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A Jazz Guide to Practicing

As musicians, all of us have sat down with our instruments, ready to embark on that most sacred ritual.  You close the door to the room, say a silent prayer to the jazz gods, and begin shedding away on your instrument, desperate to reach that so-called “next level”.This was the time, the time you had set apart for this today (you missed it yesterday so of course you added that pivotal extra hour). After hours of flying fingers and a brain turned to putty, you realize you had just been mindlessly “noodling” on your instrument.  You didn’t get anywhere! You didn’t break that barrier you hoped.  That of the most ambiguous of activities had once again outwitted you: Practice.

  Practice. Yes, that’s right.  The curse of practicing started with those dreaded lessons you started as a kid; followed by your mom’s endless nagging, and now you’re addicted.  Some time later, you started to love the instrument, love jazz music, got obsessed, and now it’s an activity you cant miss without feeling at least a little bit guilty. 

  Like you, I’ve often had to sit back and ask the questions: What should I be practicing? How do I get better? These are really important questions.  Maybe some of you are just starting out with jazz and simply don’t know at all what to practice, or maybe you’ve been playing for years and just hit a wall and don’t know what’s next.  Don’t worry! There is still hope!  In this Jazz Guide to Practicing, I’ve included some essentials for your practice routine as a jazz musician.  Practicing jazz can be overwhelming at times, but adding these important elements to your routine and heeding these tips will send you flying to the high road of improvement! So if you’re still with me, read on.


              Listen to jazz music, and make it part of your everyday routine.  I know what you’re thinking: That’s not practicing! Give me some real tips! But listen, internalizing this music is really what is going to help you over and above any technical exercises you like to do.  I was in a master class with the great guitarist Bruce Forman once, and he stood up in front of all of us and said very seriously: “If you don’t listen to this music, you are never going to get it.” If you aren’t familiar with the language, how can you speak it?

              I am a firm believer that listening to music is practicing, and it’s some of the best you can get.  Listen to the earliest of jazz, know the sounds, know the roots, and know the history.  Listen to the most cutting edge modern jazz recordings, and know what cats are doing now.  That’s right, I am indeed saying that even when you are in the shower, in your room, driving your car (or the subway for all of us NYC dwellers), while listening to music: you are practicing. 

  Write it down.

         Going into your practice room without knowing what you are going to work on will increase your chances of an un-productive session.  It’s like hopping into your car for a drive without having a destination; you don’t know where you’re going and you’ll probably end up running out of gas, or right back to where you started.  Write down what you are going to work on that day. Be specific. You might end up making the classic mistake of overestimating what you can achieve, but hey, the rest is for tomorrow! Write down your musical goals.  The statistics are out, and the results indicate that people who write down their goals are much more likely to achieve success in life than those who don’t.

 Learn tunes.

             I once asked the great guitarist Peter Bernstein during a lesson what he used to practice early on in the game. He replied, “Tunes man.  I let the tunes teach me.” What he meant by tunes was jazz standards, or standard pieces in the repertoire.  Learning tunes is essential to being a jazz musician, and here is why: it’s the history, it’s the language, and it’s the common thread of communication. 

 Tunes are where you learn about harmony in jazz, and the melodies that influenced all of the greats from the past to the present.  I don’t think I have ever heard a successful jazz musician say, “Don’t learn tunes man! That’s useless!”  They are essential to the working musician.  I’ve heard some guys make excuses before: “Yeah I don’t know that many tunes, I write my own music, it’s the way of the future.” Wrong. Know your standards and write music.  You can’t play a three hour restaurant gig, a cocktail hour, or a private party strictly with your originals most of the time, and that’s a lot of the work out there.  You definitely can’t play at a public jam session with your originals.  It never hurts to learn more tunes, and it’s a great thing to incorporate into your practice.

 Transcribe/Learn solos.

          Let me be clear about something, you don’t need to write the solo down, but you can.  I’ve only written down solos just several times myself.  I think there is a lot of value in doing that, but the most important part is learning it on your instrument by ear.  Learning solos and pieces of language from the greats was something that really helped “jump-start” my playing when I first started my journey in jazz. In fact, one year I had a teacher make me learn 32 bars of a solo every week!  I’ll be honest, I think it was unnecessary to do quite that much.  You don’t need to.  You don’t even need to lift entire solos (although there is value in that as well).  If you’re a tenor sax player, learn a line you like off of a Sonny Rollins solo. Piano: those Red Garland block chords. Bass: the walking lines from Ray Brown. Drums: Some trading fours from Philly Joe Jones.  Not only will you be learning some language that will sink into your subconscious, you will be training your ear at the same time.  Start easy, get a slow down program if you have to, but do a little bit when you can. It will do your practice session a lot of good!

 Focus on fixing what’s broken.

           Here’s another thing I learned from Bruce Forman: focus on whatever is giving you trouble at the time. In other words, if you’re feeling like your technical abilities are failing on your instrument, start shedding those scales, arpeggios, and technical exercises. If you went to a session and you didn’t know a lot of the tunes being called, start learning some more tunes. If you’re feeling like you lack language, start listening, transcribing, and blowing over tunes.  Maybe your ears aren’t up to par; try practicing in all 12 keys. It’s simple advice, but very important.  Don’t just keep practicing what’s easy for you. Figure out what’s broken and start fixing it.

 Don’t burn out.

          We’ve all heard the stories of John Coltrane locking himself up and practicing for an un-godly amount of hours.  I’ve heard a lot of other stories of guys and their grueling practice habits, some even resulting in malnutrition and trips to the hospital! Crazy right?  I used to practice long hours; I think the record being 10. But let’s be honest, a lot of the time spent was un-productive, crappy overkill.  I know that jazz musicians have big egos; your buddy is talking about how he practiced eight hours yesterday, and suddenly it’s a competition.  Don’t give in to the peer pressure; you’re better than that!  I don’t think there is anything wrong with practicing long hours, but remember to ask yourself these questions: Is it still productive practice? Is it necessary? Am I still having fun? I think you can still accomplish just as much in a short time period if your practice is focused.  Remember, you have the rest of your life to work on this music.


Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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