December 22nd, 2010

How to Practice Improvisation Less and Improve More

By Forrest

A reader recently wrote in the following question:

I used to play classical guitar, then stopped for a couple of years, and am now trying to teach myself jazz guitar. Here’s the thing:  I’m a college student.  Between classes, homework, and work,  it’s hard to get in practice time.  What would you recommend working on the most if I only have maybe 30-45 minutes a day? Sometimes it’s difficult knowing where to start/what to do…

I think most people can relate to this reader’s question. Being crunched for time is just how it is these days. Not to worry. You can still make huge positive leaps in your playing with very little time.

Scope and depth

The concept of scope and depth relates to how broad and deep a selection of anything may be. With regards to practicing, scope has to do with how many topics we choose to cover during any given practice session and depth describes how deeply we study each of these particular topics.

Most people’s practice sessions tend to be broad in scope and shallow in depth. For instance, they’ll attempt to tackle tone exercises, dozens of scales in all keys, five new tunes, and what ever else they can cram into an hour! On top of that, the method they approach each of these topics with may be completely inefficient. For example, most people tend to learn new tunes from play-along recordings as opposed to learning them off the record, or they make one of these other 6 disastrous mistakes.

A person who practices this way feels good about what they have done because they think they’ve put in their dedicated time into improving, however, sheer time in the practice room does not measure how much that practice benefits you. Let me repeat that: Time in does not directly correlate to benefit obtained.

To have truly beneficial practice, scope must decrease and depth must increase. In an interview with Marian McPartland, Bill Evans expressed:

“If you play too many things at one time [while practicing], your whole approach will be vague. You won’t know what to leave in and what to take out. Know very clearly what you’re doing and why. Play much less, but be very clear about it. It’s much better to spend 30 hours on one tune than to play 30 tunes in one hour.”

Heed Bill Evans’ advice. Reduce scope. Increase depth.

No distractions. Period.

If you have only 30-45 minutes a day to spend practicing, the way you spend that time is extremely important. Treat it like gold. Turn your phone off. Log out of email, Facebook, and any other time-sucks. You don’t need a snack or anything else. Focus.

In some respect, having so little time is an advantage. People who have plenty of time in a day often have trouble finishing what they need to because they say to themselves, “I’ll just do it later,” and it never gets done. With a specific amount of allotted time for a given task, you’re forced to do it. Knowing the start and end times helps motivate you through the entire process, all the way to completion.

The most efficient practice plan

Ok, so you’ve limited your distractions, you understand the value of your time, and you know you want to make the most of it. Time to reduce your scope and increase your depth as much as possible. In fact, reduce your scope to one topic. One topic? Really? Yes. One. That’s it.

The idea is to simplify. Simplify so much that you create a practice space where you have no other choice but to obtain mastery over one small thing. Forget how much you think there is to learn and pretend that the one thing you’re working on is the only thing to work on in the world.

Your first topic of practice

The best way to learn jazz is to spend time with the recordings of your heroes. The first topic you choose for your single-topic-practice-plan should be a solo (one of your heroes on your instrument) that absolutely floors you and is wihthin your technical ability. Look for high gain solos, meaning solos that contain a lot of accessible and applicable jazz language. It’s easy to tell upon first hearing if there is a lot of language and concepts to absorb from a solo.

A great solo/tune combo to begin with is over a blues because the melodies are easily learned, lines are easily extracted, and you already know the general chord changes. Specifically addressing the reader who wrote in the question, I don’t play guitar (yet), but when I start learning to play, I would start with a Wes Montgomery solo because I love listening to him play. I would choose a solo like the one that follows because it meets the requirements I previously specified, as well as a few others:

  • It’s over a blues
  • It contains a lot of jazz language that seems easily accessible and applicable
  • It’s not too long
  • It’s not too technically challenging (although not easy)
  • I really love listening to it! (This is the most important. You gotta love it if you’re to spend so much time with it and it’s going to become a part of you)

Please do not think I’m telling you what solo to specifically work on. Choosing what solos you internalize is a personal process. This is merely a solo I would select. Who you choose to be influenced by is your decision.

After choosing your tune/solo and ensuring it meets all the previous requirements, listen to the track any moment you get. Any waking moment you have that’s not occupied, simply listen to the track. It’s as easy as hitting play.

Once in the practice room, put the solo into your favorite transcribe software. I use Transcribe Software by Seventhstring. I highly recommend it. Not only can you easily slow down difficult sections, but you can quickly place markers and create loops in an instant. Even if you don’t want to slow anything down, the software makes it much easier than any other digital music player to quickly access different parts of the tune.

Focus 100% of your practice time on learning every nuance on the recording. Don’t skip to the solo…first learn the melody of the tune. Copy it. Internalize it. Spend as much time as you need on any section to play it perfectly. Slow it down as much as you need to hear it clearly.

The next day, begin by reviewing what you did the previous day. Supposing you learned the first 8 bars of the tune. Play through those first 8 bars for five minutes as a warmup. Then go on to the 9th bar. If the material you practiced the previous day needs more work, don’t sweat it. Don’t move on. Instead, simply spend your 30 minutes working on the material you worked the previous day, just get it down better than yesterday.

Every day, simply return to the solo. reinforce what you learned the previous day and get a little further on it each time you practice. Continue this way until you’ve achieved complete mastery over it.

Why spend so much time with just a solo?

You may think you’re neglecting other necessary aspects of learning to improvise while you’re focusing on one solo. The truth is, by working so intently on one solo, you’re actually hitting a lot more than you think. If you’re transcribing by learning everything by ear straight off the recording, Here’s what you’re getting:

  • Improving your ability to hear lines
  • Developing your finger to mind/ear connection
  • Amassing bits of jazz language
  • Internalizing the melody of tune the solo is played over
  • Internalizing the chord changes the solo is played over
  • Gaining the technique utilized in the solo
  • Absorbing the tone the performer uses in the solo
  • Learning how to phrase in the style of the soloist
  • Learning how to articulate in the style of the soloist
  • Understanding how the soloist thinks through chord progressions
  • Understanding rhythmic constructs used by the soloist

And the list goes on. The point is, this is the highest return for your time.

So Where does Jazz Theory fit in?

Jazz theory is over emphasized. Do you need to know it? Yes, just don’t get too attached to it. General music theory skills help you understand why certain chords in a progression follow other chords and why particular chord tones sound a certain way. If you want to dig deeper into the theory, the Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine is the old standby.

Two words of caution though:

1.) Make sure you HEAR the theory you study. The whole point of theory should be to give sounds a name. For instance, if you hear a chord that sounded cool to you, it would be beneficial to be able to name it and think of it as its own entity. Use theory to support your aural knowledge.

2.) Do not make the common mistake of improvising based upon theoretical rules. These “Rules” came about when jazz educators transcribed some solos and tried to extract common tendencies among them. They then derived “Rules” to improvise that were intended to assist aspiring improvisers. Improvising from this perspective will make it difficult to ever feel creative. Instead, make sure you are using the theory to support what you are learning from solos. For example, when you learn a line from a solo, use theory to understand how the notes relate to the harmony and how the line resolves. Theory should always follow practice.

What to work on other than a solo

The main things to practice are:

  • Tone – tonal exercises to improve your sound, tuning exercises, volume control etc.
  • Technique – scales, arpeggios, classical etudes etc.
  • Language – lines from solos over common chord progressions practiced in all keys
  • Tunes – Internalizing melodies and chords of jazz standards straight from records
  • Transcribing solos – learning solos of your heroes straight off the records

See why transcribing solos trumps all? As the list before stated in detail, while transcribing solos you’re improving all these faculties.

Tone and Technique

As I block off at least a couple hours a day for my practice, I add in tone practice and technique practice. I approach these areas much like everything else. One little thing at a time. I’ll choose one scale and master it as I described in How to Practice Scales For Speed.

For your limited practice time, if you wanted to work on a specific scale, articulation pattern, or any other technical exercises, make it your entire session for a few days until you have the exercise down. Then in the future, it could become a 5 minute warm up in your  routine.

Tunes

The best way to learn tunes is right off the recording. As I suggested before, a great time to learn a tune is in combination with the solo you’re learning. Kill lots of birds, one stone.

Once you get your first solo down, focus your practice sessions on the tune the solo’s over. Each day, you’ll spend your 30-45 minutes mastering the tune. You’ve already transcribed a solo over the tune, giving you a solid concept to base your improvisation upon.

To work on the tune, first figure out the chord changes by ear. To do this, focus on the bass notes and qualities of the chords you hear. At this point you’ll have a huge advantage because you’ll know exactly what the soloist is playing at any given spot. Not to say it’s easy, but often it’s fairly straight forward to discover the chord changes of a tune based upon what the soloist plays. Check out this article on How to Hear Chord Changes to get a better idea of how to go about ripping the changes.

To get comfortable soloing on the tune, I like to loop the melody in my Transcribing Software, slow it down, and play the solo I just learned over the looped melody. Hearing how the solo lays over the melody helps convey how the phrasing, lines, and rhythms work over the harmony.

Keeping the melody looped, try improvising around the transcribed solo, sometimes playing what the soloist played and then sometimes drifting away from the solo. Playing with the melody like this is how I prefer to work on tunes, as opposed to playing with a play-along track. Most play-along tracks lack inspiration and any feeling. Using the actual recordings as play-along background tracks is way more fun.

Once you have a firm understanding of what’s happening harmonically in the tune, start to improvise over the looped melody, still slowed down, until eventually you feel really comfortable over the tune; you can hear all the chord changes and you understand what the harmony is. Take your time with the tune, understanding completely how the soloist approaches each bar of the tune. There is an underlying logic to how the soloist constructed each one their lines. Unraveling this logic for yourself is the key to improvising over each specific section of a tune. Often, your heroes come up with a way through a chord progression that would never occur to you.

Language

Just as learning tunes can go hand in hand with learning solos, you can easily amass jazz language while learning solos off records. More birds killed, still one stone.

Once you’ve got your first solo down, you’ll have a ton of language to dig more deeply into. Each bit of language becomes a topic for an entire practice session. Find a line that grabs you from the solo, and figure out what chord changes it’s played over. A good place to start learning language is a ii V I progression, as it’s a neat package that occurs frequently throughout jazz standards.

Practice the line for your entire 30-45 minute practice session. First learn it perfectly in its original key, and then take it up a half step. So if it started as | D- | G7 | C major |, take it up to | Eb- | Ab7 | Db major |.

This may seem like a difficult task at first, but muscle through it. Keep taking it up in half steps until you’ve gone through all the keys. Take your time and don’t write it out. Do it using your ear and mind. Know what chord tone the line starts on and where it goes. If you have difficulty recalling chord tones, make sure to refresh on How to Put Chord Tones at Your Fingertips.

Learning language from solos in this manner will help give you starting places for your lines. Jazz language is not meant for “copy and paste,” but instead, bits of language act like springboards for your creativity. At first, simply plug them into the tunes your working on and gradually you’ll attain a great degree of freedom with them, being able to vary them in nearly infinite ways at will.

The Minimal time practice plan

To sum up, with minimal time, your practice plan should consist of one major topic a day and look something like this over the initial few months:

  • Practice 30-45 minutes daily learning a solo that you absolutely love by one of your heroes, straight off the recording by ear.

Then, after you get a solid grasp on the solo (Between a few weeks and a few months):

  • Practice 30-45 minutes daily figuring out the chords of the tune and working on the tune, using the melody, solo, and changes. This process could actually be done while you’re still working on the solo, just make sure you focus your time. Also, take the language you’re working on and practice it over parts of the tune where it fits.
  • Alternate days, or every few days, working on the tune with working on language. Practice 30-45 minutes daily learning language you learned from the solo in all keys. Then feed this language back into your tune-practice.

Essentially you’re learning the tune, learning the solo, and learning the language, while in the process, developing your ear, technical facility, and phrasing. This is a great place to start and it should keep you busy for the next 3-6 months. You’ll rapidly gain more knowledge from this first solo than focusing your time any other way. After your first solo, the whole process will be noticeably easier.

The Balanced Practice Plan

After a while of practicing just one topic a day and amassing jazz language, tunes, and solos, you may want to practice more than one thing a day. Make sure when you broaden your scope to maintain depth.

For example, to balance your practice between tone exercises, technical studies, tunes, language, and transcribing,  choose a main focus on just one topic, while the others are review. So maybe your main focus for the day or week is a solo, but you have some other material that you want to hit. The plan might look something like this:

  • 5 min – A specific tone exercise
  • 5  min – F# major scale exercise
  • 5 min – Reviewing a line you’ve already worked on
  • 5 min – Reviewing a tune you’ve already worked on
  • 25 min – Learning more pieces of a solo you’re working on

In 45 minutes you’ve warmed up your sound, improved your scalar facility, further ingrained a line, further ingrained a tune, and pushed further on a solo!

The key to any practice plan is to stay with something long enough that you master it. Practicing just one topic a day, and staying with it day after day, will allow you to reach this level of precision, as will practicing in a way where your focus is centered around one topic and the rest is review. Now you know what to practice. Just go do it!