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Only 3 Things I Would Practice for the Rest of My Life

Welcome to episode 273 where I discuss the only thing I would practice for jazz if I could only pick three. Most of us don’t have a lot of time to practice, but we want to improve our jazz skills quickly. We need to be focusing on the most impactful things and discarding the rest. I share with you mine, and encourage you to think about yours.

Listen to episode 273

One massive question that I get all the time from subscribers is what should I practice if I only have a very little bit of time to practice? 

What’s going to get me the biggest bang for my buck? We don’t have a lot of time to practice, to work on stuff but we want to improve as musicians. We want to improve our jazz improvisation.

What do we do?

There’s a billion things you could practice, a billion things you could do. And I’m always trying to answer the question. 

How do we simplify things? How do we boil things down to the most essentials? 

And that’s what we are going to talk about in today’s episode. I’m going to talk about the only 3 things. If I’m only to pick 3 things to practice for jazz for the rest of my life, what would they be?

In this episode:

1. Using jazz standards as your primary vehicle

2. The 80/20 rule for jazz

3. Chord Tones

4. Learning solos

5. Composing solos

6. Discovering your 20%

Important Links

1. LJS Inner Circle Membership

Brent Vaartstra
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."


  1. Rhythm patterns has to be in there somewhere for me. I’ve been playing rock and pop for over 50 years. That’s 50 years of 1-4-5 4/4 or similar non-syncopated rhythms. Trying to tackle Antionio Carlos Jobim catalogue after that is difficult!

  2. This has been a very meaningful lesson for me and I can see the wisdom of your choice of three things to practice. As a beginning improvisor, I would add to spend a fair amount of time improvising over the chord changes of a song. Sometimes I’ll just use one note and practice a rhythmic motif, or listen to how one note sounds against different chords.

  3. Another comment…

    I heard another great bass player and bass/improvisation educator, Janek Gwizdala (Mike Stern, Randy Brecker) mention that once he learns a transcribed solo, he plays it uncountable times. I think he once said “hundreds if not thousands of times”. Now, the “thousands” might have been hyperbole, but I wonder if this is something you agree with. I find this to be true for me, as it cements the ideas in the solo in my brain.

  4. I am a bass player, and the John Patitucci story was epic. Your point is well taken, in that even for the best musicians on the planet, working on the fundamentals and doing the raw work of transcribing solos, is relevant and important.

    What a terrific opportunity for you to have been in his class, by the way!

  5. Thank you for these comments born of erudition and experience, shared freely with people who may never have the means to visit New York once in their lives, never mind join the cultural and educational scenes there.

    I (also) envy the advantageous time-warps that people like you have the power to create. Your twenty is always going to go further than my eighty.

    Incidentally, you might let us in on your trick for handling the problem of infinite regress, in this case the pattern of development that is set in motion once the worker or learner starts tackling directly the 80/20 skew.

    I suppose you initially found a way to focus on that precious 20%, pare off, reclaim and re-invest that wasteful 80%, and come out a new man. So, then… that initial 20% became your new 100%. …which sooner or later, must have re-divided into a new 80/20 skew. (It seems inevitable.) So… what did you do then? Focus on the new 20%, pare off the wasteful 80%, make that 20% into a newer 100%, and so on?

    Did it become a recursive pattern, or did you BANG into a wall after the first, second or third cycle? Or have you become, or are you tending towards becoming like the fabled Mullah Nasruddin, who famously sat all day with his tār in the market-place, ecstatically banging out that ONE r i g h t note?

    Just look at the time… this took almost as long as a typical pod-cast!
    Back to my poor 20%.

    Grateful regards from Quebec City

  6. good lesson Brent as always, I would practice and learn:
    2 5 1 and 6 2 5 1 major and minor language or licks in a standard i’m learning
    composing my own solos
    as a guitar player , playing the same language or lick in different positions on the fret board
    thanks brent

  7. After listening to the podcast , I would think that my 3 things would be
    1. Chord tones ( chord form) which entails ( 2-5-1; 1-6-2-5-1) in all keys and it’s substitutions
    2. Jazz standards : Melody, chords ( which entails singing the melody while playing through the progression) and singing doesn’t necessarily mean vocalization, maybe whistling or humming.
    3. Improvisation,


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