2015 is here!  Why not make this year a breakout year and revolutionize your playing?  Here are 6 tips for how you can improve steadily and consistently this year.

1.  Decide

This seems like a no-brainer, but if you don’t decide that you want it, it’s not going to happen.  Those who fail to decide to get better keep their status quo rate of improvement (or perhaps even non-improvement).  Decide that you want to become a much better jazz musician this year.  Decide that you want it more than the extra free time spent in front of the TV, surfing the net, playing video games, or whatever else it is that you could be doing with your free time instead of practicing, listening, and playing.  There are so many distractions around these days.  You just have to decide you would rather be a great jazz musician than spending all of that extra time doing (fill-in-the-blank, your distraction of choice).

2.  Commit to a Routine

This is the stage where you PLAN.  A decision means nothing if not accompanied by planning and action.  You need a game plan.  Let’s say that you decide to devote 6 hours a day to getting better.  Great!  You’ll improve quickly if you are doing the right things.  6 hours of practice time may be unrealistic for some people with day jobs, families, kids, homework, housework, girlfriends, sports teams, night jobs, paper routes, Netflix subscriptions, X Boxes, pet tarantellas, and many other obligations (excuses?).  I totally realize that.  Everyone’s situation is a little different. However, almost anyone can find the time to devote an extra hour to actively getting better.  In order to say yes to your jazz resolution, you have to say no to something else.  Or maybe a number of other things.

So you’ve decided to further your journey as jazz musician…let’s talk some specifics.  What should you practice?  I’ll give you a couple of ideas for routines I have seen.  First, a few years ago I went to a memorable clinic by alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw at the Port Townsend Jazz Festival in Port Townsend, Washington, North of Seattle..  As I recall, Jaleel’s recommended practice routine looked something like this:

1 Hour of Long Tones

This one is definitely geared toward horn players.  The fact is that long tones help with all kinds of things for horn players, such as tone, breath control, and chops.  My initial thought was that an hour seemed like a lot of time for long tones, but it was Jaleel Shaw talking here.  I wasn’t going to argue with him!  He is an incredible saxophonist.  He also told a great story about Wynton Marsalis and Bobby Watson practicing “whisper tones” for long periods of time, almost competitively with one another, in their hotel rooms while touring with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  Long tones are a big deal for horn players!

1 Hour of Scales/Arpeggios

Scales are great for improving your technique and learning your instrument.  Scales aren’t “jazz” per se, but you need to be able to have your scales dialed as a jazz musician in order to proficiently navigate through changes.  We don’t have time in the moment to fumble with the notes in a scale or chord.  Scales and chords have to be automatic.  Practicing scales does more than just helping us navigate chord changes.  Slow, deliberate, and accurate scale practice does wonders for your chops!  Don’t forget to practice arpeggios and chords as well.

1 Hour of Standards

You’ve got Learn Jazz Standards.com as an AMAZING resource (Brent Vaartstra and I aimed to create resource that we would have loved to help us practice tunes…and now it’s HERE for you!)  We’ve created a resource to help you learn the standards and commit them to memory.  Don’t just use the play alongs and the chord charts; listen to the recordings of the jazz greats that we’ve included on each post!

1 Hour of Sight Reading

Sight reading is an important skills for musicians in certain situations.  It’s worth practicing for all musicians.  Some musicians put more emphasis on sight reading than others.  Symphony players and big band players use this skill all the time.  Combo work sometimes doesn’t demand sight reading as frequently, but it’s still an important skill to practice.

1 Hour of Transcription

Jaleel demonstrated this in his clinic.  He listened to a bar of a solo, rewound the iPod, and then proceed to play the bar EXACTLY, stopping then to listen to another bar or so. He backed up the track again, play both bars (or so), then repeated the process until he knew a fair amount of the solo.  He was so fast that it felt like he could have done the whole solo in 30 minutes.  He’s been doing this for years.  Most people aren’t nearly as fast at transcribing.  That’s ok.  Go as slow as you need to REALLY learn a solo!  Transcribing gives you great ideas to use in your own solos.  It also helps improve your technique.  Copying the solo of a master improviser is an incredible way to improve your ideas and your technique!  You don’t have to write it down, you can just learn the solo through repetition.  If it helps you to write it down, that’s totally cool also, but I think there is really something to learning a solo completely by ear.  

1 Hour of Composition

Jaleel puts a big emphasis on composition, writing your own songs.  The more standards and other songs you know, the more inspiration you have to draw from in your own compositions.

This is just one example of a routine you could consider using.  I might recommend using more active listening as part of your routine also.  You could spend an hour listening to jazz instead of (or in addition to) practicing long tones, for instance.  What if you have less time to spend?  Not everyone has the luxury of being able to find 6 hours of time every day.

What if you only have two hours?  Here’s another example.

30 Minutes of Scales

45 Minutes of Transcribing

45 Minutes of Standards (this becomes like a reward.  Playing tunes is the best part!)

What if you only have an hour?

20 Minutes of Scales

20 Minutes of Transcribing

20 Minutes of Standards

These are just examples.  You need to figure out what your goals are, and what kinds of things will get you there.  These are definitely valuable routines that you can adapt to your needs and goals.

3.  Listen!

You need to listen to lots of jazz if you want to play the music authentically.  Listen to the Masters.  All of the answers are in the recordings!

4.  Play with Others

Practicing is a huge part of a musicians success, BUT playing music-gigs, jam sessions, concerts, etc.-is arguably even more important because this is where the music actually happens.  We don’t become musicians so we can practice, we practice so we can play music!  The real magic happens when you play with other musicians.  Make this is a priority!  It’s especially good to play with musicians who are better than you.  You grow the most from playing gigs with players who have more experience.  Just make sure to behave yourself and know how to act on the bandstand!

5.  Take Lessons

You should look for private teachers with two characteristics: good musicianship, and good teaching ability.  These are actually two separate skills, and the best teachers are good at both playing and teaching.  You can learn a lot from many different people, so it’s a good idea to study with several good teachers over the years.

6.  Succeed

If you discipline yourself to commit to a routine, you will improve!  If you keep your resolution, you will reap the rewards of 2015 for years to come every time you pick up your instrument!  Just remember, it’s those that are still in the practice room (the musician’s version of the gym) in October, not January, that see results!  Consistency is the key.

What are your Jazz New Year’s Resolutions?  What does your practice routine look like?  Share with us on our popular Facebook page!

-Camden Hughes

Founder of LearnJazzStandards.com

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

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