How to Fight Bad Habits When Practicing Improvisation

There’s one important idea that we must remember as musicians: When you practice, you create habits. Think about it, this is essentially the reason that we set out to practice in the first place. By consciously focusing on a single exercise or technique for hours at a time, we ingrain these skills on an unconscious level. Then when the time comes for us to play, we don’t have to think to perform these actions, they’re produced naturally out of habit.

However, like many things in life, this process is not as cut and dry as it appears. For every habit that we consciously set out to create, we also create habits that we’re unaware of, and these habits are the ones that get us into trouble.

Losing your mental focus

In the practice room, it is surprisingly easy to lose focus and to let some bad habits creep in, especially when we’re improvising. At times like this, we are concentrating so hard on making the changes that we forget about playing our instrument. If this sounds all too familiar, don’t worry, this is something that all players struggle with and must learn to overcome.

Over the years, I’ve heard numerous accomplished players sound completely different when they try to improvise. In the practice room they have a great sound and poise as they play their instrument, but when they are faced with improvising a solo over a chord progression they fall apart. Their sound goes out the window, they lose their technique, and it becomes a struggle just to play the instrument.

It’s as if a different player suddenly emerged when it was time to improvise. This is a trap that we can all fall into and it really comes down to your mindset and awareness. When you are practicing, your mind simply can’t be turned off. You need to be aware of everything that goes into the playing your instrument. This is a huge problem for many beginners and is one of the main contributors in the difference between a professional player and an amateur player.

Practice for an average player is basically playtime, going through the motions of practice without the necessary mental focus. Practice for a great player on the other hand, consists of total concentration on the task at hand mixed with an awareness of all the physical aspects of performing a piece of music.

The key to continually improving as an improviser lies in learning to control this focus and recognizing bad habits when you see them. It will take some work to achieve this focus every time you step into the practice room, but there are some simple steps that you can take that will make your job much easier.

Bringing your focus back

I am a runner. For years I have incorporated running into my weekly schedule and more often than not, I’ve found many similarities between running and developing as a musician. A book that I’ve often referred to is Chi Running by Danny Dreyer. In the book, Dreyer discusses how to improve your running form by focusing on specific physical elements to ultimately achieve a more effortless result.

This all seems pretty straight forward, however, when we get outside and start running our minds immediately begin to wander. We get distracted by the scenery and get lost in thought and soon enough, we’re back to our same old habits. All too aware of this natural tendency, Dreyer presents a simple, but effective method for retaining your focus on the run.

He first suggests that you make a list of the correct physical movements and form that you want to use on a run. Next, you should set a timer on your wrist watch to go off every 10 minutes during your run. When the timer goes off, mentally go through your checklist and if you find yourself slipping back to your bad habits, simply correct them and move on.

This is a very effective technique and it’s also one that we can use as we practice improvisation. Like running, we often lose focus and awareness of ourselves as we start to improvise. In the heat of the moment, we get caught up in the harmony and time and we forget about the other important aspects of playing our instrument. This is when bad habits start to form.

By creating a list of the important physical and musical aspects of improvisation and setting a timer, we can recognize these bad habits, correct them, and eventually eliminate them from our playing altogether.

Physical awareness

The first step to improving your practice and ridding yourself of these bad habits is to create an awareness of the physical aspects of playing your instrument. In other words, you must analyze what your body is physically doing when you improvise.

The act of creating an improvised solo initially takes so much mental energy and aural attention that we generally tend to forget about the physical aspects of playing our instrument. Without realizing it, we hunch over, forget to breathe correctly, and we get sloppy with our technique and sound.

This is not ideal and when you practice like this for hours on end, it can create some serious problems in your ability to communicate your musical ideas. In order to correct these bad habits and prevent them from returning to your playing, you need to first become aware of them.

The best way to remedy these counterproductive habits is to catch yourself in the act. Take a lesson from the pages of the Chi Running book. Create a list of your ideal physical form and eventual goals on your instrument by asking yourself a few questions. What techniques or physical aspects are required to play your instrument at the highest level? What bad physical habits are preventing you from reaching these goals on your instrument?

As you sit down to practice an etude, transcribe a solo from the record, or play along with a recording set your timer. When the timer goes off, take a look at your checklist. Identify the things that you’re missing or doing poorly and correct them.

Here’s a sample list of four physical areas for you to get started with:

1) Posture:

Are you sitting/standing up straight? Is your body in the position to produce sound on your instrument with the least amount of resistance? Your posture has a greater effect on your playing than you may realize and a simple shift can make an enormous difference in the physical ease of playing.

2) Breathing:

For a wind player, breathing is often the first thing to go when struggling with improvisation. If you don’t breathe, no sound is going to be produced. In fact, you’re just going to create tension that will limit any sound and hinder any improvising coming from your horn. Remember to take full, deep breathes before every musical phrase that you play.

3) Instrumental technique (articulation, finger position, air flow, sound):

When all of your mental energy is focused on creating a solo, you tend to forget about the other aspects of playing like your technique. Check your articulation, your sound quality, and the physical aspects of producing sound on your instrument. Correct any area that is lacking and start again.

4) Relaxation:

Aim to be physically and mentally relaxed as you practice and improvise. Eliminate any tension in your body that is hindering the flow of music and ideas coming from your instrument. No matter how much we try, we can always relax a little more.

The four items on the list above is a good place to start, however, you ultimately need to create your own personal list. You know the specific physical demands of your instrument and you alone know the areas of musicianship that you need to improve. Make a list that highlights your weaknesses and physical goals as an improviser and strive to improve them in every practice session.

Musical awareness

More and more, people are attempting to learn improvisation by improvising with play-a-long recordings for hours on end. While you can get some benefit from play-a-longs if you use them with the right mindset, just playing along with them mindlessly can create a plethora of bad habits.

Not only is there the danger of repeating poor physical habits, by carelessly playing with play-a-longs you are training yourself to play very unmusically. Without realizing it you are ignoring the chord progressions, the form of the tune, the time. You’re essentially wasting your time and ingraining even more bad habits.

To prevent this, make a list of the musical element that you want to include in your playing. These could be general things like creating logical phrases or following the chord progression to specific ones like using the language that you learned from a recent transcription. Once you have your list, set a timer and when the alarm goes off, take a good look at what you’re actually doing.

1) Am I incorporating the language and melodic/harmonic concepts that I intended to?

2) Am I playing the musical ideas and language that I’m hearing or am I just throwing in random scales and arpeggios to fill up space?

3) Can I hear and identify every chord that is going by?

4) Am I making the important chord progressions (ii-V’s and iii-VI-ii-V’s)?

5) Do I know the form of the tune?

If the timer goes off and you answer “no” to every question on the list, it’s a safe bet that you’re mindlessly practicing. Not only are you not making any musical progress, you’re creating bad habits that will carry over to your performance.

Improvement is a habit

We create habits in the practice room everyday. Some are moving us forward as musicians and others are relentlessly holding us back. The first step to making a lasting change in your playing is to become aware of these mental and physical habits that you’re ingraining in your practice sessions.

Remember, if you’re careless in the practice room, that is what’s going to come out when you get on stage. Don’t let bad habits continually prevent you from becoming the improviser you envision. The next time you go into the practice room, make a checklist, set a timer, and put a stop to your bad habits for good.