Okay, my jazzy friend. The time has come to start putting together your own practice plan. Your practice plan will serve as the most powerful tool you have to keep you moving forward towards your musical vision.
In fact the whole point of goals, targets and plans is to create momentum and forward motion with your musical progress. The idea is that you get clear about where you’re going. You think through what seems like the best course of action. And you take consistent action each day and move forward – even if just a tiny bit – every single day. That’s how you accomplish things. Through purposeful and consistent action.
Maybe that’s not as sexy as you would like. But that’s the big secret to success.
However, I’ll be completely honest with you. Very often, goals and plans turn out entirely different then you originally intended. That’s normal and to be expected. In fact, I urge you to not get hung up on things when they don’t go precisely the way you planned them.
Now, the overall process will be to go from the big picture all the way down to the details of your very next practice session.
Here’s the basic idea: We start with your foundation – that’s the big picture, your Big Why, your musical value and your ultimate musical vision.
Once you’re clear on your foundation you will use it as a backdrop to evaluate your playing, your path, your musical choices, etc. It will influence and affect all of your musical activities. If you’re not keeping the big picture in mind each day you’re probably flying blind, noodling away your practice time and spinning your wheels in the practice room.
Then we simply work our way down to, literally, the very next step to take in the practice room today.
Now, let’s get started on your plan, OK? OK.
With your foundation for musical success in hand, you know where you want to go with your playing in the long run. Now, we want to take a look at where you are TODAY with your playing. Then you can choose the best goals and targets possible to get you moving in the direction of your vision. To close ‘the gap’ between where you are and where you want to be.
We’ll use a few different methods to evaluate your current abilities:
Record & Critique.Recording your practice is probably the most powerful habit in your practice arsenal. Click To Tweet
You should do this often, if not daily.
We’ve already covered some of the many benefits of recording your playing in the Big Puzzle Section.
Record a variety of solos and improvisations if possible. And listen back 5X+ to each. Even more if you have the time.
Ask yourself questions like:
What’s working? What sounds good?
What stands out as problem areas? What’s not working?
Where do you lose steam? Where do you run out of ideas? Where does it get boring?
What do you struggle with?
What do you feel are your biggest constraints? I.E. the things holding you back the most with the most potential for dramatic impact on your ability if you were to improve them.
Reflect on gigs, sessions and jam sessions.
What tunes, forms, progressions, meters, feels did you play on your recent gigs and sessions?
What were the things you nailed? What were the things you struggled with? Any particular keys, meters, tunes, progressions?
What, more than anything else, holds you back from sounding better? Is it dynamics? Do you get lost on the form? Is it your time? Do you drag? Do you turn the beat around? Do you play out of tune?
Where did you shine? Where did you sound and feel the best?
Record and critique your gigs and sessions for even more effect.
Note: Try to do all of this evaluation objectively and compassionately. Meaning you want to see the truth about your skills – without sugar coating and without rose colored glasses.
But there is NO point beating yourself up about what you find. If you find something wrong with your playing, that’s a good thing. Now you can work to get better at it.
Take inventory of your current skills vs. skills you know you need, but don’t have.
How do you feel on two fives? Do you have tons of vocabulary internalized for two fives? Are you solid on two fives in all twelve keys?
How about blues form? Rhythm changes? Standards? Jazz Tunes? Playing in 3/4? Up tempo? Ballads? Etc.
Based on recording your practice, reflecting on your gigs & sessions and taking inventory you should be able to come up with some key areas that you want to focus on.
Seek advice from mentors.
Finally, you can also seek advice from more experienced players and peers and also seek advice & guidance from experts, masters and mentors.
This is also a great source of awareness. You might not always be able to tell what your biggest constraints and problem areas are. A good teacher or a more experienced player can be invaluable in this context. They can certainly help you shine a light on things you need to focus on. They’ve ‘been there, done that’ and they know the path to success.
Once you have a better idea of where you are with your playing you’re ready to move on and start crafting your plan.
Word to the wise: Don’t get hung up on any step of this process. You will not get it perfect the first time. Nor the second. And that’s not the point. Get through this planning process in one day. Two at most. Then get to work getting better. You’ll get better and better and clearer and clearer as you continue to practice doing this.
Next: How much time will you practice each day?
Before we actually begin to choose our goals and targets we need to know how much time we’re working with here.
Take just a minute to work out how long you will be practicing each day. If you only have 30 minutes you probably don’t want to pick 6 topics to work on, for instance.
Now, how much you ‘should’ practice and how much you ‘will’ practice is an important distinction. It’s better to practice 30 minutes every single day and move forward on a few topics consistently then it is to set your sights too high and miss the mark entirely.
Have you ever maintained a regular practice session of 1 hour a day? Yes? Great. If you think you have more time now and you’re ready to do two hours give it a shot.
But remember the concept of habit gravity? If you have never been able to sustain a regular practice session of 30 minutes a day, don’t jump right on up to 6 hours because you heard about how much some cat at school practices. You’re most likely setting yourself up to fail.
Instead try the mini-habit concept we talked about. Start with 5 minutes a day. Something so small you can’t miss. Once that begins to become hardwired in your brain as a daily practice habit it will be MUCH easier to scale up to 30 minutes, 1 hour and beyond. It might take a few months of doing the tiny habit. But eventually it will ‘set’ and it will begin to snow ball.
Once you know how much time you’re working with you can begin to plan out your practice sessions.
Major Areas of Practice.
There are 6 fundamental areas that make up the core of your musical training. This stuff comes from my mentor and friend, Hal Crook. Hal is a bad-ass trombone player & improviser and an equally skilled teacher I met while studying at Berklee. The six areas are as follows:
1. Instrumental Technique: this of course pertains to control of your axe. Topics to study would include, arpeggios, scales, scale patterns, accent patterns, range, articulation, dynamics, rudiments, coordination, etc.
2. Etudes: These are any classical or jazz pieces written for your instrument and designed to bring the various instrumental techniques together into a musical setting relating to execution, technique, expression and interpretation.
3. Sight-reading: this is, of course, the ability to read new material at will. You can choose appropriate material each day to hone and practice your sight-reading skills. This material could include rhythmic sight reading, reading lines with no rhythms, chords, classical pieces, music written for an instrument other than your own, etc.
4. Repertoire: jazz is a language of music built on and around tunes. You should constantly seek to expand your repertoire by learning tunes from the whole library: standards, jazz tunes and modern tunes.
5. Ear-training: this is your ability to recognize musical elements by ear (pitch, harmony, rhythms, forms, articulation, dynamics etc) and respond on your instrument.
6. Improvisation: this is what it’s all about – creating art in real time. Topics for improvisation would include chord-scale soloing, rhythmic values, phrase lengths, pacing, motive development, building vocabulary, etc. Again, I’m gonna plug Hal here. Check out his books, “How to Improvise” and “Ready, Aim, Improvise” for a comprehensive list of improvisational topics and exercises to master them.
Okay. So now you know where you want to go with your playing. And you know where you are. You know how much time you have to practice each day. And you know about the main areas of musical practice.
Now, it’s time to get to work creating your actual practice plan: What you will actually be working on.
The planning process.
I made a little graphic for you that might help you visualize it.
Step 1: Notice how you start by choosing which Major Areas you’ll be working with.
Step 2: Then you choose topics within those Major Areas to focus on.
Step 3: Then you choose targets to aim at for those practice topics.
Step 4: Next, you map out a likely path to get from where you are to the target.
Step 5: Finally, you figure out the very next step and of course you then take that step in the practice room.
With the work you’ve done so far in hand it’s time to choose some major areas & topics to focus on.
Here’s an example for you: Perhaps during your evaluation you listened to a recording from a recent jam session where you sat in on the tune ‘All the Things You Are’.
Maybe you discovered that you just aren’t really making the changes accurately, you don’t like your phrasing and you’re having a hard time hearing the form.
Based on that information you decide that you will focus on three of the major areas:
- Ear Training
Next, you’ll choose some topics to work on in each of the major areas.
Major Area 1: Technique
Topic: Arpeggios – through the chords of ‘All the Things You Are’.
Major Area 2: Improvisation
Topic: Chord Tone Solos on ‘All the Things You Are’
Topic: Guide Tone Embellishments on ‘All the Things You Are’
Major Area 3: Ear training
Topic: Transcribing – Miles on ‘All the Things You Are’
*Notice how A) You can integrate the different pieces of your plan so they reenforce each other. And B) You can exercise your technique in a musical way.
Now, the next step would be to add in that ‘horizontal element’ we talked about.
Again, the ‘vertical’ is the stack/list of topics.
The ‘horizontal’ is the razor sharp target practice that keeps you moving forward and getting better over time.
Here’s the gist of it:
- You set a target.
- You map out a likely path to get there.
- You take small steps towards it in the practice room each day.
- You adjust course as needed.
- And you keep going UNTIL YOU HIT IT.
Check this out:
Now, listen. We’re talking about practicing and learning your CRAFT as a jazz musician.Cats don't blow at a high level because of magic or because it 'just comes to them'. Click To Tweet
They are masters of their craft first. They are prepared. And that level of skill allows them to mature into true artists.
And just about every skill needed to improvise can be broken down into targets. And target practice is one of the most powerful and effective ways to ensure your progress. These targets can be broken down into discrete steps. Steps that you can take each day in the shed.
These targets can be critiqued (by you or your teacher) for accuracy and success.
So, when you choose your targets consider the following:
- The target must be clearly defined. ‘Working on my scales’ is not clearly defined. Define what scales exactly, what keys, what rhythms, what tempo, what range, what fingering, etc.
- It must be measurable. You must be able to say after practice “I hit my target” or “I have not hit my target yet”.
- And you want to have a time frame for your target. I recommend 30 days to start. Typically 30-90 days is a good amount of time for most cats. More advanced and more disciplined cats will also tend to have longer term goals. Sometimes spanning several years. Just find out what works for you. There’s no point creating 3 year goals, getting stressed out by them and never really going after them. Stick with something that’s challenging but doable for you.
Okay, now let’s talk about the path.
Basically, you’ve chosen a target you want to hit in thirty days. Now you work backwards from that target and figure out what you’re gonna have to do to get there. All the way down to the very next step that you’re gonna take today in the practice room.
Now, let’s take a stab at setting some 30 day targets and breaking them down into a path/plan.
A simple way to do this is to break it down by week.
In order to hit your target 30 days from now what will you have to accomplish in week 1?
How about week 2?
And week 3?
And lastly, week 4?
So, to use our example of accuracy on ‘All the Things You Are’ you might map out the follow basic plan for your technique practice:
Week 1: Learn, memorize and drill the chord arpeggios for ‘All the Things You Are’, First section (A).
- Your first target is to be able to play each arpeggio in 8th notes along with a metronome at mm = 80, up and down 2 full octaves.
- Your second target is to be able to play through the chords of the first section in succession, ascending, in time at mm = 100, using 8th notes.
- Your very next step, the thing you will actually start with, might be to get comfortable playing through the arpeggio of the first chord, out of time at an easy speed. And then work your way towards the first target.
- Once you’ve got that first target down. You start working on the second. Again you might start by playing the first chord by itself. But now you’ll play it in time using 8th notes. And you’ll play along with a metronome at an easy tempo. Then you work your way towards the second target.
Does that make sense?
Week 2 and beyond: Then you could simply repeat this exact plan the next week for the next section of the tune (A2). And then (B) and then (A3).
At the same time, you would have the other pieces of your plan. So, for your improvisational work you might be improvising over the first chord of the tune for your first day’s practice. And then gradually work towards a target of improvising over the changes using just chord tones, with a set rhythm, in time at a certain metronome marking.And these two parts of your plan would work quite nicely together. So would the third part: transcribing Miles playing a chorus on the tune. You work on the first (A), during the first week. And move forward from there.
If you were to take this plan, and follow through on it, in one month you would be much stronger on the tune. You probably wouldn’t get lost at your sessions and you would be much more accurate on the changes.
For the next month you could simply keep going with this topic and move into chord scales, motive development, approach notes, whatever.
As you simultaneously did the following:
- Worked on technique as related to the tune.
- Worked on improvising over the tune at the edge of your ability.
- Transcribed and copped vocabulary for the tune from Miles (and others)
You would, soon enough, be able to crush it on the tune. And these new skills would carry over to the next tune you worked on.
So to recap:
- Get clear on where you’re going.
- Get clear on where you are.
- Figure out some topics that will move you towards your ultimate vision.
- Pick some 30 day targets for those topics.
- Work out a projected path to hit those targets.
- Get to work on your path.
This is how you WILL get the skills you want with jazz.
>>>You just gotta adjust course as needed and follow through.<<<
In the next post we’re gonna talk about how to plug this plan into your daily ritual, so advancing as a player becomes habitual and normal for you. And that’s a good habit indeed.
Table of Contents
1. The Ultimate Secret to Learning Jazz
2. The Core Philosophies of Musical Success
3. The Big Jazz Puzzle: Part 1
4. The Big Jazz Puzzle: Part 2
5. The Big Jazz Puzzle: Part 3
6. Mindset & Mental Clarity
7. Laying Your Foundation For Musical Success
8. Creating Your Master Practice Plan
9. Putting Your Daily Practice Ritual In Place
10. Maximizing Your Musical Progress