I’ve heard it said before that jazz musicians should not practice with play-alongs:
“It’s not how the music should be played!” “It’s not what Bird and Diz and those guys were doing!” “A backing track can’t interact with you, and that’s what jazz is all about!”
Instead of being long winded about this, let me cut to the chase: no, practicing with play-alongs is not a bad thing.
Now, you may think I’m being biased, because if you are familiar with this website, one of the many things we do is provide and sell play-alongs of jazz standards. But let me be the first to admit to you that indeed, using play-alongs is not usually the best way to practice. That doesn’t mean they can’t be helpful.
When and when not to use play-alongs:
In this modern day and age we have a lot of resources to draw from. If we have a question, we don’t have to find an eligible professional to get an answer, or go to the library, we just Google it. We have a lot of tools that we can take advantage of at the click of a button.
And that’s how you should think about play-alongs: tools. Think of them as just another tool in your jazz tool box. They are there if you need them and they are there to get a particular job done.
Would I use a wrench when really what I need is a screw driver? No of course not! You need to use the right tool at the appropriate time.
If you have a friend available to practice tunes with, should you use a play-along? No! Hands down, the best way to practice tunes is with other people. At the core, that is the spirit of jazz music.
If you don’t have anyone to play with at the moment, should you exclusively practice with play-alongs? No! Everyone should be practicing with a metronome on a regular basis, or even just solo. We need to develop a sense of time on our own and not use play-alongs as a crutch.
And there I just said it: don’t use play-alongs as a crutch. If any one tool in your jazz tool box becomes a crutch that you rely on for survival, it’s time to tuck it away for a bit.
If you aren’t going out to jam with friends, play gigs, or go to jam sessions that’s going to be a problem for your development as a jazz musician. That is as essential to your musical growth as eating and drinking is to your health.
If your eyes are glued to sheet music all of the time instead of learning the tune by ear, that’s going to be a problem for you. Does that make sheet music bad? No, of course not. It just needs to be used appropriately.
Is it bad if you use a slow downer to learn a blazing fast line of a solo, because that’s not what the jazz greats did it? I certainly don’t think so.
If you use play-alongs as tools and not crutches, they can be a healthy part of your practice routines.
This is the bottom line. There is nothing wrong with using technology to help us learn, share and grow. Just remember that convenience doesn’t always replace better ways of learning. In this case I’m referring to playing with other jazz musicians vs playing with a backing track.
Are play-alongs bad? No. They are just another tool in your jazz tool box, and it’s up to you to make sure you are using them for the right purpose.