One of the biggest obstacles for musicians working to improve as improvisers lies in the development of a solid daily practice routine. We all know we should get into the practice room and diligently spend hours toiling away, but how that time is spent is crucial to seeing musical development. In our daily practice, we frequently we run into barriers to progress: struggling to figure out the best method of practice, frustration as to why the content of a practice routine is not leading to improvement, or even finding motivation to set foot into the practice room.
When you get to the bottom of it, the key to creating quality practice won’t be found by looking for an external excuse. The true culprit lies in overcoming the opponent within ourselves. We don’t consciously prevent ourselves from improving, but the daily habits that we create determine our rate of improvement as a musician.
Whether it’s laziness, procrastination, a defeatist mindset, or an unwillingness to confront problem areas, there are a number of factors that can prevent improvement and the eventual realization of your goals. Finding a method to turn this cycle around will make all the difference in the results of your practice time.
Setting specific goals
Having goals leads to the achievement of goals, it’s as simple as that. Without having a defined objective, your time in the practice room, how ever well spent, will ultimately be leading you astray. In order to stop this routine of unfocused practice, create a mindset of productivity and results. Write down a list of goals that you want to achieve musically, both in the short term as well as the long term.
Instead of saying “I want to get better” or “I need amazing technique,” identify what exactly it is that you want to get better at or what specific aspects of technique that you want to improve upon. This may seem like an unimportant or mundane task, but if you can’t answer these questions with a specific answer, how do you expect to improve or solve well-defined problems?
By examining the specifics of what you want to achieve musically, you’ll identify what you need to focus on when you’re shedding. Take a minute and ask yourself the following questions:
- What do you want to accomplish in the practice room today?
- What are you going to focus on technically this week?
- What tunes do you want to have down by the end of this month?
- What part of your musicianship do you want to have improved six months from now (time, range, odd meters, ear training, etc.)?
- What do want to have mastered on your instrument a year from now?
- What is your vision for yourself as an improviser five years from now?
After you’ve pondered these questions and written your goals down, take an honest look at your practice routine. Are the things that you’re working on in the practice room helping you towards these goals?
If the answer is no, it’s time to make some serious changes.
Every minute in the practice room is important.
The activities that foster growth and enable improvement in your playing are the ones that require focus and perseverance. It’s not as easy as it seems, however, to have total focus every time you go into the practice room. In order to reshape your practice routine for improvement, you must identify and eliminate the parts of your daily practice that are hindering your progress.
Put a stop to activities like mindless practice and procrastination that are wasting your valuable time. This is a daily effort that requires continual evaluation. Catch yourself when you are wasting time messing around with play-a-long tracks or are putting off difficult exercises for another day. As shown by this article on how play-a-longs are wasting your time, it’s surprisingly easy to waste an hour with a play-a-long, not only stalling your progress, but sometimes even reinforcing bad habits.
Time spent ineffectively or unproductively is essentially delaying or even preventing your progress. If an exercise or practice habit has little musical relevance, doesn’t focus on problem areas, and isn’t contributing towards your ultimate goal, cut it out of your routine and replace it with something that does.
Make a plan
Now that you’ve recognized specific goals and eliminated wasted time in the practice room, it’s time to formulate a plan to reach these goals. If your goal is short term, like learning a tune or transcribing a chorus of blues, plan out a weekly schedule in order to not only learn the material, but also to internalize it through repetition. Remember that a technique, tune, or solo can’t be internalized into your playing in one sitting. After you’ve initially learned a tune or line, revisit it frequently to ensure it remains ingrained in your playing.
The harder task comes in setting long term goals and actually sticking with them. We make wishful resolutions all the time: “I want to know 100 tunes, I need to transcribe more solos, I want to have better range and more technique,” and so on. But, the truth of the matter is that that which is easily wished for is often very hard to carry out. The key to actually accomplishing these long-term goals is to work on them daily over a long period of time.
It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. ~ Albert Einstein
Look at where you want to be one year from now musically. Goals like building a repertoire of tunes or mastering rhythm changes in all keys can’t be done in a short period of time. Set your goals now and incorporate pieces of these goals into your daily practice. It helps to set a date a month or even six months from now, when you aim to have these goals completed by. Instead of setting a goal and working on it for a week, make a long term plan and stick with it until it’s mastered.
Keep in mind that once you’ve improved your practice routine, it’s not guaranteed too stay that way forever. Your musical goals may change. Your available time to get into the practice room may be decreased. You may even have mastered one difficult technique only to fall back into the habit of not challenging yourself. Whatever it may be, make sure that your current practice routine is aligned with your current goals.
The key to continual improvement goes hand in hand with a constant evaluation of your practice habits. Be honest with yourself and focus on areas that really need it. By following this simple recipe, you’ll continue to improve daily in the practice room.
I’ve heard countless people say that they want to know more tunes, or that they wish they were transcribing more solos. If you desire something, start working for it right now. Don’t continue to put off your goals until you feel ready, implement a plan to improve today.
This step requires a lot of motivation, but put on a record of one of your favorite players and I’ll guarantee that you’ll find an endless source of motivation. Get excited by this music because with hard work and smart practice, you will see improvement.