by DAVID LIEBMAN
The following includes two different expositions of how to practice. Of course some material is duplicated but it is always useful to see multiple explanations of a subject as broad as how to practice.
The following is basically (with some edits) the lecture I gave at the Jamey Aebersold Summer Workshop in Louisville, Kentucky at the end of my one day visit there in July, 2005. There is a two set DVD available through Caris Music (“David Liebman Teaches and Plays”) with this lecture in addition to another on saxophone expressive techniques. It also includes a concert featuring Rufus Reid, Dave Hazeltine, John Riley and Steve Davis. But for those who want a freebie, here’s the rap on practicing. Of course some of this material appears elsewhere in my writings over the years, but it is always good to revisit it every so often.
The purpose of coming to a workshop like this is to learn, to improve in the pursuit of this particular music. If at the end of five days, you are not completely confused, something is wrong. If you are not slightly frustrated, something is really wrong….now what? The nature of the week is intense, more than what could ever be absorbed. This is not just learning facts and repeating them. This must be applied to your instrument. Without reinforcement it has no meaning. There are too many books in the music store that all say the same thing. The knowledge has been told, there are only so many ways to say the same thing.
You must try to see through the forest. Make a list on paper of the things you learned this week. This should be about ten or twenty pages, from very complex to very simple. Do this while it is fresh in your mind. Separate this list into categories-ranging from the five year plan to what you may be able to accomplish in a few concentrated hours in the next week or two so that they become natural, without having to think about it. Look at in an objective way; what can I get right now?
In English, we have the conditional tense which doesn’t exist in many other languages. Conditional is should, would, could…it’s all about doing, IF, IF, IF. You don’t want to be in the conditional sense in regard to your practicing. You know what it is; just look at the list and find three to five things you can do on the next month. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. It’s the old cliché again: the glass half empty or half full analogy—well it is half full in this case. That’s the way to get something of value out of this week.
Some of the material demands rote practicing, day after day until it is part of you. Scales, learning tunes, transcribing, they are time consuming. The most important thing about practicing is ritual. All religions that try to inculcate someone into their beliefs have as a basic past of what they do entwined in ritual. There’s a reason for this, because when you do something enough times, it starts to take hold. If you are going to learn something new on your instrument, it must be done every day for a certain amount of time. I can’t tell you what the time is unless you came directly to me. That’s what your teacher’s job is, to prioritize and to tell you how long to work on a particular technique. Until it’s done every day, you are wasting time. When you cram for a test, you don’t remember anything after. It hasn’t been absorbed enough.
Be realistic, eight hours a day is probably not going to happen, not necessarily because of your desire, but life in general takes over. You have to look at your schedule realistically whether you are forty five years old or ten. If you’re serious about what you have to do, then you realistically have x amount of time. Not just holidays, not the weekend, not waiting till the house is empty. Ask yourself what you can realistically do Monday through Saturday with my life the way it is (Let’s be optimistic about it and say we have four to six hours a day.) If you can stick to at least two to three hours a day, for a minimum of six days a week, then you have a shot. (The other day go out in the woods!!) If you can stay with that you are on your way to good practicing. Some things take 6-9 months depending upon the difficulty of what you are trying to learn and your personal abilities in relation to that; but if it is just a new scale, then maybe a few weeks, etc. If you put your time in, it WILL happen.
The next thing is quite important, about priorities-how to organize your time with no distractions. The ideal scene: no one can hear you, not your mother, not your brother, not your friend, not your lady—nobody should hear you practicing. You can say “I don’t care” but the vibe is in the air and it affects you. If you can’t be alone do the best you can. This is your time, it’s a meditation. It’s work, it’s real work which means a lot of mental calories and it has to be done without distraction.
One of my teachers (Charles Lloyd) said to me (paraphrased): “You’re not being objective; you’re getting TOO into it all the time. You’re over the top. You should be practicing but you think you are performing. I’ll bet you stand in front of the mirror and see how pretty you look with that shiny horn!” There’s no emotion about practicing—objectivity, not subjectivity. There shouldn’t be: “Yes, this is good; no, this is bad.” You should feel nothing! It’s practice-save the emotion for the bandstand and when you want to impress someone. When you are practicing there’s nobody there but “you and the night and the music” (great tune). There’s no opinion about it. If you do it like that, you are going to gain a lot from practicing. This is not fun-it’s work-just do it. Have fun when you go out and play. When someone says you sound good, there will be a feeling of joy and accomplishment that is real and right to feel. Not because your practice went good or bad-be objective!
Keep a practice journal; short notes on what needs work, the metronome setting, etc. This will be great reinforcement when you look back. And it will remind you of things you might’ve forgotten. Ways to check your own progress-be you own teacher. The only thing a teacher should do besides motivation is give you a program and check its progress. It’s up to you to do it in a critical, objective fashion-every day with a schedule and cognizant of your weaknesses and strengths. You all know what your weakest points are. Be specific; is it time problems, what do you mean-do you drag; do you rush; is it stilted or choppy, etc? You have to define in your mind’s eye what the problem is so you can tackle it heads on. The teacher can help direct exercises to help the SPECIFIC situation. Put this at the top of your list—go for your weaknesses first. Forget the conditional tense; what you can do now that will make you better in the short term, followed by the long term.
Reward yourself by listening to how you played six months ago. YOU ARE BETTER!! At least in those things you were practicing. Anything you study will have to get better, unless you are brain dead!! Especially if you are a novice, things change rapidly. Six months to a year is great—you’ve got to be better and again it’s the glass half empty /half full. Instead of “I’ll never be good enough; he is better; she is so good; I’m not…I can’t, etc.,” you will feel positive for a change. Of course there are
some things you may not be able to accomplish now or ever maybe, but there are a lot you can. Look at the pictures of the great cats around you on the wall here in the hall. They are not there just for fun-these are guys who did what I am saying.
Genius or Work?
In my opinion the only pure genius in music was Mozart. He was different from day one, he had it hooked up. EVERYBODY ELSE WORKED THEIR ASS OFF!! EVERYBODY!! Bird worked, Trane worked, Bill Evans worked, even Miles in his way worked-I can tell you that. Of course each person has their own way of practicing and their own goals but it is not about genius or incredible talent only (of course you have to have some degree of that). It’s about commitment—I can do this, I can get better, I can be at least as good as that guy over there. Everybody in this room can get better. If you really wish to get better, whether you are a professional, an aspiring student or play for a hobby. Whichever way, it is the same. Whatever level you are on, it doesn’t matter; you can be better than you think if you put time in and are serious about it. It’s how you organize your time that is crucial.
Relax but Practice, Don’t “Play”
There is nothing wrong with putting the ax down once in awhile. It’s cool and necessary. When you go back it is fresh again. That’s a stage that can go on for a few weeks even. Take it in stride. Maybe you are expecting too much and being too critical. Maybe you are scattering your energy over many hours rather than focusing. One good hour is better than four with ho focus. (Of course, if this “slump” goes on too long, you have a motivation problem and maybe should become a plumber!!)
I teach Doctoral students and ask them what they practiced yesterday. They say this or that book, patterns, etc., and then they just played. What do they mean by “played?” That isn’t practice, that’s playing. OK, once you get the basics down (scales, chords, licks, etc.) what do you do? More tunes? You see jazz is not like classical where the agenda is obvious: learn this piece until it is perfect and then on to the next. You got every marking of nuance to follow, tempos, everything. Learn what is on the page and then MAYBE you can be yourself in the interpretation—but of course only at the highest level. I envy these guys-they have it all mapped out. In the case of jazz, how do you measure how well you know your scales? Because they are played fast in your woodshed? Or because you can run them on a chord change in a tune? We don’t have the same discrete measurements that they have in classical so it is imperative that you are objective and use your time wisely. Be realistic and not so hard on yourself that you create a minefield. But of course be vigilant.
The Real Deal – Practicing Playing
So how do you practice playing? Well, you can’t-it is a misnomer. Sure, you can learn tunes and play through the stuff, but you can’t practice the feeling of interacting and spontaneity and all the things that go into a typical jazz performance. There is a period to play and not to play. Sometimes I have guys who are always looking for sessions to strut their stuff. But maybe they should be doing heavy practicing instead of hanging out late. Get up at 9 a.m. and do all the boring rote stuff till 12. Take a break, do some business and do more before another break for dinner. Do some listening or light composing at night and go to bed at a reasonable time so you can do the same routine the next days. Don’t go out and jam at this stage-you are not ready. But next year, get out of the house and hit the streets. Get some gigs, etc. There’s a time and place for everything-use good judgment and seek the advice of people who really know the process.
Recognition of the Problem is All
Analyzing is great. In fact, half the problem is defining the problem. If you define it, you already have most of the solution!! Let’ say you are practicing a pattern the same way over and over again. Sit down and write five variations using space, different articulations, augmentation, neighboring tones, syncopation, etc. Since the caveman, we have been doing theme and variations even with three notes. Your job is to make it interesting so you are not stuck into rote, mechanical responses. Check it out: You come up against a problem which frustrates you. The fact that you noticed it (or a teacher/peer pointed it out-either way) is half the battle. Now, with objectivity and common sense you figure a way to improve the situation. Not magic-not even inspiration-just perspiration!! This is the auto didactic route; you are solving the problem yourself and gain confidence by doing that repeatedly. It may not be the answer to life, but you did it YOURSELF and that is crucial. Theme and variations—in twelve keys—damn, you are good for three weeks!!
Away from the Woodshed
There are many things you can do away from your instrument, even using the pitch pipe for ear training while walking around. Or singing rhythms in eight bar phrases. Do ear training with the radio. Most of all read about music and art. What made Beethoven tick or Louis Armstrong or Picasso or Miles? There are insights ready to be grabbed if you read and think about it. Their situation and yours are not as far apart as it seems, given time and place differences. Read stuff that isn’t music. Get your mind going-be able to analyze, dissect, organize and fantasize. In the end, your message isn’t going to be what you know or think you know. It will be about your life and experiences. So get busy.
Later and peace!!
ARTICLE TWO-concise summary of practice routine
Probably the most important skill in learning is knowing how to practice. Once an individual forms his own way of achieving results it can be repeated for life. I divide practicing into three main areas. First is the instrument and the need to develop the necessary virtuosity. Tone, technique, finger dexterity, etc., are all part of the mastery of an instrument. Without high skills on an instrument, a student is at a serious disadvantage no matter how fertile his imagination is. The second area is the music: the vocabulary and rules of improvisation. This large subject includes transcription, repertoire, chords, composition, keyboard knowledge, everything connected with learning the vocabulary itself. The third area is aesthetics meaning in this case one’s development as an artist with a thorough understanding of the history of his chosen art form, a cultured and sophisticated understanding of the arts in general and some sense of self. Here we delve into matters of philosophy, wisdom, spirituality and more. This is the life area of study.
The goal of any practicing is to instill new or changed behavior via repetition towards habitualizing the activity until it becomes instinctive and can be accomplished without conscious thought. Specifically in music it is the auditory cortex of the brain which becomes physiologically connected to the brain’s motor area of cells in order to bring about the desired action. Repetition solders this connection. The success of the practice process is dependent upon the clarity and difficulty of the desired goal in combination with the individual’s makeup. There are several guidelines to good practicing.
1-Ritual: The basis of all religious indoctrination is ritual, repetitive chanting and in some cases exercises of meditation. It is the same with trying to change or instill new behavior in music. Whatever the task it must be done everyday for at least enough period of time to take root. To practice a lot one day and little the next is not effective. It has to be the same thing over and over again for a new action to have a chance to become instinctive.
2-Organization of time: It is crucial that the student organize the hours (s)he realistically has on a daily basis (at least five times a week and three hours for minimum improvement) into units. A basic unit would be one hour per practice item before moving on to the next. This is the area where a teacher should be of help in focusing the student’s units effectively.
3-Priority: The question becomes where do I begin with so much that there is to do. I urge the student to make a list of his strengths and weaknesses on a page, or subtitle the page “should do,” “would do,” “could do.” Objectively judge the strengths which need to be reinforced at the present time or perpetually (as in instrumental warm-ups for example) and those that can be put on a back burner for the time being. Then looking at the weaknesses begin the practicing for the next few weeks with the most glaring deficiency that by its improvement will make a significant difference. Start with the most necessary items on your list and hopefully in a lifetime you will work through most of it!! All serious artists have a long list of what they would do if they could but there is never enough time. We do the best we can in this regard.
4-Singularity: When practicing one activity do it with one main objective in mind and possibly a minor one. Be clear as to the objectives. For example if you are doing long tones, is it for breath control, clarity of tone, evenness of sound, attacks and decays, etc? It shouldn’t be all at once. The focus should be clear for each unit to get the most benefit.
5-Objectivity: Serious practice at the level I am describing is not fun, nor is it drudgery. IT JUST IS!! One should cultivate a feeling of neutrality rather than feeling good or bad every day about the practice session. It is objective, self improvement type of work. Save the emotion for performing.
6-Attitude: Being positive, patient and consistent with total concentration is what real practice is about. Anything less means you are indulging in busy work with minimal gains to be had. If this isn’t for you, then admit it and do something else.
7-Practical hints: Try to practice at the same time of day, maybe splitting the program into two parts. Do the rote stuff like long tones, technical exercises, etc in the morning possibly saving the creative part of repertoire, listening, transcription, composition, etc., for later in the day. Saturated listening, meaning the concentrated and repeated listening to certain tracks for specific pedagogical reasons should be done in the evening. Find a practice space that is if possible completely private with no one within listening range. Obviously there should be no phone or any distractions and take a break every hour or so. This is business and it should be treated that way.
Serious practice is easy to find time for when one is young. Those who are in school think that they have little time but in the real world matters of making a living, performing, personal life and so on intrude. I hope that at some point every serious student can set aside at least four to six months for a daily eight to ten hours of practice. This will have an effect for the rest of that person’s life. Keep a journal of thoughts about your practice. Jot down how things are going. This is good for review and also reinforcement to see how far you have advanced.