Effective Practice

The following is a transcript of a presentation I gave at the Jazz Education Network (JEN) National Conference in Dallas, January 2018.

What Makes the Musician?

What makes the musician? Is it natural talent? Do we imagine that Charlie Parker was born with saxophone in hand and music pouring out of his soul? Remember that Charlie Parker had so much natural talent that the first time he played on the bandstand Jo Jones chucked a cymbal at him – that’s how bad he was – much in the same way that Michael Jordan didn’t have enough natural talent to make it onto his high school varsity team. I’m not saying that talent is irrelevant. I am saying that talent alone isn’t enough.

So what makes the musician? Is it effort? As an undergraduate I worked really hard to get better at music. I put a lot of effort into practicing. I’d make up new schemes every week or even every day – mental practice, slow practice, effort-full practice, everything but consistent practice. I gave myself a whole lot of head ache, heart ache, belly ache, and maybe I got better, a little. To use an analogy, focusing only on effort is like saying I’m going to push down that wall with my bare hands. I’m trying really hard, nothing is happening – obviously I need to try harder. No – if I want to tear down that wall I should come back with an ax, or a jackhammer, or better yet just realize that there is a door over there and another door in the hall and if I really want to get to the other side of this wall I can just walk around and through. I’m not saying that effort isn’t important; effort alone is not enough.

So, what makes the musician? Is it believing in yourself? I think I can, I think I can, I think I can – that wall’s still standing.

What about ten thousand hours? Does spending ten thousand hours with music make the musician? My brother tells a story about a visit he took to Chicago over Thanksgiving. He said there was a drummer who would play on the street everyday outside the hotel. He would start before eight in the morning and keep going until ten at night – the same beat the whole time. He was playing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, every day of the week – same guy, same corner, same beat. My brother went back to Chicago three years later, the guy’s still there, eight in the morning, ten o’clock at night, same beat. If you stop and think about it, that guy’s been playing more than ten thousand hours – probably a lot more. The thing is, he didn’t get any better. Maybe he’s the best in the world at playing that one pattern, but he’s not a master musician. Spending a lot of time with music is really important. Time alone is not enough.

What about desire? Does desire make the musician? When I was twelve years old I wanted to play rock guitar- I mean really wanted to. This was the late nineteen eighties, so I would watch all the hair bands on MTV and see their fingers moving all over the fret board during the guitar solos, and I would dance around playing air guitar overflowing with how much I wanted to do that. I wanted it so much that I was convinced that I would pick up my first guitar and wiggle my fingers around that way and the music would magically come pouring out. (That didn’t work.) I got a guitar for my thirteenth birthday, posed for lots of photographs, and discovered that I couldn’t play at all. I took a few lessons, learned that bar chords were kind of uncomfortable, got discouraged, and quit after a few months. I had all the desire in the world and no ability to translate that desire into growth. Desire alone is not enough.

What about a positive attitude? Does a positive attitude make the musician? Author Steven Covey, in his famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, puts it this way. Imagine that you are driving around Chicago with a map of Detroit. (This was back when people used maps – picture it if you can.) You get lost, which is not surprising as you are using the wrong map. A positive attitude isn’t going to help much. Maybe now you don’t care that your lost, you still feel good about yourself, but you’re still lost. What you need isn’t a positive attitude – what you need is the right map.

So what’s the right map for improving as a musician? What’s the map that will most efficiently move you from beginner to master? That map is called Effective Practice. Effective practice makes the musician – more than natural talent, more than raw effort, more than believing in yourself, desire, a positive attitude, or ten thousand hours of ineffective practice. Effective practice makes the musician.

So what does effective practice look, sound, and feel like? I’ve put together the following four lists of characteristics based on what’s been useful to me and to my students: the basics, resilience, practical tips, mind set. BRPM – think of a combination of bpm and rpm or just “burp ’em” if you prefer.

To be clear, I’m not giving this clinic because I think I know everything there is to know about practicing. Everyone is a bit different and everyone of you has experiences that I don’t have. So I invite you to take these ideas and try them out. Find what works for you and what doesn’t. Integrate what works with your own experience and wisdom.

List 1: The Basics

1 Believe that effective practice makes the musician.

If you want to be a great musician, learn how to practice effectively and put in the time.

2 Show up consistently.

Practice on sunny days; practice on rainy days. Practice when you’re falling in love and when your lover has left you. This may feel hard at first, but showing up consistently is essential for getting better. It gets easier over time. Bring your excitement, your enthusiasm, your sorrow, and your fatigue with you and show up to practice. Learn to let your practice ground, resource, restore, and recharge you. Just as distance runners learn how to rest on the track, learn how to rest in your practice and show up consistently.

3 Use practice to get better.

This seems really obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often we don’t do it. Notice that I’m not saying “use practice to feel better” or “use practice to make the ego feel better.” Use practice to get better. That means seeking out weaknesses and strengthening them. A lifetime of this leads to mastery.

4 Cultivate a gentle focus.

As your mind wanders, which it will, gently bring it back to the task at hand. When it wanders again, which it will, gently bring it back to the task at hand. Make this a habit and your focus will grow over time.

5 Remove distractions.

Turn off your phone; step away from the TV; unplug from the Internet. Focus on the music, your instrument, your body, and your sound. If you’re a singer, your body is your instrument – I don’t differentiate between singers and instrumentalists.
Focus on the music, your instrument, your body, and your sound; remove distractions.

6 Have a plan and execute it.

A common mistake is to make up a plan as you go along. This makes it very difficult to get into a flow state while practicing. This is because planning and flow involve two different parts of the brain. Pop psychology calls these “left brain” and “right brain”. Author Julia Cameron calls them “logic brain” and “artist brain”. Whatever you call them, they don’t play well together on the playground, so plan first (left brain, logic brain) and then practice (right brain, artist brain).

That said, it’s ok to revise your plan as needed. If things get off track, make the adjustments that you need to make. Remember that big problems are often solved with small changes.

7 Articulate your goals; consider the why as much as the what.

Take the time to think about long term, midterm, and short term goals. Where do I want to be in ten years? Where will I need to be in five years to reach my ten year goal? What does that tell me about how to use this year, this month, this week, today, right now?

When thinking about goals, consider the why as much as the what; why do I want to get my scales to 200? Why do I want to study Bach and Chopin? Why do I want to learn bebop heads in all twelve keys? I want to get my scales up because having my scales at 160 makes improvising at 120 (quarter 240) feel easy. Getting my scales up to 200 will make improvising at 160 (quarter 320) feel easy, and I want that! I want it because listening to fast lines is ecstatic for me: Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Griffin, I love that! I want to learn Bach because I want more independence in my hands; I want to handle several lines at the same time and Bach was the master at that. I want to learn Chopin because his pieces provide great models of piano textures, especially for ballad playing and ballad playing is one of the areas where I most need to grow. I want to learn bebop heads in all keys because this will free me up as an improviser, give me lots of vocabulary, and because David Baker said it’s a good idea and I have profound respect for Dr. David Baker. Be clear about your goals: consider the why as much as the what.

8 Invest in your fundamentals.

As a jazz musician, I think about five categories of practice: technique, musicianship, repertoire, improvisation, and listening.

Technique is whatever you need to take care of to master your instrument. For me as a pianist this means a minimum of an hour a day of scales six days a week. If I don’t get to anything else, I have to take care of technique.

Musicianship is developing fluency with music as a language. This includes things like ear training, sight reading, transposition, a practical knowledge of theory, harmonic progressions, voicings, forms – all of the things that build a working fluency with music as a language; that’s musicianship.

I think of repertoire as any music that is not improvised: riffs, heads, soli, transcriptions, classical pieces, – anything where your working on the same notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, and phrases day in and day out.

I think Improvisation and listening are pretty self explanatory. Invest in your fundamentals: technique, musicianship, repertoire, improvisation, listening.

9 Be mindful of your body.

The goal is to find the most physically efficient way to express musical ideas through your instrument. It’s easier to be physically efficient if you’re aware of your body. As a piano player, I have a checklist that I run through while I’m practicing: is the weight of my arms balanced over the key? Am I pulling with my fingers? Are my wrists calm? Am I weightless from the elbow up? Is my solar plexus forward so my chest and shoulders can stay relaxed? Are my arms suspended from my shoulders? Is my heart open? Am I holding any tension in my feet, my legs, my groin, my neck, or my jaw? Are the soft tissues beneath my skin open and receptive?
It took me a long time to realize that playing music involves a kind of athleticism. Mastering that athleticism begins with being aware of your body.

List 2: Resilience

10 Practice the right amount: build resilience over time.

We all have a certain amount of resilience. The amount of practice that is right for you will depend largely on how much resilience you have. If I have resilience to practice 90 minutes a day and I practice 90 minutes a day, I may feel stretched but I still feel good. Practicing is a joy and I am, generally speaking, a joy to be around. If I have resilience to practice 90 minutes a day and instead I force myself to practice 100 minutes a day, I don’t feel good: I feel stressed out. Practice becomes a chore and I’m much more likely to respond negatively to other people. In his key node address at Jen 2016, when Victor Wooten said “Show me somebody who practices eight hours a day and I’ll show you someone who is hard to get along with,” this is what he was talking about.

So practice the right amount – enough to feel stretched, not so much that stretched becomes stressed.

Here’s the thing, your resilience can grow, significantly. A huge part of learning to practice effectively involves learning how to build resilience. Part of resilience is physical: strength and endurance. Part is mental/emotional: focus and passion. Building physical resilience is fairly straightforward. It comes from showing up consistently and from physical conditioning: working out. The next five characteristics are critical for building mental/emotional resilience.

11 Target optimal challenge.

When practice isn’t challenging enough, we get bored. When it’s too challenging, we get overwhelmed. Target the middle range — enough challenge to create focus and engagement and not so much as to be overwhelming. Educators call this the zone of proximal development. Goldilocks calls it “in the middle, just right.” Whatever you call it, it will help you build your resilience, so target optimal challenge.

12 Break big challenges down into small challenges: divide and master.

If your long term goal is to learn the omnibook in all twelve keys, that’s a really big goal. Big goals can be overwhelming. Overwhelm depletes resilience. I’ll never be able to do that! Where to start! What’s the use. I might as well go watch TV. (Wrong answer!)

Break that goal down into smaller goals; first learn the omnibook in one key. Wow, that’s still a really big goal; break it down even further. Try learning a single solo in one key. We’re getting better, but that’s still too big. First learn a single chorus, or four bars, or even one bar. One bar, that’s an easily attainable goal. I can do that! Once you’ve got the hang of that bar, add another, and another. Now you’re learning, that’s empowering. By the time you’ve learned that solo you’ll be feeling pretty capable, so go learn another solo bar by bar, and another. Once you’ve finally gotten around to all sixty solos in all twelve keys, you’ll feel so empowered that there will be nothing you can’t tackle. Break big challenges down into smaller challenges; divide and master; that’s how you build resilience.

13 Fluctuate intensity.

Working at full intensity all the time will drain mental/emotional resilience and lead to burnout. Slow waves build resilience, with crests of higher intensity and troughs of lower intensity. This is why trumpeter Shawn Jones said in his clinic at Jen 2017, “rest at least as much as you practice -” I think he surprised some people when he said that. Build these slow waves of more intense and less intense into each practice session, each day, each week, and even each season. Fluctuate intensity.

14 Work in cycles: practice, rest, repeat.

A great way to fluctuate intensity is to practice in cycles. I’m fond of 35 or 40 minute cycles — a half hour of intense practice followed by five or ten minutes of mental rest. I use the rest time to sip some water and do something physical: light weights, yoga, conscious breathing, etc. Work in cycles: practice , rest, repeat.

15 Warm up and cool down.

This is another really basic way to fluctuate intensity. If my first cycle of the day is technique, and I have my scales at 168, I’m going to take at least twenty minutes to warm into that. For the last cycle of the morning, I don’t want to break with my nervous system in top gear; I want to take the last ten minutes to downshift. Warming up and cooling down is a basic way to fluctuate intensity and build resilience.

List 3: Practical Tips

16 Go deep with slow practice.

Mindful slow practice will unlock the ease of fast tempi. Let your body be open and receptive. Notice any places of unnecessary tension. Use slow practice to wash that tension away.

17 Develop habits and routines.

Decision making wears out the brain. When our brains are tired, we tend to make sloppy decisions. This is why supermarkets put all of the junk food and gossip magazines in the check out isle; we’ve made so many decisions while shopping that we’re much more likely to make impulse purchases because our brains are tired. We need to be especially aware of this as improvisers because improvising involves making lots of decisions.

Habits and routines do not ware out the brain; we get our habits and routines for free. If you make a habit of practicing every day after breakfast, you don’t have to decide to practice; it’s just what you do. If you have a routine for practicing technique, you don’t have to think about how to practice technique – you just run that routine. The same is true for musicianship, repertoire, and improvisation. Develop habits and routines.

18 Combine repetition and variation.

When we repeat the same thing over and over, our brains naturally start to disengage. We get less learning out of each repetition. One way to counteract this is to mix repetition with variation — to do something in slightly different ways each time. Rhythm patterns are great for this (sings)
Remember to target optimal challenge; have enough variation to be challenging and not so much as to be overwhelming. Combine repetition with variation.

19 Change speeds.

This is a great way to create variation while practicing something over and over.

20 Be consistent from day to day and varied from minute to minute.

I want to be really clear when talking about variation that I mean many variations on the same core activity – 30 choruses on the blues in F using different rhythm patterns for example. I don’t mean changing up your practice routine from day to day – be consistent from day to day. If your improvisation routine today is rhythm patterns on blues in F, then tomorrow it’s rhythm patterns on blues in F, and the next day it’s rhythm patterns on the blues in F. Be consistent from day to day and varied from minute to minute.

21 Prepare beyond the goal.

Practicing and performing are different experiences. Preparing for performance requires more than the ability to do something precisely as intended while practicing. This is like runners who train with ankle weights and then take the weights off for the big race – it makes running feel easy. We want easy when we play music. So try practicing while counting in your head, practicing at faster tempi, practicing with your eyes closed, after vigorous exercise, while feeling very strong emotion, with someone trying to distract you, etc. Prepare beyond the goal.

22 Listen, a lot.

If the journey to mastery involves ten thousand hours, let several thousand of those be listening. Now, there is active listening and passive listening. You’ll get more growth out of active listening. Let’s do an exercise I learned from Harry Pickens; I want you to speak out loud the words that I am saying as I am saying them. Start now.
So I am talking and I am saying things that maybe are expected and maybe are kumquats and squash. How predictable aardvark my words are impacts how you respond as a listener. Elvis. We can do the same thing with a musical phrase – sing the notes I am singing. OK, you can stop now. That’s active listening! If you bring that quality of attentiveness to your listening, your understanding of the language will grow profoundly!

23 Use memory and imagination.

Memory and imagination are like muscles; they get stronger the more you use them. Listen to great musicians and practice remembering their sound. Practice imagining their sound. Imagine the sound of Keith Jarrett playing Bempsha Swing, or Wes Montgummary playing S O S, or Bill Evans playing Blue in Green. Practice imagining the sound that you would like to cultivate as your own. Imagine the sound of yourself improvising on the blues, on rhythm changes, Autumn Leaves, Giant Steps. Use memory and imagination.

24 Cultivate feeling.

We learn better when we are feeling emotion – the brain processes those experiences completely differently and we’re more likely to retain what we are learning, so find the feeling when you practice.
Speaking of feeling, fun is a really great feeling to cultivate. Audiences are drawn to musicians who are having fun. I played in a quartet in grad school where the drummer was the weakest link in the band – didn’t like to work hard, didn’t like to rehearse, tended to complain a lot. And somehow, after every gig we’d play, people would flock to this guy! It made no sense. I had to ask around a bit before I understood what was going on. This kid looked like he was having the time of his life – he was smiling and bopping around and making eye contact. The rest of us were just staring off into space like we were in the “jazz trance.” Audiences are drawn to musicians who are feeling. Cultivate feeling when you practice.

25 Embrace a brain-healthy lifestyle.

Practice is ultimately about learning. Learning is a function of the brain. The brain is a physical organ that is more or less healthy depending on how we take care of it. According to neuropsychiatrist Daniel Amen, having a healthy work life balance is good for the brain. Meaningful social relationships are good for the brain. Good sleep, regular exercise, and nine or more servings of vegetables and fruits a day are good for the brain. If the research said pizza and root beer, I’d be saying pizza and root beer. What you do with this information is entirely up to you. Embrace a brain healthy lifestyle.

List 4: Mind set

26 Expect ebb and flow.

Every day won’t feel like your best day. Every day isn’t supposed to feel like your best day! These things come in tides. Tides have an ebb and a flow.
Flow feels amazing; flow is all cylinders firing smoothly; ideas are pouring out and execution feels easy; it’s easy to practice when everything is flowing. Ebb doesn’t feel so great; ebb is disconnection and timing out of sync; ebb is lethargy and feeling stuck in the same old patterns playing the same old lines and being distracted by thoughts of “what’s for lunch?”
Growth as a musician is about having a healthy relationship to the ebb. Continue to show up consistently, cultivate a gentle focus, and go deep with slow practice. Let the next flow come to you in its own time. Author Julia Cameron refers to the ebb as “the chop;” dancer Nancy Stark Smith calls it “the gap.” Whatever you call it, it’s a core part of growth as an artist, so expect ebb and flow.

27 Trust partial progress.

The journey to mastery will be incomplete at the end of the day. It will be incomplete at the end of the month and at the end of the year. Incompleteness tends to feel uncomfortable. Learn to be comfortable with the incompleteness of partial progress. Trust that partial progress will add up over time.

28 Be where you are and take the step that is in front of you.

You can’t be a master before you are a novice. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to start from where you are. If you show up consistently, use practice to get better, trust partial progress, and take the step that’s in front of you, then the next step, and the next, where you are will change, and perhaps faster than you expect.

29 Play with your materials; play with your music.

There are no rules in music, whatever your theory professor tells you – there are no rules in music. I think Duke Ellington said it best – if it sounds good, it is good. So from time to time just throw out everything you know and play with sounds the way a child would play with blocks. What happens if I put this note next to this note; what if I turn this upside down and do this backwards and play this scale over that chord and maybe I’ll throw out the idea of scale all together and… Play with your materials; play with your music. (Play with your food to if you want to!)

30 Always be musical.

Have you heard the phrase “The devil is in the details,” or perhaps “god is in the details,” well, “The music is in the details.” Shape every note: when it starts, how it starts, when it ends, how it ends, how loud it is, it’s tone/timbre, how it fits within a phrase. Let every note serve the music and always be musical.

31 Seek feedback often.

Seek feedback from others whose wisdom and experience you respect. It’s so much easier for someone on the outside to recognize the places where we are stuck. Some of the best musicians still take lessons – because there is always more to learn. Seek feedback often.

32 Record yourself regularly.

Recordings will tell the truth about how you sound. Sometimes the truth is a tough love friend. Tough love friends care more about your long term well being than about your short term feelings. Those are friends worth keeping.
Here’s something I get from drummer Steve Fidyk who presented at Jen 2015: notice several things you like about your playing – always look on the bright side of life. Notice several things you want to work on; music is a process of progress. Record yourself regularly.

33 Be ready to learn from anyone who has experiences that you don’t have.

Translation: be ready to learn from anyone. Every one of you knows music that I don’t know. I can learn from that. It can be as simple as saying – hey, what are you listening to? Wow – I don’t know that, can you play me some? And then we’re listening to music together – that’s a bond. Bonds help carry us through this crazy journey we’re all on of studying jazz. Be ready to learn from anyone who has experiences you don’t have.

34 Always add “yet” when saying “I can’t do that.”

When you learn how to practice well, there doesn’t need to be any limit to what you can achieve. So if you hear someone else playing something amazing and your first impulse is to say “I can’t do that,” add the yet; I can’t do that, yet.

35 Celebrate others’ successes.

This may be the most important thing I say all afternoon. If you want to stay in love with music, make this your practice: be as excited for someone else’s success as you wish to be for your own. Sometimes we really want to do something like play music and we’re not there yet, and when we hear someone else doing what we really want to do it’s easy to get discouraged – wow, I’ll never be able to do that, and feeling discouraged it can be tempting to devalue the thing that we really desire – oh, well, she’s not that good at the saxophone, or, I never really liked that tune anyway, or playing funk isn’t playing real jazz. No – don’t waste your time with that. Be as excited for someone else’s success as you want to feel about your own. This sends a very powerful message to your subconscious mind and will make it easier for you to succeed too. Celebrate others’ successes.

A version of this presentation can be found in the opening volume of the Melody and Rhythm textbook series.