3 Simple Steps to a Productive Practice Routine

Time in the practice room doesn’t equal improvement. Hey, wait a second…That’s right, you read that correctly. It’s time spent practicing the right things that leads to improvement. And this isn’t always the case with most players’ routines, especially when it comes to jazz improvisation…

There’s a well-loved myth out there that if you practice, practice, practice you’re going to reach your goals as a musician. You’ll perform at Carnegie Hall and gain the praise of the musicians around you.

All because you put yourself in a practice room with your instrument.

But is this accurate?

The painful truth is that there are many musicians out there practicing like maniacs, spending multiple hours of the day locked in a practice room…

And who nonetheless are still struggling to achieve their basic musical goals.

Don’t let this be you. Here are 3 simple steps to improving the productivity of your practice routine starting today:

Step 1: Avoid bad practice

You know the feeling…

You’re in the practice room and nothing seems to be working.

You can’t get your sound locked in, you keep flubbing the same fingering in that line, and you don’t know what to play over that chord.

But you’re determined to keep plowing ahead, no matter what.

One more time through that etude, one more push for those high notes, and another run through that tricky chord progression.

You’ve got to finish and you’re on the verge of frustration…

Sound familiar?

This is where bad practice begins. When quantity becomes the focus over quality. When the motivation is there, but the focus and direction is not.

Wynton Marsalis on practice

Remember bad habits can be practiced too.

Every time you repeat an action you ingrain the subtleties of that movement in your body.

When you blindly practice just to practice you’re in danger of creating these bad habits without realizing it. Even worse, you’re wasting valuable time.

When you find yourself in this situation, stop! Step away for a moment and regroup.

Mentally reset by reviewing the notes from your private lessons, watch some masterclasses and heed those words of wisdom online, and listen to some recordings to get the sound of great playing in your ear.

Then get back in there and start again with the correct mindset and technique.

Step 2: Make a list of your musical pain points

So you’ve identified the mindless, unfocused practice in your routine…

Now, how do you figure out what you’re supposed to be devoting this focused practice time to?

Start by knowing what you want to achieve and what problems you want to solve in your playing. It’s this simple step that will guide you to the things that you need to practice.

In the back of your mind you probably have a list of things that are giving you trouble in your playing or techniques that you wish you had.

Think back to the last time you played a solo. What wasn’t working, what was giving you trouble, what do you wish you could’ve played?

As I was learning to improvise I remember running into these 4 issues over and over again:

  • I have nothing to play over Dominant chords, besides the basic mixolydian scale
  • I have trouble transcribing solos
  • It takes me a long time to learn the melodies to tunes off of the recording
  • I can’t hear the chord progressions going by

I knew where I was lacking, the problem was that I kept trying to solve everything with the same solution: Scales and music theory.

And this led to hours of wasted time and energy, not to mention frustratingly bad solos.

Once you know your pain points you’re only half way there, to move forward you need to find a fix…

Step 3: Find the right solution

Don’t go into the practice room using the same routine and expect it to produce miraculous results.

I pretty sure someone smart said that was the definition of insanity…

When I was younger I tried to improve my trumpet technique playing pages and pages of etudes, I wanted to learn to improvise so I turned on play-a-longs and tried to make up solos for hours at a time.

The problem was that these practice items were not solutions. It felt like I was practicing, yet I was missing the details that really needed the work.

Itzhak Perlman on practice

Start with a plan of action and a solution to specific problems in your playing. Keep in mind that finding solutions to these musical problems is something that you can’t do entirely on your own. You need to ask your teachers, talk to other musicians, and look for the best resources available.

Oftentimes the solution is not a huge area of your playing, but a simple technique or skill that requires intense focus.

For example, here are some solutions to common improvisation problems that many musicians encounter…

  • I don’t know what to play over Major, minor and dominant chords = Start transcribing solos to learn the language of jazz
  • Do you get lost in tunes and forget the chords? = Work on visualizing the chord progression and the individual chords
  • Have trouble playing in all keys? = Go back and work on your technique, see each key in your mind, and master all 12 keys
  • Have you transcribed, but still feel like you can’t be creative? = Go back and make that line your own, master it in all 12 keys and create rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic variations
  • I’m bored with all of the stuff that I play = Transcribe new material, look for new sounds and harmonic ideas that catch your ear and incorporate them into your solos

So what does this all add up to?

This means that if you start eliminating aimless practice time and start practicing with intent you’ll  improve much more quickly.

No longer will you be ingraining bad habits or wasting time wandering down the wrong path, you’ll see results with each practice session.

By identifying your main musical barriers and finding specific solutions, you’re laying the groundwork for your future musical success.

One focused hour can mean conquering a musical problem that has been stopping you for months.

One week of practice can mean a breakthrough in the way you approach improvisation.

And after a few months of productive practice. you’ll be a completely different player

Remember time is precious. You’re already spending a lot of time in the practice room, make sure it counts!

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