One thing you always want to be doing is learning new material. New lines, new tunes, new concepts…there’s always something new to learn. We preach the mantra “Quality Over Quantity” in practically everything we write. So, while it’s true you always want to learn new things, the idea is to judiciously select what you want to learn and truly master it, rather than attempting to learn a ton, in a half-assed manner.
The way we approach practicing is closely tied to successfully integrating new material and techniques into our playing.
Breaking new material into smaller tasks
The first step to learning something new is breaking this new thing into smaller tasks that you can easily conceptualize and approach. I always use this tactic when learning tunes.
Take a tune and rather than trying to tackle the entire 32 bars, instead tell yourself, “I’m just going to learn the first 8 measures, and really get to know them inside and out.” That’s all you worry about. The first 8 measures.
You pretend that, for now, the rest of the tune doesn’t exist. Once you master those 8 bars over a period of several hours, days, or even months (it doesn’t matter how long it takes. What matters is true ownership), then you move onto the next 8 bars.
The nice thing about most jazz standards is that they are comprised of only two distinct sections: the A and B sections. This makes it very simple. Once you’ve mastered the first 8 bars, you’re already 75% of the way there. Or in tunes that have slightly different changes for the last 8 bars (AABC form), you’ll just need to learn how to deal with the slight variations.
Breaking things up into smaller tasks that you can easily practice and understand will do wonders for taking on new material.
Learning new material through total immersion
The next step in learning something new is to introduce it to yourself through total immersion. If you’re practicing daily, then you’ve probably determined a daily practice routine that helps allocate your time to various areas of improvement and keeps you on task.
This is a good idea for day to day practicing, especially if you have other time commitments. I’m constantly splitting my time up between different avenues of my life, so having a reliable practice plan to fall back on allows me to make the most of the time I have in any given day to practice.
Now, when learning new material, instead of utilizing a practice plan which delegates specified time to several practice topics, it’s better to focus only on the new idea or concept for your entire practice session. Total immersion.
By spending time solely on this one topic, your mind and fingers will best accept this new information, making for rapid and permanent acquisition.
So, for example, if I transcribed a line I really like and now want to learn it in all keys, rather than making this a 20 minute segment of my practice session, the first time I introduce this line to myself, I’d instead focus several hours just on this line. I’d work on understanding what make’s the line sound great. I’d play it with a metronome slowly, taking it through each key with patience, aiming to hear the line, striving for perfection.
When you think about it it’s really not that much. A couple hours spent on one idea for a few days will take this line from being something I think is cool, to something that is part of my playing.
Learn to be your own teacher and make your own decisions as to how long you keep material in this total immersion phase. When I was transcribing one of my first solos, that’s all I did. I took my horn out of the case, turned the record on, and tried to copy everything I heard.
I continued like this for several months, practicing nothing but this solo, until I arrived at a point where I knew the solo cold. Then, I returned to a more structured and balanced routine of daily practicing for a while before tackling something else in full-immersion-mode.
Use your judgement to figure out how long you want to keep something in this intensely focused state of practice. Maybe you switch off days, some days just working on your new material and others working on tone, technique, or a myriad of other topics. You’re in charge of your time.
Transitioning material into review and application mode
Once you take your new line, section of a tune, or new concept through total immersion, you won’t have to spend much time on it at all to keep it up to speed. For instance, that solo I referred to, after spending so much concentrated energy on it, I can now review it in a measly 5 minutes. That’s the beauty of really focusing on something till you get it; once you do get, you can review it in a flash and continue to gain value from it with little work.
Transcribed lines are the same way. Once you truly master one, you can easily review it, working on furthering your speed and accuracy.
You can then choose how you apply these new lines or concepts to other things you’re working on. For instance you could take the line you learned or the concept you worked through and apply it to a tune you know, making it part of your daily practice routine.
Transitioning new concepts and ideas to review/application-mode via total-immersion-mode, will force you to practice efficiently and creatively. You’ll find over a short period of time, that you’ll amass things you’ve learned really well and can access at a whim. This makes day to day practicing much more fun and effective.
Learning new material
Start off by breaking up the new material into easy to approach tasks. Next, immerse yourself in practicing just the one new line, section of a tune, or new concept. Keep in this total immersion state until you think you’ve genuinely mastered the small bit of information. Then transition the new material or concept into review/application mode, adding it as part of your daily practice routine. Introduce new material in this manner and you’ll easily be able to take anything you want to learn and make it your own.