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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing

19 COMMENTS

  1. Also along these lines, if the practicing is getting stale, I put down the horn, take a walk and hum what I've been trying to practice. It's like brainstorming. Sometimes singing things opens up new possibilities I hadn't thought of, as well as being outside of the regular workspace.

  2. Absolutely breath-taking advise. I have been struggling with this thought for a while thinking that if one does not practice in a day he will be lagging behind. Many thanks Brent.

  3. I actually feel in between reason 1,2 and 3. I'm a early intermediate piano player…For the past few weeks, I'm working on Groovin High. Melody, chord change, root movement etc are ok. I'm struggling on the solo. No ideas at all or when I found ones they seem so disconnected from the atmosphere of the tune …
    I tried to slow down the tempo or to work only on a few bars…but still a nightmare…I like the concept of Stop Practiging but would feel so guilty to do so ;-(

    • Practicing and learning jazz is indeed a journey! Keep learning the language, listening, and playing with others. But if it stops becoming fun altogether, it can be helpful to take a step back and refuel.

  4. I too can speak to the benefits of taking time out once in a while. I'm a self-taught sax player who used to worry about losing my hard won technique if I took a vacation without my horn. But when I come back to it I find I sound fresher and the stuff I was struggling with starts to fall into place. It is now my rule never to practise on the day of a gig and I may extend this to the day before as well. That way my solos sound more spontaneous and less of an attempt to reproduce a memory note for note.

    • Hey Paul I think your rule has some wisdom in it! I also used to over practice on gig days thinking that it would help me play better that night. Not necessarily the case! I find some simple warm ups are the better way to go for me. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I find it's worthless to practice unless I immediately go out and use what I learned in a live setting. So I learn some licks, then go out and play them and play them and play them until they are so cemented in my soloing repertoire that I'm not only playing them in my sleep, I'm bored enough with them to start changing them, experimenting with new ways to play them. I can't even begin to remember how many licks I 12-keyed backwards and forwards only to forget them later because I didn't go out and play them live immediately.

    • Hey James, playing live on a gig or at a jam session is definitely an important aspect. The practice room has a lot of psychological confinements, and taking music on to the bandstand is the best way to bring it to life. Totally agree!

      • Can't speak for anyone else, but the best way to improve for me is to practice, then go play live what I practiced, rinse and repeat.

  6. Good observation & brave to suggest to stop practising! The way I get around the problem of 'Going Stale' is to play stuff that is familiar and search & experiment with both the melody & chords even if the changes are quite small. Also stop watching crap on TV & go to youtube for inspiration (not to copy although I did pinch different chords to 'Georgia last week!!)
    I play keyboard & still have a teacher – lots of classical musicians also do that: worth every penny. (Thanks Andy)
    Experiment a lot with your improvisation even if it sounds weird at first – it will help you be YOU, instead of an efficient but souless 'also ran'.
    Finally, be proud of the different stuff that you play & believe in it – Jazz is always moving onwards even when it pays tribute to the past – it's a living thing. Best Wishes to you all, Roger Ball.

  7. It's a good suggestion to stop practicing now and then. Especially, in my experience, if you are stuck or blocked and realize you are not going forward anymore. Then can be frustrating and at that point I have noticed that stopping for a few days can give you relieve and new power to take the next step.

      • Hi Brent, a few weeks ago i asked you a question on I-II-V-VI-I progressions. I missed the answer on that. Is it possible to answer it here?

      • Hey Brent, in II-V-I progressions you can improvise in the scale which belongs to the key of the I-chord, I have learned. A few weeks ago you had a chapter on II-V-I-VI(or IV, I'm not sure about that)-I progressions if I'm right. Can you use the scale which belongs to the I-chord here too in the whole progression? I play saxophone for your info. Thank you in advance for your answer.

      • Hey Cor, technically you can play the tonic scale over the entire progression because they are all in the same key. So technically those will be more or less "correct" notes, but you won't be hearing the difference between the chords, which is what you want to happen. What you want is to be hearing the changes come out when you are improvising. A good way to start is to arppeggiate each chord and also play through the 3rds and 7ths of each chord. If you are confused about any of this, we can set up a lesson together if you want, so we can go into more detail. Just go to the contact page and send us a message and we can talk more about that.

      • Thanks very much Brent. I understand what you mean, but what I practice most is playing by ear and play songs with great masters using Spotify. The reason is that I find it very difficult to keep focused on all the chords which are on the sheet music. And in the end playing by ear is the ultimate goal. Btw I learned myself playing saxophone only by ear when I was about 14 and than played in a band from 16 years onwards.
        Although I can read music now, I improvise only by ear. I start with listening to a song played by different great saxophone players, trying to hear and understand what happens and than do it myself.

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