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If You Don’t Do This, You’ll Never Be a Jazz Musician

There is so much that needs to be learned and practiced when trying to become a jazz musician. It’s a form of music that demands a great deal of virtuosity and knowledge to play at a high level.

For many, learning to play jazz can be overwhelming! You are told to transcribe solos, practice scales, learn jazz standards, learn licks, patterns, and the list goes on and on. Most jazz musicians will tell you that you can spend the rest of your life and always have something to work on and get better at. They aren’t wrong!

Every teacher will tell you a different story when it comes to what you should be practicing. But what I’ve learned, is none of it matters unless you are doing the one most important thing.

Back when I first started getting introduced to jazz, I attended a masterclass by the great L.A jazz guitarist Bruce Forman. I remember him standing in front of us and saying:

 “If you aren’t checking this music out, you will never, ever get it.”

What he was trying to say is if you aren’t constantly listening to jazz music, you just won’t ever truly be able to play it.  To give some context, most everyone at the masterclass was a high school jazz band kid, of which many tend to be guilty of not listening to jazz.

Those words always stuck with me, and I discovered quickly that they were truth.

You have to be immersed in jazz music to get it.

For many of you, this may seem obvious and quite simple. How can you possibly learn how to play jazz if you don’t listen to it? But I assure you, we’ve all been guilty of this to some degree. Or perhaps we haven’t prioritized it like we should. We’ve gone through phases where we weren’t listening as much, or maybe sometimes not at all.

The problem is we don’t always understand, or believe, that listening to jazz music is the most important practice we can do.

That’s right, listening to jazz is practicing! Why is it practicing? Well, think about learning any new language. To learn a new language you have to be reading, writing, hearing, and speaking that language all of the time.  Many will tell you that the best way to learn a language is not in a classroom, but by actually going and living in a country that speaks it.

The same is true with jazz. It’s a language that we have to be constantly listening to and surrounded by, so we can truly get it. We can learn a bunch of jazz standards, practice scales, and chord progressions, but if we aren’t listening we won’t really learn how to speak the jazz language.

Now in case you didn’t read those words properly the first time:

Listening to jazz music is the most important practice we can do.

Here’s my challenge for you:

This week, make listening to jazz the most important item on your practice routine. Make it a daily thing. Don’t listen to it just when you feel like it, or because you enjoy it in the background. Listen to it intentionally. Listen deeply.

I had a professor in college say once that the curse of a musician is that he/she can never JUST enjoy listening to music. A musician will always be analyzing, studying; trying to get more out of it than just pleasure. This is okay, embrace your curse!

The next time you feel like your playing is going nowhere and you don’t feel like you are getting any better, put your instrument down and just listen.

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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