Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Practice Routine (Today)

I keep getting asked this question a lot so I figure I'll just answer here and then not have to retype it.

Obviously, there's a different practice strategy when I was just starting out vs. today so the specifics are never fixed. First there's the time element. I've maintained the discipline of practicing 2 hours a day and this even increases on weekends. This does not include time listening to Jazz (or Classical) nor does it include talking about music with anyone on the internet.

The hard part about practicing is to build a list of what to practice. This really takes some thinking and planning but without it, the whole idea of practice becomes a waste. So what I do is maintain a list of weaknesses that I'm aware of and then I hit those at each practice session.

This is a recent list:

1. Two handed scales at 160bpm Quarters played in perfect unison - I may hit 2-4 scales a day, targetting the worst ones. This week I did D, F#, Db, E, F. My weakness here was the LH. My RH is very fast but my unisons are slightly out of sync. Maybe 15 minutes.
2. Playing two handed Quartal voicings moving up diatonically in steps (stack of 4ths with a 3rd on top). I've been doing this on every key. Everyone knows this in Dm and Ebm because of So What, but fries my brain in Dbm, or Bbm.
3. Uptempo practice - I put up Mr. PC as a backing track and then I push the tempo higher and higher. Usually I start on 200bpm and then work my way up to 250bpm.
4. I've got gigs every week so I have to learn new tunes constantly. Or review tunes I haven't played in awhile, particularly the head. So this week, I was working on Wave, I've Got You Under My Skin, and Softly as in the Morning Sunrise.
5. Next I always work on some aspect of improvising. So I play the tunes on my set list for the week and then see if I can make a coherent solo out of it. I'm typically addressing a specific problem, like space, repetition of ideas, connectivity of ideas, and phrasing issues. I try to make a regular assessment of the content of my solos so that I'm not just banging away without thought.
6. I'll do a little Walking Bass since this is something I've neglected for years. On a new tune, I'll just do 1-3-5-3 as a starting point and then slowly vary it. One tune only per practice session. This one I've skipped frequently. So I'm not consistently practicing it.
7. Playing Unison Melodies. This is sort of related to #1. Because the two hands have to be perfectly timed. So any lack of technique or discomfort in fingering can be heard. But something has changed recently. I can play a lot of unisons now. This week I was practicing Solar in unison.

Now this specific practice regimen is to help me with my gigs. At different times I may be focused on completely different issues. For awhile there, I thought I was playing unevenly and I identified the problem to weaknesses in Finger 4. So I record myself constantly and problems I didn't hear a year ago, I may hear now. I fixed this with Hanon for a couple of months.

So what's the pattern to what I'm doing here? Well first, like I said, I have to make a list of weaknesses. And part of this is developing the critical ear to listen for weaknesses. I realized that if you can't hear the problem then you can't solve it. One must never be cocky thinking that one is now "good". I know I'm not good. To a beginner I may sound good but I know better.

Second part of the pattern here is I always work on multiple issues at once. Usually a set of problems will stay with me for a couple of months and I will hit on the set and see tiny amounts of progress every day.

Third, there's always a mix of technical, vs. musical challenge.

BTW sometimes I think I know how to do certain things but when put to a test by a teacher, I forget (like 2 handed voicings -- sometimes too slow). So certain things have to rotated back. One of the reasons I put scales back on the list was that I looked at the requirements to do a Jazz Camp at Port Townsend (audition required), and part of the requirements was to do scales at 160bpm. At first that scared me but then it was just 160bpm in quarters (I practice in sixteenths). The issue though was unison scales. My LH sucked and at 160bpm my LH was not even. My RH can do 160bpm in sixteenths so they are far apart.

Anyway, specifics aside, the whole point was a constant search for problem areas and to keep searching for them, with the goal being to get up to the next level.

Someone asked me what I practiced during my first year so I'll discuss that separately.


  1. Where is the transcription and related 'making the vocabulary yours' work? It is notably absent. And ear training? To get to the 'next level', I think these things are essential. They are very hard work though...a very different kind of "hard work" than scale-based exercises. has excellent advice (no affiliation to me) which would I think suggest a modified routine. Just my 2 cents...

  2. Some good points here. I don't particularly have any need for "ear training" in some formal sense since I have very good relative pitch. But if you've read the book "Forward Motion" by Hal Galper, you'll see that that is my impression of practical ear training. And this means being able to hear all the chord tones of a chord in your head.

    My list above, as I recall it, was just what I was practicing at the time, but I spent years practicing how to outline a harmony on strong beats. And believe it or not, this is also the biggest element of vocabulary.

    My particular teacher did not have me do transcriptions or teach me any particular vocabulary. Since he himself is not a Bebop sounding jazz player (Modern Jazz guy), he didn't force me to go the Bebop route. So I didn't. But clearly my teacher was a master at melody making. He didn't advise me specifically about to search for that skill but to this day, it's one that still have to work on.

    Actually it's the one I work on the most. So it amounts to focusing on building my own vocabulary where I can. I do have a good ear as far as being able to transcribe but I just find I cannot play organically unless the melodic idea is from me. I play other people's licks very artificially so I avoid it.

    Anyway, I think that developing your own vocabulary is a very advanced stage in my perception and I'm hard at work on it.

    A couple of masters made a comment (to me) that having vocabulary under your fingers gives you time to think. You are able to think in broader strokes. So this could mean different things to different people. To some it's a Bebop lick, to others it's a figure, or a run. Interpret as you wish. I've long given up on the notion that I truly understand. I just find my own path.

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  4. I have some comments that I think are best communicated by email. Do you have a contact address?