November 22nd, 2010

5 Ways to Practice Anywhere

By Eric

One of the most frustrating feelings I have, is to get to the end of the day and realize that I haven’t practiced enough, or even worse, that I haven’t even touched my instrument. Whether it’s because of appointments, travel, school, or work commitments, it seems like there is always something getting in the way of our daily practice. However, just because we find ourselves away from our instruments, doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice practice time. Here are five easy ways to take control and turn that otherwise wasted time into useful practice time:

1. Visualization

The practice of visualization is used by people in all types of professions. Athletes visualize themselves performing at their peak before game time, politicians visualize themselves giving great speeches, and even surgeons mentally rehearse every aspect of a procedure before operating on a patient.

As musicians, we can also use this process to our advantage. Not only can we visualize a perfect performance, we can use this method to actually practice and reinforce techniques outside of the practice room. Scales, chord progressions, and even a transcribed solo that you have been learning, can improve by using visualization.

If you are still wondering what visualization is, read this article on visualization now for a step by step process on how to mentally practice for jazz improvisation. You can do these exercises while you are laying in bed before you fall asleep or any other downtime you have during the day.

Try picking a scale or pattern that you have been working on and close your eyes. See those notes on a music staff in your mind and play through them as you hear them mentally. When you go through them, make sure to visualize every note and finger the notes as if you were playing your instrument, creating a mental and physical connection.

You can use this process for anything you may be working on. If you are trying to learn a certain standard, visualize the changes in your head, mentally sing the melody and see the chords go by. Trying to get that Freddie Hubbard solo in your fingers? Close your eyes, hear the solo in your mind and finger along with the line as if you were really playing it along with the record. Make visualization a part of your daily routine, and I guarantee you will definitely see improvement when you come back to your instrument.

2. Ear training on the go

How often do you find yourself in the car listening to the radio or walking around town checking out tunes on your ipod? These are both great opportunities to work on ear training.

If you find yourself in the car, turn on the radio and pick out a tune. Pop tunes are great for this exercise because they are relatively simple and if you didn’t hear everything on the first try, you can be sure that the song will be played again and again…and again. First sing with the melody and as you go along, try to identify the various intervals throughout the line.

After that, sing the root of every chord and determine the chord progression of the song. If that seems easy, pick out different chord tones like the 3rd, 5th, etc. to sing along with the progression. After awhile, you will be able to identify chord progressions and scale degrees without even thinking about it.

This exercise can also be a great way to prepare for learning tunes or transcribing solos before you get into the practice room. If you have some free time and are listening to your ipod, put on a solo that you’ve been meaning to transcribe and work on internalizing it. Listen to the solo a few times and then sing along with the recording. Make sure that you are singing exact pitches and not just approximating the shape of the line. Ingraining a solo into your mind in this way, through repeated listening and singing will make the transcription process that much easier once you have your instrument with you.

Ear training is something we can always improve on, so rather than just sitting in traffic or passing time listening to music, use these exercises that will improve your ears at the same time.

3. Work on odd meters

If you are like most musicians, playing in odd meters like 5 and 7 is a tricky stumbling block to overcome. This is because we rarely play in these time signatures and when we do encounter them, are unfamiliar with them. This is a problem that can be solved without your instrument.

The pianist and educator Lennie Tristano had a great interest in rhythm which is reflected in many of his compositions. In his teaching, Tristano focused on polyrhythms or feeling different meters on top of one another and gave his students exercises to master these.

Here are a few exercises that you can do anywhere to master some of those odd meters that have been giving you trouble. Take a metronome with you or simply just sing or tap groups of odd meters like 3, 5 and 7 over 4/4.

Start simple and try tapping or singing a triplet or group of 3 over 4/4:

Next try five over four:
Another way to create an odd meter feel is to imply a polyrhythm through the use of inflection. Accent the first note in a group of 3 eighths over 4/4, in turn implying a 3/8 feel over the bar line:
Try singing a scale in thirds with these accents implying the same 3/8 feel:
Playing in 7 can be tricky and coming up with something creative can be even harder. Work on finding new ways to play in 7 rather than the standard grouping of 2+2+3 shown below:
One way is to imply 4/4 over the bar line with groups of quarter notes:

4. Physical exercises

Sometimes what we need to practice is purely a physical aspect of our playing: fingerings, posture, articulation, etc. We can improve on these aspects of our playing anywhere because they deal directly with our bodies. If you are a piano player you may need to work on finger strength, drummers may need to work on independence exercises and horn players may need to work on difficult fingering patterns.

Identify the physical issue that is giving you a problem and create an exercise that isolates the exact movement. Remember to start slow and think about each aspect of the exercise, so when you go to play it will be there without conscious thought.

Work on articulation and air flow

When you play a wind instrument, it can seem like there is no substitute for time on the horn. Well this may be true, one physical thing that you can work on anywhere is your articulation and air flow. For jazz musicians, one aspect that constantly requires practice is swing articulation. An exercise that I like to do is to just focus on my tongue and air without my horn and enunciate or tongue the syllables along with a steady airflow. For instance, I will pick a scale or line and finger along as I do the articulation.  In the example below I would use the written syllables for articulation and blow a steady stream of air as I go through the line:

5. Sight reading

An easy way to keep our reading on par, is to carry around some sheet music with you, like an etude book, big band charts, or a percussion book with rhythmic exercises. Anything will do as long as it is challenging.

When you have some spare time, open one of the books up to a random page and practice sight singing one of the lines. Make sure you are keeping steady time or bring a metronome along. If singing the pitches at first is too hard, just try to sing the rhythms. Half the battle in becoming a great reader is to become consistent, so make this exercise a habit and you will be there in no time