Thursday, December 30, 2010

Practice Secret - Accept that Daily Improvement is Small

I was asked this question in the ABF forum and I thought I might expound on it here. This started from a thread about "Sleep" and how we learn things only after we've slept on it. There were some scientific references to this in the thread and also comments that this has to be REM (deep) sleep.

Now I totally believe this. When I started playing piano in 2004, I was 47 years old and it seemed an impossible task to be able to play piano reasonably well by the time I'm 50. Well, I'm closing in on 53 and I'm playing jazz in public. To me "Sleep-based Learning" is the basis of learning piano and thus understanding this has really helped me get far.

As I mentioned in some post somewhere, I've reached "mediocrity". I am now a mediocre jazz pianist. You don't know how good that sounds! I started from nothing. I shouldn't be able to call myself a pianist but other people are now.

So enough of the backstory. A little of it was needed since this Blog starts in the middle. (My old blog was on Myspace). Anyway, to continue, when I first started, it was important for me to maximize my practice time so I achieved my goal of being competent in jazz in 5000 hours. I thought I could do this in 5 years but it's taking a little longer. But I'm sure I'm over 4000 hours now so it's getting closer. I will probably reach 5000 in 2011.

Back to the main topic. If one really develops the skill in the brain through sleep, then we must maximize what the brain does during sleep. I felt that my brain had to multi-task.

The problem with most beginning piano students I find is that one is focused on some single issue. A scale. A piece. Sight Reading. So the practice session is spent on a single issue.

So the next day, after REM sleep has reorganized the neural connections and you're a little smarter, you still
are only SLIGHTLY better at the single issue.

Where am I different? It's my nature. I'm very organized in my thinking in my day job so I apply it piano playing. I make sure I work on MULTIPLE things at each practice session. So the next day, after sleep, I will be SLIGHTLY better at MULTIPLE THINGS. This won't amount to much after a single day, but if you accept this limitation and plan for it, in a matter of months the TOTAL improvement will be BIG.

I guarantee it because it happens to me all the time. I haven't reached a plateau yet. My improvement is of such a scale that I can go head to head with someone who has played jazz for decades, but perhaps someone without the complete focus so they have some failings. I find I'm not tremendously good at anything but I'm steady at most things. This hopefully results in less weaknesses as a complete jazz musician (I do have a weakness but it's the subject of another blog).

To execute what I'm talking about, I always make a mental (or written if you want) list of weak points and I try to attack those in a plan. A little at a time. I've made this rotating list of issues (think of an Inbox and Outbox). I also try to limit the problem to something that can be chewed on in one sitting.

For example, the wrong type of goal would be "Play exactly like Keith Jarrett". It has to be very specific like, "Play that short phrase like Keith Jarrett". BTW, I found that if you play one phrase like KJ, then eventually (months later) multiple phrases will sound like KJ. So there's no need to go bonkers with this.

BTW, part of this process is a constant and honest self-examination. I never gloat about how well I played something. I'm quick to find faults in myself and I openly seek critique when I post my music in the jazz thread. I'm not posting music to get accolades. My single focus is to learn and learn before I'm old and grey. So I advise people to make list of your failings and be nitpicky.  Was your scale slightly uneven? Which finger? You have to be ultra-specific here. Was Finger X slightly louder than the rest? This is the kind of detail which allows you to make a list.

To be specific in this discussion, this was what I worked on today.

1. I practiced walking bass while soloing on the RH, working particularly on moments when I lose the beat in the LH. (BTW this was something triggered by a post by Dave Frank on Walking Bass)

2. I was listening to my Jam recordings and I noticed that my articulation problem has to do with pushing the beat. So I practiced dragging the beat a little.

3. I worked on improving my C scale in 4 Octaves. I noticed my LH does not have the same precision on my RH when playing in the last octave. So this was mostly LH refinement.

4. I tried to memorize the melody of a tune that was played at the Jam. "Meditation by Jobim". I played the tune easily enough but the melody has to be in my head. This was partially a sight reading exercise too.

5. I played with random tunes on my practice list and made sure I could play the changes at first sight. At jam sessions, they just slap a lead sheet in front of you and oftentimes the tune is unfamiliar. This trains me to instantly come up with voicings for any chord as well as force me to keep my eye on the Lead Sheet (hopefully, you're all getting a clue what my weakness is).

6. I soloed on a tune and practiced listening for melodic motifs on Giant Steps, which is my pedagogical piece (the most difficult tune in Jazz).

I worked on each of these for maybe 10 minutes apiece. And maybe an hour on the last item.

So to summarize, here's my practice motto:

(a) Do not use practice time to perform,
(b) Always practice multiple things,
(c) Repeat practicing the multiple things in subsequent days until improvement is seen then rotate to a new set of problems.
I still believe that 5000 hours of well executed practice will help me achieve my goal of reaching a professional level. I'm close enough to know this now to be true. But you can see that if you haven't organized your time as I have, it may take you 10000 hours.


  1. Out of the tons of information on the web, this is something that finally makes sense to me. I am a beginner player, I have learned scales (major and harmonic, 4 octaves), chords Major, Minor, Dominant, ect... and how to voice them. The problem is, I can't play a single song because I don't know what I should be practicing (I'm sure you get this alot).

    Not being able to play a song isn't really true. I can play the melody with Left Hand chords or even two hand chords (if I went slow) but I haven't been able to integrate any improvisation into my tunes so that all

    Do you have any advice for me? I'm kinds desperate.

  2. To me there are two aspects that are important to master at the beginning. (a) You need to master your chord tones. A typical way of practicing is that on each chord, you play 123-5 of the chord. This puts your hands in the position to access 1-3-5 of the chord. Beginning improvisers have a problem of thinking of the scale and forgetting that the chord tones need to outline the harmony. You can deviate from this later on but only after this is mastered. (b) Babyish type lines result from not applying syncopated phrasing to the lines. You can be more creative if you break up a line into smaller chunks. Listen to how the masters phrase their lines, particularly those that use short syncopated phrases. Now long lines are fine too but typically that's what everyone gravitates to and forgetting that a lot of modern jazz players play short ideas a lot too.

  3. Delighted to discover your blog as I am also a late beginner (56) on the piano and have a goal to play jazz and am also blogging about the journey. My blog is at I am lam now going to start reading your blog from the first post through to the current one.

  4. Welcome Robin! You give me incentive to post more to this blog.