As jazz musicians we know we need to practice. Practicing our instruments is essential especially when dealing with music like jazz which demands a lot of musical competence and ability.
We often hear stories of jazz heroes like John Coltrane, or any accomplished musician, practicing excruciatingly long hours. In an interview with Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker once claimed that he used to practice 11-15 hours on a daily basis over the course of 3-4 years. That’s insane.
As a result, it has been programmed into our minds that we have to become relentless practicers with an endurance to practice for many hours at a time. The assumption is perhaps we will never reach the level we want to get to unless we do this.
Now, practicing for extended periods of time can be great and perhaps there is a time and place for it. I had a few years of my life where practicing for 4-6 hours on a given day was the norm. It can be beneficial if the practice remains productive and doesn’t slip into a mindless act of noodling on your instrument.
I don’t know about you, but I just don’t have the time for that anymore.
Depending on where you are in your life, it’s likely you have a family to take care of, a job, and a plethora of other responsibilities. Even though music is my profession, it’s hard for me to find the time to practice my instrument.
So how can we find the time to practice? How can we keep improving on our instruments with such limited time to work on them?
Let’s take a step back for a second.
I know there are some who would disagree with me, but you CAN improve with very little time to practice. I want to take this idea that we need to practice for ungodly hours to improve and smash it. How often is the time productive anyways? How often does it just end up being information overload?
What if we could take a small slice of our day, an amount of time that most would scoff at the idea of doing anything meaningful, and turn into the most productive practice time we ever had?
The 30 Minute Practice Session
You may have two hours, you may have an hour, or you may have 45 minutes to practice. If so, great! Go for it. But what if you only have 30 minutes? Is it worth it?
I want to drill something important into your head: Less is more.
I know you’ve heard that before, but when it comes to practicing, less is truly more. I used to think that if I transcribed more bars of a solo in a day, then I would get to the next solo faster, and the more solos I transcribed the faster I’d become an amazing jazz musician.
The truth is it is far more efficient to spend a lot of time on one small thing than spend small amounts of time on many things. The goal is to internalize the music we are learning, and the more we overwhelm our brain with tons of stuff the less likely we are to truly internalize.
One of the most important things we have in our life is time. We can get back money, we can even get back relationships, but we can’t get back time. Do you want to spend a lot of time practicing only for it to go to waste? I certainly don’t.
The 30-minute practice routine is a proclamation that even if we have such a minuscule amount of time as 30 minutes, we can still get a lot accomplished because less is more. We shouldn’t let that 30 minutes go to waste because we think it’s not enough time to make a difference. For some of us, that 30 minutes is the only chance we have to sneak in some time on our instrument.
So let’s own this 30 minutes of practice. Let’s take the results we would get out of a multiple hour practice session and pack it into 30 minutes.
The 30 Minute Practice Rule:
If you want to be productive and get results out of a 30-minute practice session you have to believe that less is more. You have to believe that you can make a lot of progress by just focusing on a few things.
Here’s the rule: You can only pick 2 things to work on, nothing more.
The reason it’s two is that there is likely more than one aspect to your playing that you want to improve. At the same time, any more than two and it gets tricky to accomplish enough in such a short amount of time.
- Learn 4-8 bars of the solo I’m working on.
- Learn the melody to a particular jazz standard.
Fill in the blank with your two items. It could be technique, scales, repertoire, a lick, a phrase. Just boil it down to a small take away. Remember, you can keep building on this in your next 30-minute session.
The First 5 Minutes (optional)
You can split your 30 minutes evenly between the two items you choose, or you can start with a little warm-up. It can be good to reinforce something you already know and quickly get your brain into a musical space.
I usually like to take a jazz standard or song I know and improvise over it for 5 minutes. This gets my fingers going, and it helps me become reacquainted with my instrument.
Practice Item #1 (10-15 minutes)
I gave the example of learning 4-8 bars of a solo. Stay focused on the task at hand. Make sure you’ve removed all distractions from your practice environment. The goal, in this case, is to learn those bars and practice it until you’ve got it down. It’s a small bite that you will have the chance to digest and still make forward progress. This will set you up to continue where you left off next time.
Practice Item #2 (15 minutes)
Finish of your session by working on another task that you can get a quick win out of. Remember, whatever the task is, make sure you’ve broken it down into something you can accomplish and internalize in 15 minutes.
For example, if your goal is to learn a new song, break that process down into something smaller. In my case, I’m only learning the melody of the song in this practice session. I may work on it again in the next one, or move on to learning the chord changes.
Take pieces of information and really work it. There is no need to over do it. The beauty of the 30-minute practice session is this is all the time you have. You can choose to blow off that 30 minutes, or you can choose to use that time to improve as a musician.
Are you up for the challenge?