How Jazz Standard Play Alongs Waste Your Practice Time And What To Do About It

It’s Saturday. You’ve got plenty of time. You’re excited  to spend some quality time practicing. You meander into your practice room, peruse your jazz standard play alongs and grab the first volume that sparks your interest, pop it in, and off you go. Sound familiar? As fun as it is to “just play” over a jazz standard with a backing track, it’s a habit to get under control right now.

THE PROBLEM: We love to play our instruments and want to let loose every time we pick up our horn. Unfortunately, not only does soloing over and over with a jazz play along waste your valuable practice time in which you could be improving, but it also reinforces the player that you already are. You’re repeating the same language you already know, making the same mistakes on specific chords that have always given you trouble, and playing with the same time feel that you do now.

So, if you love everything about your playing and you’re content with staying at your current level for the rest of your life, feel free to let your desire to “just play” consume you.

For everyone else…it’s time to get this habit under control.

A Common misconception: Shouldn’t I get better the more I play and just improvise?

A common misconception plagues many jazz improvisers, which consequently, leads them to put a play along record on loop and solo over the same tune for hours. Many of us, and I catch myself still doing it once in a blue moon, believe that the more they practice soloing over a tune with a play along backing track, the better they will solo over it.

To further complicate the situation, when we practice this way, we think we are improving. As we solo over and over the same set of chord changes, we find ways to “get by” on the progression. For example, perhaps you realize that you’ll aim for the third on a particular chord and that will get you through that part of the tune…but who wants to spend their life just getting by?

The truth is, great lines are not born from nothing. Sure, you may stumble upon a great line occasionally when you practice, but when you solo, you’d like every line to be great, not one out of ten.

Great lines and great solos are crafted using knowledge gained from hours and hours with the music of the masters, as well as much time experimenting with concepts until they sound right.

To overemphasize, great jazz improvisers are building upon information that they’ve acquired through a combination of studying others and discovering things themselves. They then can utilize this knowledge at will while they improvise, to create something new in the moment.

Why use a jazz standard play along or backing track?

Jamey Aebersold has gone to great lengths to put together fine rhythm sections and fairly accurate chord progressions into a neat little bundle, to make it easier for you to learn any jazz standard in the comfort of your own home, even without a band!

But why would I spend time with a contrived situation of modern musicians when I can  just as easily play along with a recording of Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, or Sinatra? I generally prefer to loop the melody of a tune off of a real recording in the software Transcribe, than play with play alongs.

Play alongs detract from the time you could be spending with real recordings of masters.

They lack the energy that great recordings contain, while they easily allow you to turn off your ears and read the progressions rather than learning them from recordings. However, play alongs can be beneficial if used as a tool to facilitate exercises, much like tenor saxophonist Rich Perry showed me how to do.

Using jazz standard play alongs as tools

Play alongs do have some benefits:

  • The soloists are out of the way so you can focus more easily on the rhythm section
  • The changes are more defined and easier to hear
  • The track stays consistent in terms of harmony

These attributes make jazz standard play alongs great for practicing exercises with. To use a play along effectively to improve at a tune, abandon the attitude that it exists simply for for your desire to “just play” while having a band back you up, and instead create exercises which will help to do the following:

  • Integrate new bits of language into your vocabulary
  • Isolate a concept
  • Work on problem chords
  • Work on figuring out chords by ear
  • Any other creative things you can come up with

When you use play alongs during your practice, make sure you’re implementing some type of exercise and do not get carried away by the urge to “just play.”

Utilizing play alongs in this manner will help you improve much more rapidly than if you put a tune from a play along on repeat and improvise over it endlessly.

Integrating new language using jazz play alongs

When I use play alongs, just as with looping melodies from real recording as I mentioned earlier, I loop sections of the play along, change keys, and slow them down as need be in Transcribe. It’s important to me to have that control because often jazz play alongs are not in the key I want to play a tune in, or they are too fast. To use play alongs as a tool, it helps tremendously to put them into a program like this.

Supposing I have a blues cued up, and I want to integrate a new one-measure ii V I’m working on. I’ll simply play through the tune, and play that line every harmonic instance that occurs in the tune and rest during the remaining measures. The goal is to gain mastery over using that language, first by directly inserting. This exercise, as opposed to mindlessly soloing over and over on a tune hoping you get better, is actually worth repeating.

Each time you repeat it, you’re going to ingrain that bit of language deeper and deeper into your subconscious. Gradually you’ll gain flexibility with the line and vary the exercise. During every instance in a tune that you could play that line, you could then try: starting the line early, adding notes to the beginning or ending of the line, combining the line with other ideas, improvising with the line in mind…The possibilities are endless.

Start simply though by first being able to plop the piece of language in wherever that harmonic instance occurs. Soon, the line will be totally integrated into your vocabulary.

Using jazz standard play alongs to isolate a concept

Much in the same way that I just described on how to integrate a single piece of language into your vocabulary, any concept you’re working on can be isolated and worked on extensively using a play along. It’s the same process as integrating a piece of language, but instead of using a line, you’ll implement some sort of concept you’re working on.

For example, perhaps it’s a rhythmic device you want to apply. Pick out the places in a tune where you want to use it and each time you hit those places in the tune, apply you’re rhythmic concept.

Realize you can use this method for any concept you want to improve upon.

Use backing tracks to work on problem chords

We all have those chords that we get to and just freeze. That’s a problem chord. Most of time, rather than work on these chords, we glide over them, or use one approach we’ve figured out that kind of works, but not perfectly.

Slow it down. Then figure out ways your heroes dealt with a similar situation and use that knowledge to experiment with how you’ll approach the problem chord. Loop the section in the jazz play along and apply your new knowledge until you gain a firm understanding of how to go about playing over that particular harmonic instance.

Figuring out chords by ear using a play along

Frequently, Rich Perry would put on a random play along track and not tell me the tune. The first time around you want to hear the big places the tune goes. What key is it in? Where does it start? Where does the bridge go? In every tune there are these flag-posts of main places the tune goes.

The second time around you want to hear more details. How does the tune get from one main area to another? Is it via cycle movement? A ii V?

By the third time around, the goal’s to be able to construct a solo that works over the harmonic framework that you’ve discovered during the last two choruses.

This exercise may seem daunting at first, but don’t worry. Just slow it down and listen closely, especially to the bass. Pick up the bass movement, take note of the chord qualities from the chording instrument, and use your knowledge about how harmony typically progresses (ii Vs are frequent, V7 chords typically resolve to the tonic or iii minor, or occasionally Vi minor etc.)

Ditching the book that comes with a jazz standard play along set and instead forcing yourself to figure out the changes by ear will help your ear grow tremendously, while ensuring that you’re not giving into the ear-off-eyes-open syndrome that play alongs easily allow for.

Practice performing the jazz standard after you’ve practiced everything else

After you feel you’ve sufficiently worked on things, then give yourself the opportunity to work on performing. Feel free to Let loose and enjoy just playing for a bit.

There’s a saying that I’ve heard several great jazz musicians say: there’s too much performing in the practice room and too much practicing during the performance.

Remember to practice in the practice room and perform when you’re on the bandstand!