On this blog we are constantly talking about what to practice, how to practice, and how long you should practice. There is no doubt that practicing is essential for jazz musicians (or any musician) to improve.
Jazz musicians are some of the most obsessed when when it comes to practicing. We can spend hours shedding licks, lines, and learning tunes, only to leave feeling unsatisfied with our playing. When it comes to jazz, there is always room for improvement, and so we practice on, ever reaching for our next major breakthrough.
But have you ever thought about not practicing? Instead of asking yourself what you should be practicing or when you should practice next, have you ever asked yourself how long you should stop practicing for?
You may have thought about stopping your practice sessions for a while, but it was accompanied by a sense of guilt. You felt lazy, or uninspired, and just didn’t feel like facing the challenges of the instrument that day. I know I’ve been there!
For some of you this may be shocking. Why would a jazz educator want to tell me why I should stop practicing!? Doesn’t that seem backwards?
I’m here to tell you that stopping your practice sessions may be one of the best things you’ve ever done for your playing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you throw in the towel altogether and forget about practicing your instrument ever again. Of course not! I simply mean that it can be incredibly healthy to take a step back and spend a reasonable period of time not practicing. It could be for a day and it could even be for a week. It all depends on why you are stopping.
Let me explain 3 reasons why you should stop practicing for a given period of time. If any of these scenarios fit you, consider putting down the instrument for a while!
1. Practicing is causing you stress.
This is probably the #1 reason why you should take a break from practicing. If you find yourself constantly frustrated while you practice and always on edge, you should probably stop.
When you practice in a stressed out state, you aren’t getting the full potential out of the practice session anyway. You are also creating an unhealthy relationship with your instrument, and psychologically building negative associations with music.
Music does not= stress. Music= fun! Or at least I strongly believe that it should. This is not to say that when the going gets tough you should give up. It means you should aim to practice in a clear minded and relaxed mental space.
I spent a long time stress practicing. I took playing jazz too seriously, for years practiced for hours on end, would get frustrated if I wasn’t improving “fast enough”, and began placing high expectations on myself. The result was I eventually burned out. My mind and my body just couldn’t keep up with the heaps of stress I was piling onto myself.
If your stress levels are high and you feel like the fun is leaving the practice room, take some time off. You’ll be surprised at how good it feels to come back to your instrument after days or even weeks of taking a restful break.
2. You are over-practicing.
I find it interesting how so many musicians believe that the more time they spend practicing the better they will get. It’s a common misconception!
What is more important is the quality of the practice time, not the quantity. You could spend 30 minutes practicing and get far more out of it than if you spend 5 hours practicing. As long as your practice is focused, it will be far more beneficial.
I believe that after a certain period of time, us human beings just can’t remain focused. It’s different for everybody, but everyone has a cut off point. The human brain can only retain so much information. It’s far better to learn a line, or a half chorus of a solo than learn the whole thing in one go.
What I find is over-practicers tend to become stress practicers. At the very least, they end up flooding their brains with information that will just seep out anyway.
One solution is just to practice less and keep the sessions focused on a few items, and I would highly suggest it. But if you are over-practicing right now, I would suggest taking a day or two, or even a week off. There is nothing wrong with that! Every time I come back to the instrument after some days of separation, (whether it be intentional, or busyness) I am always surprised at how much clearer minded I am. Sometimes I feel like the information I learn sinks in better when I just give my brain some time to breathe.
3. You are not ready to practice.
Here’s one you might find interesting: Have you ever caught yourself at a practice session just noodling mindlessly and doing absolutely nothing of value? I know I have. What you are doing is not practicing, it’s noodling!
While I think it’s also perfectly healthy to spend some time with the instrument just playing, it’s separate from the concept of practicing. Practicing needs to have intention in it. It needs to have some sort of direction and an aim for some progress.
If you are not sure what to practice, it means that you need to take some time to discover that. Going into a practice session blind is not very helpful. You need to plan ahead and know what you need to work on.
It doesn’t need to be complicated. It could be you just want to practice improvising on a tune you have a hard time with. You could be working on scales, patterns, or technique. You could be working on learning some jazz language. The point is you know what you need to do and you made a plan.
If you don’t know what your goals are and what you are going to practice, consider spending that day deciding what you should practice instead. Don’t come up with it on a whim; really think about it. Listen to some recordings to decide a solo or the next song you want to learn.
Resist the temptation to “practice” if you haven’t set your self up for success to begin with.