20 Practice Hacks for the Busy Musician

Time is the only thing we really have in life and there never seems to be enough of it. But whether your goals are to just play for fun or to become a professional musician, there are techniques you can start using today to make use of your time more effectively to become the musician you want to be, despite your limited time. And if you have all the time in the world, you should still apply these strategies because things won’t always be that way.

As life goes on, you tend to accumulate more and more responsibility, so it’s best to form the habits to deal with limited time right now…

Invest in the right tools

Hack 1 for jazz musicians

The right tools matter more than ever when you’re trying to save time. The right tools could mean anything from the right software to the best instrument you can afford. The point is, use your money to save you time.

We recommend a bunch of things, not just because they help support Jazzadvice and keep it alive, but because they can help anybody get to where they want to go, faster.

It took me a long time to realize that spending a little money on the right tool could improve my listening experience, my transcribing process, and my skill as an improvisor much more rapidly than if I didn’t have these tools.

The right tools give you a huge advantage.

Spend some time thinking about what would make it easier for you to become the musician you want to be. What if you could compose perfectly without your instrument or your piano nearby?

Imagine yourself near the beach, chilling at a coffee shop, writing music that inspires you. Is this even possible? We’ll get to this and more, but yes, with the right tools, virtually anything is possible in today’s world.

Make use of your commute time

Hack 2 for jazz musicians

The average American spends over a 100 hours a year commuting and 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s a lot of time. You can do a lot with 100 hours.


The easiest thing you do with all that wasted time: listen to jazz.

Find your local jazz radio station, crank it up and listen.

You’ll be introduced to new players, tunes, and bands you never new existed. Make a mental note of anything you hear that you love so you can come back to it later and study it.

Get the ears you’ve always wanted

This is likely the biggest gain you can make during your commute time, in fact, my commute on the subway to work inspired The Ear Training Method because I wanted an automated way to improve my ear during this wasted time.

When you’re crunched for time, your precious practice time is for practicing your instrument, not for ancillary goals like improving your ear. Your commute to work is the perfect time to reach your ear training goals.

In 15 minutes a day you can make huge improvements in the way you hear. 15 minutes a day works out to about 90 hours a year.

Now do you know how to use those 100 hours?

Form the mental connections in your mind that jazz requires

Before you even play your instrument, there’s a wealth of knowledge that needs to be implanted in your brain. Jazz theory is completely useless unless you can effortlessly access it.

Enter visualization.

Visualization is the process to form these mental connections and you can do it anywhere.

Check out the basics of visualization, How to put chord-tones at your fingertips, and when you’re ready to take your visualization skills to new heights, grab The Jazz Visualization eBook, which is getting a HUGE update in the next couple weeks which we’re really excited to share.

After a ton of brainstorming, we finally found an effective way to practice the seemingly simple concepts of visualization that will once and for all show people the true complexity of this skill and give an exact route to achieving it.

Leverage every ounce of technology

Hack 3 for jazz musicians

As a jazz musician, transcribing is something we spend a lot of time doing.

You’d be amazed at how many people write in saying that things are too fast, or they can’t seem to hear something, or it’s just too hard.

And I totally get it. Transcribing is hard! Even for us. But the thing that I don’t get is why people make it more difficult for than it has to be.

My time’s limited. My goal with transcribing is to learn the information as quickly and effectively as possible, and in a such a masterful way, that I can actually use the information I’m learning, not just accurately copy what I’m hearing.

I literally use the program Transcribe every single day and if you’re not using some sort of software that can slow down and loop sections of a tune, giving you a great interface to work with audio, you’re making things more difficult than they have to be.

Make things easy, but still do your own work.

For example, buying a transcription book is not only making things too easy, but completely missing the point of transcribing.

Another thing to think about in terms of technology is leveraging it in ways that it may not be designed for or initially intended to do.

For instance, there was a time when I did a lot of graphic design and one of the primary tools of the day for designers was Adobe Photoshop. Photo editing software for design?

Yeah, it wasn’t ideal, but many designers had discovered that there was functionality within the program that could be leveraged in unique ways for design, even though the particular functionality was not intended for those purposes.

This gave the designers that understood how to use Photoshop in these unique ways a huge edge.

And later, other software companies would eventually take the workflows that designers developed for themselves in these programs to create new, better software, specifically created for designers.

The same is true with music technology.

A super simple thing I do in Transcribe which I’m sure no one else does, is I write notes in the audio with the section marker.

So, you have this functionality that’s called “Marker” and it’s supposed to be used to write in things like “A” or “B” or some sort of marker in the music, but nothing says I can’t write “Bb triad over E device” or some sort of note in the music that makes sense to me.

If you use Transcribe already, first, have you ever used the” Marker” functionality and second, did you ever think of using it differently than it was intended?

Make sure you’re taking advantage of technology and figure out how you can use things in unique ways.

Listen all the time and invest in a high quality listening experience

Hack 4 for jazz musicians

You’re a musician. That means that sound matters to you more than many other things in the world. But do you act as though it does?

What do you have in your ears right now? The little white ear buds that come with the iPhone?

I used these for years and still use them in a pinch, but I didn’t realize how much I was missing out on, literally, by not creating a high-quality listening experience between my ears.

There’s a lot going on in recordings that without the right headphones gets muddled together, or simply lost.

I’ve tried a ton of headphones and I haven’t found anything that works as well for the price as the AKG K240. Because of the semi-open design, you get that “the band is right in front of you” sound.

And for listening it’s great, but it really shines for transcribing.

You know how when you’re trying to figure out chord changes by ear and you can’t hear the bass line?

With this tool–that’s right these headphones are your tool–the bass line becomes exponentially more clear. You can actually hear it and you can only transcribe what you can clearly hear.

Another tool I use a lot for my listening experience and transcribing, especially when I’m traveling, is the portable loud speaker – the Liberate BT.

Computer speakers suck. This speaker paired with my computer and Transcribe turns my computer into a highly effective transcribing machine!

And once you get the right tools, the other part of the equation is simple: use them!

Use your daily dose of pop music to train your ear and get composition inspiration

Hack 5 for jazz musicians

I bet you know the latest Taylor Swift song and that you can even probably sing along with the words.

Whether you like it or not, unless you live under a rock, you’re constantly exposed to the pop music of today. That’s just the culture we live in. The radio plays the same 10 or 20 songs over and over and over and over…and your friends love it.

Instead of getting pissed that today’s music sucks–it doesn’t, you just need to try harder to find great stuff. It’s out there–use every time you hear a pop song as a chance to improve your ear.

There are all sorts of creative exercises you can do right in the moment when you hear a pop tune.

And there’s no reason to bash pop music, in fact there’s a lot to learn about in terms of composing.

After-all something in the way pop music is composed makes it popular, so why not learn to write tunes like a pop star?

Read music related books

Hack 6 for jazz musicians

When you don’t get enough time with your instrument, you can start to feel like you’re not a musician. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, there’s no reason you can’t stay connected to music.

Immerse yourself in the life of jazz musicians through autobiographies and interviews.

Art Pepper’s autobiography is chilling…

Who knows how much of it he made up, but Mile’s autobiography is very entertaining…

Or read about how music is processed by the  brain in This is Your Brain On Music

There are so many great books that will keep you immersed with and connected to music.

Watch great interviews with jazz musicians

Hack 7 for jazz musicians

Every time you watch an interview with a jazz musician, you get a look into their unique perspective and hidden within their careful responses, you can often find little gems of information that will point you in the right direction or give you just the right push to figure out something that was previously confusing.

Here’s a great interview with saxophonist Mark Turner that’s packed with wisdom:

And make sure to check out these 50 Jazz Interviews and 50 jazz education clips

Make your instrument readily available

Hack 8 for jazz musicians

Making your instrument readily available is part of creating the perfect practice environment.

So what does this mean?

It means that any physical barrier between you and your instrument will prevent you from playing it as often as you would if those physical barriers were not there.

Simply put: Take your instrument out of the ^&#%ing case and leave it like that!!!

I play so much more ever since I made my horn easy to grab.

Did you know Coltrane even kept a horn in multiple rooms, and had a flute on hand for when he got tired?

Now that’s making your instrument(s) accessible!!!

Get a great instrument stand–another great tool to invest in–and make it easy to just grab your horn for 15 minutes.

This goes hand-in-hand with the next hack, which is only possible if you can easily get your instrument up and running.

Take advantage of the small blocks of time you have throughout the day

Hack 9 for jazz musicians

10 minutes here, 5 minutes there. It adds up.

Waiting for your chicken to finish cooking? Go grab your horn!

Yeah, it sounds ridiculous, but it works. All the time when I’m cooking or waiting for something to finish, I grab my horn and run through a piece of language in all keys or play a few chords on the piano that I’ve been trying to figure out.

The truth is, no matter how much time you have, typically the first 20 minutes you focus on something is going to be more productive than the next because, the longer we focus on something, the more our mind tends to drift.

So, if you have these little blocks of highly-focused time available and your instrument is readily accessible, you can accomplish a lot throughout the day.

Everyone, no matter how busy, has these little blocks of time and most people don’t even think of using them.

Abandon the idea that you need a solid continuous block of uninterrupted 2 hours of practice time to get anything done.

This ideal situation doesn’t exist for most, so work with what you’ve got because used correctly, it can be even more productive.

Architect your practice time

Hack 10 for jazz musicians

Once you know what to practice for jazz improvisation and you study this diagram of how to practice jazz, think about exactly how you want to architect your practice time. It’s not a science.

Focus on big gains, what matters to you, and one clearly defined goal

Figure out YOUR short-term goal. That’s great you want to be the next Michael Brecker, don’t we all. Instead of thinking months, years, or a lifetime out, just think of today and this week–Short term goals that are clearly defined.

Ditch the goals like “Learn 100 tunes,” or “Transcribe 10 Coltrane solos.”

There’s so much you can learn by studying 1 tune or solo.

Do you want to learn how to play over a blues, or rhythm changes, or a funk vamp, or a ballad?

Start with one clearly defined goal.

Remove clutter from your practice

Anything that does not help you directly achieve your clearly defined goal is a waste of time. Pick and choose what matters to you and what doesn’t.

Which brings us to the next hack…

Think in terms of an ongoing project

Hack 11 for jazz musicians

Often it’s difficult for busy people to even comprehend how to architect a practice routine because they don’t even see the space in their life for such a thing.

So instead of thinking in terms of a “practice plan,” take your short-term goal that you clearly defined and translate it into an ongoing high-yield project that you’ll work on for the whole month, or even several.

For example, supposing you want to learn how to play over a blues, and not just “get by” but actually sound awesome on a blues, which is not an easy goal…

Find a solo that you absolutely love over a blues.

Your project for the next month is to learn that solo perfectly and rip it apart, learn every piece of language in it and how to use them, and make up your own exercises inspired by what you’re learning.

I guarantee that you’ll learn more from this single project than anything else you’ve ever worked on. And you’ll get closer to achieving the goal you set out for yourself than if you’d gone about it any other way.

Want to architect your practice time on big gains and move yourself toward your goals? Think in terms of an ongoing project instead of a daily-practice-plan type mindset.

Start a “Things to check out” list

Hack 12 for jazz musicians

On your phone, open the notes app. Or use Evernote or any of the million free apps our spoiled selves have at their fingertips, and start a list called “Things to check out” or an “I want to learn” list…

And any time your listening to a song and you hear something that gets your attention, add the title of the song with the time mark to your list. It could be a piece of language you hear, a whole tune you heard and loved, or maybe it’s something you didn’t even hear…

Maybe it’s an idea that you suddenly had, like, “I want to learn jazz piano voicings” or something like “I want to transcribe an instrument other than my own”…

Anything that gets you excited about music or playing your instrument, write it down. Then, review it when you need something new to focus on, or when you want to start a new project.

Don’t be in a hurry, even though you think you have to be

Hack 13 for jazz musicians

Having less time makes you think like you need to be in a hurry.

I got news for you. Everyone thinks they have to be in a hurry. Even Trane thought that he was always trying to catch up with everyone else.

You can’t let the feeling of being in a hurry get to you.

There’s a huge benefit to practicing things slowly. In fact, I remember Mulgrew telling us all the time that slow practice was the key to everything.

Stick to the clock

Hack 14 for jazz musicians

If you only have a small block of time, you can use that to your advantage and manage your time perfectly. The most productive people tend to use two techniques to make the best use of their time: time-blocking and spaced learning.

Understand the powerful concepts of time-blocking and spaced learning, and start using them with every practice session.

Take a keyboard with you everywhere you go

Hack 15 for jazz musicians

Ok. Remember how you pictured yourself composing in a coffee shop by the beach earlier?

Well here’s the tool that makes that possible. It’s a tiny little keyboard made by Akai, and I have to say, I love this thing! It’s made my dream of composing, transcribing, and learning tunes with the piano on-the-go a reality.

Yes, it’s really small and some people don’t like that, but it’s everything I need to achieve my goals.

I’m not looking to practice the piano. I’m using it to double check what I’m hearing as I transcribe something by ear, or to quickly enter notes into music composition software, or to experiment with interesting chord voicings and progressions.

It easily fits inside my backpack with my computer and everything else I need for my “office.”

And thanks to this handy little tool, I can take my office with me everywhere I go and achieve my goals anywhere.

I no longer have any excuses. Which is a huge part of excelling at something…

If you can create an environment that puts all the responsibility on you, then you better get to work.

Don’t like the keyboard? No problem. But take the principle behind it: find tools that make you have no excuses toward achieving your goals.

Use “off-time” effectively

Hack 16 for jazz musicians

When you’re on vacation or traveling, you needn’t stop your study of music. Besides the many things mentioned earlier like visualizing, ear training, listening, composing, and more, you can reflect on the player you wish to become.

If used correctly, thoughtful off-time can actually help you become the player you wish to be.

Don’t waste your practice time even if things aren’t perfect

Hack 17 for jazz musicians

So your reed sucks and you don’t like your sound…

Tough luck. Too bad. You’ve got 30 minutes before the kids come home screaming and one of your six bosses needs another TPS report on his desk.

Approach it like working out.

Some days feel good, others you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. But it doesn’t matter. You finish your workout. You achieve what you set out to do.

Carry that same attitude over to your practice.

Stop wasting valuable time experimenting with different equipment, browsing Facebook, or wishing you were better.

None of that is productive. Play through the crap. Aim to achieve what you set out to do today and be able to articulate exactly how you improved at the end of today.

Don’t get lost in the “it feels so good to just play” mindset

Hack 18 for jazz musicians

We all love to play and it’s supposed to be fun. For me, playing music is a creative fun outlet, and it’s one of the main ways that I enjoy spending my time.

When we don’t get to play all the time, or as much as we like, when we do get the chance, it can feel so good to “just play” that we do just that…we “just play”…

And there’s nothing wrong with that…unless you want to get better…

To get better, you can’t get caught up in the activity of “just playing.”

You actually need to accomplish something. It doesn’t have to be much. The key is consistency. A small amount of improvement on one on-going project over a period of months will create huge results in your playing.

Stay positive about your playing and know that music is a lifelong journey

Hack 19 for jazz musicians

All the time I hear so many musicians being so self-deprecating.

“I don’t practice enough…”

“I suck at this or that…”

“I wish I could play like Kenny G…”

Actually nobody says that. Just seeing if you’re still paying attention…

The point is, there’s no value in being negative toward yourself.

Aim to overcome your mental limitations and reset your mindset. Because so many people writing in had these problems, we even created the Reprogram the musical mind course, if meditation is your cup of tea.

Music is a lifelong journey filled with excitement, discovery, and frustration.

No matter what, try to remain positive about music and about yourself as a musician, otherwise your limited time toward music will dwindle because if you stop deriving happiness from it, you’ll spend less and less time doing it.

Always be thinking about music

Hack 20 for jazz musicians

And the final hack for busy musicians: Always be thinking about music.

Everything we talked about in this lesson can be summed up in this simple idea. Whether you’re on your way to work, going on a run, taking the kids to soccer practice, waiting for your dinner to finish cooking, listening to your friends complain about their life, standing in line at the DMV, or engaging in any other of the great pleasures that life has to offer, turn your thoughts toward music.

Music is a great refuge and you’ll have it your entire life. You may have limited time, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your goals as an improviser.

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