How to Practice: (3 Parts in Practicing)


Welcome to the first free lesson post. Before I even start with the lesson, I would like to point out that all of the content in my lessons are derived from my personal experiences and opinions. More specifically, these are the things that worked for me and some are things I wished I would have known much earlier. Always take everything I say with a grain of salt. The most important thing, and this will be the first part of the lesson, is to find the practice method that works for you. That is the reason why I will be writing most of these contents in a blog style rather than a pedagogic style.

Also most of the content I will be posting will mostly target students who have somewhat good enough grasp of the music and the ways around instrument. If you are an intermediate/beginner student, there are lots of free content on YouTube where you can always go to at anytime.

To start as the first post of lessons, I thought I would start by covering some of the most basic criteria which is, How to Practice. Us as music students and professional musicians, we always hear “Practice! Practice more! Practice 27 hours a day! (chuckle) Practice till you die!”. Often times I hear more about quantity than quality of practicing. It is quite dangerous to focus on the quantity of practicing because if one doesn’t know how to practice in efficient way but spends a lot of time practicing in inefficient way, one is going to become what one practiced, inefficient musician. I fell into this trap most of my college days as well and took me a long time to come up with the practice routine that was efficient and worked for me. Also it doesn’t help that one pass by all the practice rooms at the school and see most of them spending hours and hours in the practice room, which pressures one to think “oh I better get inside the practice room right now!” It is important to think and come up with rational and logical way of solving problems rather than emotion driven way.

I won’t be going too much in detail about my personal practice routine on this post since I will be posting second post about practicing. In a nutshell, I believe there are three parts in practicing which is all equally important. First is simply practicing, second is playing, and third is listening.

1. First, which is just simply practicing, is what is commonly known as general practicing. Scales, arpeggios, chords, time, learning tunes, transcribing, hot licks, and anything one is currently working on.

I will say though that I don’t consider soloing over changes for hours and hours as practice. There is a masterclass video of Ron Carter on YouTube and he also points out something similar. Of course it is important to learn how to solo over changes and in fact that is one of the most important parts about playing jazz music or improvising over certain changes. But often times I would pass by practice rooms and I hear someone just totally nailing and killing on whatever the tune he/she is practicing for hours and hours. Then I begin to think “If you are really practicing, aren’t you supposed to sound kind of.. Bad?”

Point of practicing is to take something you are bad at or incapable of doing, and make it fluent. It is important to practice blowing over changes if that is an area a student is incompetent at, but to me, it seems like a lot of people don’t know how to differentiate between practicing and jerking off. Yes it feels good to jerk off (chuckle) but you are not getting anything done really, you just sit and feel good about yourself. You can do that anywhere so I’d like to say to some of the music students to take that in their own room in front of their laptop rather than in practice rooms where other people can actually practice and get their work done.

Also another reason why blowing over changes for hours and hours is not considerable as practicing is one is eventually working out what one wants to play over certain tunes. What made jazz so great is because of its improvisatory aspect. What is it mean by improvisation? It means one create something that hasn’t been created on the spot. Bill Evans on “Universal Mind of Bill Evans” said (I’m paraphrasing it) “What differentiates between classical music and jazz is it may take minutes or hours or even days or years to create 5 seconds of music in classical music, but in jazz music, it takes 5 seconds to create 5 seconds of music.” It is an amazing creative process to improvise and not a lot of people can do it. If one is working out what he/she wants to play, it isn’t completely improvisation. To me those are just pseudo improvisation and although they may sound amazing but I wouldn’t want to consider it as improvisation or truly jazz. So do practice blowing over changes, but it is important to not to spend too much time on it especially if one has good enough grasp of navigating the changes.

That is what I look for when I am practicing blowing over changes - navigating the changes. So when I am practicing, I usually just practice all scales (in all 12 keys, guitarists fall into the trap that all one has to do is shift its shape), chords, and just nuts and bolts things. When the tonality shifts, one would want to see the shift in tonality rather than the hot licks one can play over this chord that will impress all the women. It also forces one to get out from the habit of playing already worked out licks. When I find myself having trouble playing over certain changes, I begin to think it is not because I ran out of licks to play but it is because I have failed to navigate the changes and have incompetence on certain position of scales and etc. So I go back into the practice room and practice the scales or chords of that certain area that showed incompetence at. I am planning to make a separate post specifically about this part of practicing soon which I will go more in detail of what I practice.

2. Second is playing. One time when I was attending The New School as an undergraduate student, me and my friends were about to have a session. We were on our way to the session and we saw one of our colleagues walking past by. One of my friend asked her, “Hey! We are about to have a session, why don’t you come play with us?” She replies “That sounds so fun but I really gotta practice, I am in such bad shape and blah blah,” then my friend replies “But what is the point of practicing if you are not playing..?” She was struck by that statement and we played one hell of a session. And she sounded very good!

Here is another story. Recently when I was a Master’s student at the NYU, where we share the facility with classical piano majors, one of my classical pianist friend peaked his head out of his practice room and said “Hey! I’m playing this piece for this masterclass, can you come in and listen?” I kind of found that odd but I came into his room, just sat and listened. Then I asked him what was the point of this? And he said it is to prepare him to the real situation where he would be playing in front of people and it’s one vital part about practicing for classical musicians.

It is cool one spends a lot of time practicing and getting a lot of work done by him/herself, but what made jazz the jazz music we all know is the community and being able to play and connect with each other. If one practices so much by him/herself but doesn’t know how to incorporate it in a way that is contributing to the music and listening to each other as a group, it doesn’t mean anything. It is important to have a full grasp on what it feels like to be in real life situation unless one wants to specifically play solo instrument gigs running through arpeggios. Practice room practicing and playing are two very different things. One should not be overlooked more than the other. The only way to get good at playing in group and listening/communicating each other musically is to play as much sessions and gigs as possible.

When I started my first trio, which was roughly around 3rd year at The New School, we sort of designated our session time as every Saturday at noon. We almost never cancelled the session. If one couldn’t make it, then we will play with a sub. Then I started booking a lot of gigs to the point I was having 4-5 monthly gigs. After playing with these guys years after years, I began to know how to play in group settings and find ways to incorporate the things I’ve practiced in a group setting. I also plan to write a separate post about playing in groups.

3. Third kind of practicing is “Listening”. It is one of those things that are often times overlooked. We all started playing music because we love listening to music. But often times I see music students spending majority of the hours im their days in the practice room practicing their instrument and not listening to music.

It is cool to practice something and coming up things on your own but if one doesn’t check out what has already been done, then he/she will become a shallow musician. Also music is language. Just because a person write ABCD over and over again, doesn’t mean the person will magically know how to speak and write full sentences and paragraphs. Find the language you like, and dedicate significant time of your day listening to it over and over again.

Here is also another thing. Audiences and music lovers only listen to music they like. We are musicians who play music as a profession. I feel that us as musicians, it is important to have good grasp on how all different kinds of music sound like. One might say “Oh avant garde jazz is just not my thing,” “Oh I hate 20th century music,” “Why would you listen to Earth Wind and Fire while you can listen to better things,” and etc. I even once heard “Oh God.. Jimi Hendrix sucks!” or “Fuck Charlie Parker!” I call this an Audience Mentality, not a Musician Mentality. Only music lovers and general audiences listen to music for their joy and the pleasure for their ears. We are artists and creative people. It is important to keep an open minds to all kind of music in the world. Before one judges whether this is good or not, just hold that thought and give it a time. If you are listening to certain music by certain composer, most likely it’s because that music and the composer has gotten some kind of attention. Figure out why this music has gotten so much attention. What is the message. What is going on.

If one isn’t aware of this album call “In N Out” by this guy name Joe Henderson, then put it on on your train ride. Say you’re having conversation with your friend and he/she mentions “Elliott Carter,” and you have no clue who that is. Go home and check him out. Who is Ravi Shankar? Or Debashish Bhattacharria? Well check them out. You are sitting at a cafe and some dope music comes out so you pull out your iphone and search and the name “Rodney Franklin” pops up. Go home and see what his other music sound like.

You never know, you might get a solo classical guitar gig playing Milton Babbit’s Guitar Piece or James Brown cover band gig. In fact gigs like James Brown or Earth Wind and Fire cover gigs are where the money is at. But you don’t know how these music sound like. Are you gonna say no when someone offers you $700 gig? Say you got a christmas gig and yea it may not be the most fun gig in the world but you don’t know how to play Jingle Bells because you were too busy transcribing John Coltrane’s Giant Steps solo (not saying that is unimportant), that would be a blasphemy upon our profession.

We have to constantly listen to music in our daily lives. It is what we chose to be. One doesn’t have to be a musician to play music. There are plenty of music lovers who can play much better than majority of musicians. Musicians need to broaden their ears, mind, and knowledge with different kinds of music. We have to strive to listen to all kinds of music in the world. It is our textbook, our field experience, and our everything.

So I’ve covered all three parts of practicing. But I would like to add an additional fourth part of practicing, which is “Not Practicing”.

4. The fourth part of practicing is actually “Not practicing”. Woah! Hold up there.. What the f* are you talking about? Us musicians have to practice hours after hours and days after days! You must be a tainted unholy false prophet! (lol). Let me explain.

There is a phenomenal documentary on YouTube call “Art of Improvisation,” which is about the pianist Keith Jarrett. An interviewer asks him “How important are things other than music to you?” Without a pause, Keith replies “More important than music.” Interviewer continues “Like writing or philosophy?” Keith again replies “More important than music.” Interviewer was surprised and asked “really?” Then Keith explains, “one of the biggest fallacies in music and art circles is that music comes from music. It’s like saying babies come from babies.”

I firmly believe that we are “artists” before musicians. We as artists have to convey messages and tell a story through notes and rhythms. But if one spends majority of the day practicing tens of hours a day in such cold and emotionless practice rooms, what kind of messages are we going to say?

Go out and enjoy life. Go out and be miserable. Fall into a ditch full of feces or smell the flowers (figuratively). Socialize and party. Get your heart broken. Read the news and pay attention to what is going on in the world. But don’t spend every day in a practice room run through scales and arpeggios 20 hours a day.

Keith Jarrett says, “Music is a result of the process that a musician is going through, especially if it’s being created on the spot”. One has to have something to say through music in order to be an artist, just like every great art work has strong messages and stories. Not every piece of music has to have strong messages or stories, but it is important to keep our mind occupied with daily life and maintain healthy well being because those things will be conveyed through your improvisation.

I hope you all got something out by reading my first free lesson post. Feel free to send me a message if you liked the lesson, or would like to compliment or criticize.

Paul JB Lee

October 26th, 2018


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