. Assign one note value (triplets for example) and play several choruses using only this note value.

5. Take a short melodic motive and voice-lead it through the chord changes

6. Improvise on a tune using the rhythms of another tune. (For instance, improvise on rhythm changes using the rhythms present in the melody to Charlie Parker’s Au Privave) This is a tough one for sure!

Make up your own or for a real challenge combine some of the above ideas!

Technical Practice

In practicing difficult technical passages, it is often good to change the rhythms of the music to give your fingers the opportunity to go from note to note at differing rates of speed. This can really even out your technique and help you learn the music more completely.

What is Mastery?

When is something you have worked on completed? When can you move on? I struggle with this too, but as a teacher often hear “I just played this perfectly in the practice room, I don’t know why I can’t play it now” The answer here should be fairly obvious, it just isn’t mastered yet.

The Five Time Rule- I am sure many of you have heard this before, however it bears repeating and certainly the idea of repetition is often the key to mastery! If you can play a phrase of technique, or the melody to a bebop head for example, five times in a row perfectly you are getting close to mastering the material. I usually play something one time, then two times in a row, then three times, etc. If I make a mistake I am back to one! If anything, it forces you to play multiple repetitions!

I like to think of mastery as having complete control of the musical situation you are working on. In other words, you know the music so completely that there is no other option but to play it correctly. I like to tell my students that mastery is me coming to your house at three in the morning, getting you out of bed, handing you your instrument and saying play it. If you can play it-it is mastered!

Hopefully, some of these ideas will be useful or are different looks at things you are already doing! The more focused, intelligent and efficiently one practices, the better one performs!

Best of luck in your practice journey.

For more articles and jazz materials by Vandoren Artist Don Aliquo, visit his page here.

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