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New Ideas on Practicing

A look at different ways to approach practicing

Let’s talk about practicing! I got the idea for this column from a recent PG interview with Carl Verheyen [January, 2009]. When asked, “What do you do to further your craft in terms of practicing?” Carl replied, “I’m a serious practicer. To me, practicing is where I find my center as a person. If I go a day without practicing, I feel useless… To practice, I’ve always kept a lick book. It’s an ongoing musical diary that’s always on my music stand.” Carl went on to say that his personal style is a “direct result of the lick book,” and that “practicing is finding new things or getting the impossible stuff you already know down better.”

In recent decades, in jazz curricula especially, teachers (often younger teachers who are themselves coming from an academic jazz curriculum) seemed to be focused on the technical aspects of jazz improvisation, such as developing the technique of playing a wide variety of scales and matching those with their parent chords. The focus has been on the technical aspect of how jazz works. This is necessary stuff, but it’s not the heart and soul of the matter. A more important focus of our practice should be: When preparing to express something spiritual, emotive, and unique through the vehicle of improvisation, what, and how, should I practice? I think Carl nailed it when he talked about both the center and the lick book. Goals such as these refocus practice into a spiritual discipline in which we evolve as a player and as a person, while at the same time developing a personal, unique performance style.

In spiritual disciplines, ideas, techniques and prayers, etc., are repeated over and over as a way of gaining mastery over some part of the material, and as a way of developing a core and center. For musicians, this may be the repetitive (and often slow) practice of transcribed solos, licks we have transcribed from one of the masters, tunes, play-along pieces, singing what we practice, etc. Kenny Werner emphasizes this approach as the path to effortless mastery in his book by the same title. The idea behind this is that the material is known so well, and can be performed with such ease, that a path is opened for spiritual expression in the music.

The recordings and solos that really move us in this way are able to take us to a different plane of existence, and our feelings change in some way as a result. For the ancient Greeks, this was known as mimesis. It is the unique spirit of the performer, whose soul somehow becomes present in the music, that allows this process to happen.

When you keep an active musical diary—a kind of spiritual journal of practice—your music starts going in a different direction than when you’re simply learning the technical aspects of scales and chords. Carl’s diary consists of a lick book: the writing down and repetitious practice of ideas that he wants to incorporate into his own unique vocabulary. Personally, I have found this approach to be helpful. All players have a stock collection of licks and phrases that they regularly refer to. It is true among all styles. Listen to Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Terry Kath and you’ll hear many licks repeated—or repeated with variation—from solo to solo. The musical diary aims at helping us develop that kind of unique vocabulary and recognizable style.

There is no timeline for when this integration might begin to occur. Some players experience it earlier in life, some later. Below are some quotes that I found insightful on practicing and developing a spiritual approach to the music.

Barry Harris: “It’s amazing, but lately I’ve been suddenly feeling myself getting better and better each time I play. I don’t know why it’s happening now, at this late stage of my career, but it is happening... I must hope that I live long enough to solve more of the mysteries.”

Howard Alden: “Develop your repertoire. You’re better off spending time learning and practicing tunes rather than running scales up and down the neck. Play with other people as much as possible. An hour spent playing with other musicians is worth six hours practicing by yourself.”

Ken Karsh: “Do as much recording of yourself as you can. Listen to yourself with ‘tough love’ and don’t put yourself down. That attitude only works against you.”

Jimmy Ponder: “I put everything I have into the music, and hopefully the spirituality about my music is what prevails. It’s not the mathematics of it or the articulation, insofar as dealing with the amount of notes I can play within a given span of time. It is how it feels to the people that hear the music. How it makes them feel. That is my purpose—to please.”

Transform your practice time into a spiritual art: keep a musical diary, and a new path for the music will emerge.

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a ten year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published six jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines for Guitar (Jamey Aebersold Jazz). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast.