If you think about it, the elements of your practice routine are like the different sections of a well-structured work-out plan. You’ve got your warm-up/stretching, cardio, strength training, resistance work outs, and the list goes on… Every exercise has a specific role and develops a specific muscle group. When you put them together you have a complete work-out that will allow you to function at your peak and feel great.
It’s the same story when it comes to practicing our instruments. A “complete” jazz practice routine is set up the same way and each time, covers the same areas: warm-up, technique, scales/chords, ear training, etudes, articulation, learning tunes, transcribing, and developing language in all 12 keys. Everyday we try to achieve a well balanced practice session that covers these key areas of musicianship.
However, this neatly structured routine works a lot better in theory than it does in reality. Some days we skip a few parts of our routine and on others, we spend all of our time trying to master one exercise. Occasionally, we can’t even find the time to get into the practice room at all.
Because of our limited time and life’s endless complexity, covering every area of musicianship every time we get into the practice room is rarely feasible. This can be difficult because the things that make the most difference in our playing such as transcribing, inevitably take the most time. Therefore, to make way for these primary activities, other topics like technique are sacrificed in their entirety. For many of us with a limited amount of time for practicing, this creates a major dilemma. How do we decide which exercises to focus on and which exercises to sacrifice?
Learning tunes and transcribing
These two aspects of jazz improvisation affect your progress more than anything else. But, for many of us, the process of learning tunes and transcribing solos takes up a massive amount of time. This poses a problem when we’re practicing within a time constraint and attempting to cover other aspects of technique and musicianship as well.
You may only know a limited number of tunes, but you feel that spending the necessary time to learn a tune (a few days or even a week) is just taking away too much of your valuable practice time.
Or, you may want to transcribe some solos and acquire more language, but again, you feel the transcription process just takes way too long. If you spend your whole practice time learning a few bars of a solo, you’re sacrificing time that could be used to maintain your sound and technique.
What ends up happening for most musicians, is that their practice session gets divided into two parts. One focusing on technique, etudes, scales/chords, articulation, etc. and a second focusing on the jazz aspects of your playing like transcription and learning tunes. We rush to cover every area in our routine, but don’t spend enough time with each area to see improvement. As a result, we remain at the same level of musicianship, not excelling in any one area.
The happiness of too many days is often destroyed by trying to accomplish too much in one day. We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives – Do Less, and Do It Better~Dale Turner
However, if you approach your practice time with a different mindset, you can cover all of the essential aspects of your routine and devote quality time to improving as an improviser. These two areas don’t have to be put into separate categories. So much in developing our technique, expanding our repertoire, and learning the jazz language is interconnected and related.
Instead of skipping out on one part of your practice or focusing only on a single aspect of technique, you can combine everything into one solid practice routine. Here’s how you can spend the much needed time you need on transcribing and learning tunes, without leaving out those essential elements of musicianship in your practice routine.
Outlined below is a sample practice routine that illustrates how you can practice your technique, ear training, articulation and other essential instrumental skills, while simultaneously spending the dedicated time you need to devote to transcribing and learning tunes.
The warm-up is an essential part of your practice routine in which you prepare your mind and body for the physical demands of playing your instrument. This might include some breathing exercises, playing long-tones, running scale patterns, or sight-reading an etude to loosen up before you begin the real work. Many of us, however, end up playing the same exact warm-up everyday.
Gaining consistency is a good thing, but you don’t need to play the same exercises every time you pick up your instrument. If your goal is to focus more on transcribing and learning tunes, don’t wait until you get to that section of your practice routine to begin working on lines or melodies. Start from the very beginning.
Instead of going back to the same scales or patterns day in and day out, alter your warm-up to include the lines that you’re transcribing and the melodies that you are learning. If you normally play through all of your major scales to warm-up, try using a line or melody that you’ve recently transcribed.
For instance, you can use a ii-V7 line that you’ve just learned or maybe the melody to There Will Never Be Another You. Begin slowly and take the line through all 12 keys.
This is not to say that you’re going to jump right into playing lines without warming up, but rather, that these lines are going to replace those same major scales that you’ve been playing for years.
Treat them like you would the material of your usual warm-up. Turn on the metronome, get in sync with the time, think about your sound, concentrate on your finger technique, focus on your air flow, and lock in your intonation.
When you think about it this way, the content of your warm-up becomes less important than your approach to the notes you’re playing. If you can choose anything to warm-up on, why not make it something you are actually going to use in your playing?
2.) Learn the melody of a tune
Covers: Ear training, learning tunes, sound, instrumental technique…
Let’s try something different here. Instead of going through your normal practice routine, today you’re going to devote the entire time to learning a tune. This may seem like you’re skipping out on an entire part of necessary practice or heading down the road of becoming a one-sided jazz player, but, if you approach your time in the right way, you can cover all the aspects of your usual routine while focusing on the things that will make you a better improviser.
Once you’ve completed your warm-up, pick out a tune that you’ve been meaning to add to your repertoire. Your first step in learning a tune should be to listen to the recording repeatedly and sing along with the recording. As always, YouTube is a great resource to find videos of the jazz standards that you want to learn:
If the melody is too fast or hard to hear, try slowing it down with a program like Transcribe and looping the melody section. Listen to the melody closely for familiar intervals, chord tones, and melodic devices. Only when you can sing the exact pitches of the melody should you play it on your instrument.
This is one of the best ear training exercises that you can do and a skill that will serve you well on the bandstand. You don’t have to separate ear training exercises from the other parts of your practice routine. Focusing on them within the actual content of your practice routine will be a great time saver.
3.) Learn the melody in every key
Covers: Ear training, learning tunes, sound, instrumental technique, practice in all 12 keys, scales/chords
After you have the melody down in the original key, it’s time to transpose it to the other 11 keys. This is a great workout for developing proficiency in every key. Remember, if you can sing it in every key, you should be able to play it in every key. Start slowly with a metronome and focus on the keys that are difficult. Repetition is the key here.
Before you know it, you’ll have a tune that you can play equally well in all 12 keys. Instead of using a separate part of your practice routine to work on scales and patterns, use this method to kill two birds with one stone. You’ll get a work out in all 12 keys and add tunes to your repertoire at the same time.
*Note: If you’re having trouble with the above steps, it’s a good indicator that you need to go back and build up your level of ear training or technique. If it is difficult for you to hear intervals or identify chord tones, then it’s time to review some basic ear training exercises. Or, if moving a melody to other keys proves to be a stumbling block, go back and focus on getting your fingers and technique up to speed in all 12 keys.
Don’t sweat it if you do, this exercise will show you exactly what areas you need to improve. It’s better to discover your weak points in the practice room than on stage in front of an audience. If you’re honest with yourself and work hard, you’ll improve very quickly in these troublesome areas.
4.) Figure out the chord progression by ear
Covers: Ear training, scales/chords, learning tunes
Developing the ability to hear chord qualities and identify chord progressions is essential for every improviser. Listen for root movement and common chord progressions throughout the tune. Slow down the tune and loop the progression so you can really hear what’s happening.
Most of the chord progressions in standards follow a very logical pattern. Learning these progressions by ear is a great way to become familiar with the harmonic foundation of the Great American Songbook.
After you figure out the basic progression, arpeggiate the chords and play the corresponding scales over the progression to ingrain it. Apply some language that you’ve transcribed over the progression so you become used to navigating these set of chord changes.
By doing these simple exercises, you’ve included scale/chord practice and ear training exercises into the simple act of learning a chord progression.
5.) Transcribe part of a solo
Covers: Ear training, articulation, technique, transcription, developing language
A great way to get some ideas for soloing over a tune you’ve just learned is to transcribe part of a solo on the same record. This can be as short as a ii-V7 line or as long as an entire chorus. As with anything that you transcribe, imitate the articulation, sound, and feel of the player’s lines.
Instead of playing a separate etude to work on technique, use these pieces of language that you’ve transcribed as your etude for the day. Again, this is great ear training and in the process you will focus on your articulation, sound, and technique as you emulate these lines.
6.) Develop the language you’ve transcribed
Covers: Learning language, scales/chords, technique, practice in all 12 keys
Transcription is only the first step in learning the jazz language. You’ve figured out the notes, but it takes a lot more to make that language in one key an unconscious part of your playing in all 12 keys. Just like taking a melody every key, learning language in all 12 keys requires slow practice and repetition.
Take that line and experiment using different articulations and rhythms. Work out the fingerings as you take it through difficult keys and progressions. Think about projecting your sound and using different dynamics.
Just because you are focusing on the notes of the line doesn’t mean that you should ignore the other musical aspects of your playing. If you change your mindset about practicing the jazz language, you’ll be able to cover more material in less time.
Looking at the practice session outlined above, you’ve covered the time consuming tasks of learning a tune and transcribing while simultaneously focusing on your instrumental technique, ear training, and practice in all 12 keys. You don’t have to treat every practice session in the method outlined above, but it will prove very useful when you feel that your transcribing or tunes are lacking.
Be the judge of what you need to work on. Maybe you need to spend some more time on tone and articulation exercises or you may discover that your finger technique is not where it needs to be in all 12 keys. Every day is different. Spend time where the most work is needed.
However, if you’re serious about building up a solid repertoire of tunes and expanding your jazz vocabulary, you need to spend some serious time learning tunes, transcribing, and developing the jazz language. If you currently allot 15 minutes of your practice time to transcribing or learning tunes, you’re not going to see the progress you desire. To achieve that, you need to spend most of your time learning from the record and developing that language.
Just remember that spending your entire practice session on learning a tune or transcribing a line doesn’t have to be a method that ignores the other important factors of your practice routine. By staying focused on all aspects of your musicianship and technique as you practice jazz you’ll be using your time much more effectively and see the results in your solos.