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Stop right there! Don’t Touch Your Instrument until You Do these 4 Simple Exercises

All practice is not created equal.

There’s the practice that’s fun. You’re in a room with your instrument and maybe a few friends and you just start playing. The minutes fly by, but you’re not exactly working…

Then there’s the practice that feels like homework. You’ve got a lesson or a concert coming up so you force yourself to learn scales, to play etudes, and to review the music for your upcoming performance. You keep looking at the clock, waiting to escape…

And then there’s the kind of practice that’s different. The practice where you begin with a goal and a list of items to focus on. When it’s over you feel like you’ve improved, you’re motivated and even inspired

This type of practice has purpose and direction. It’s productive and fulfilling, and it’s connected with the reason you chose to play music in the first place.

Sounds pretty good, right?

The only problem is this type of practice seems to be elusive for so many players. So much of the time we find ourselves going between the “fun” practice and the practice that feels like homework, either jamming with our peers or forcing ourselves to slog through exercises.

But how do you consistently create this third type of practice, the practice that the best players seem to have down to a science?

Well I thought I’d share 4 things that have helped me grow as a musician, 4 exercises that have shaped the direction I want to take as an improviser and I encourage you to do the same.

The truth is, the key to highly effective practice begins before you even step into the practice room. It begins right now as you’re reading this.

So let’s start at the beginning…

I. Where do you think you’re going?

Imagine that you’re standing in the middle of a long road that stretches across the landscape for miles and miles.

You stare intently into the distance and at the furthest edge of the horizon you can just barely make out a figure traveling on the road ahead of you.

As you strain your eyes to see who this person is you notice a familiar gait and an instrument case. You squint a little more and then it hits you, this person is you! It’s the “you” of the future.

The you that has traveled the road that you’re just starting out on.

In your mind you wonder: “What skills does this person to have? What can they do musically? How many tunes do they know? What do they sound like?”

For the first time you are confronted with the person you are going to become. The musician you’re going to be weeks, months, and even years from now.

If you want to find direction in your practice you need to think about this “you” of the future. You need to look ahead and figure out exactly who this person is going to be.

This is step one. By looking at the player you want to be tomorrow you’ll discover exactly what you need to practice today. So what is your musical destination?

Think hard about it. Where is this time that you’re spending with your instrument headed? You play your instrument every day or maybe a few times a week. Now what does it mean to you? Where do you want to go with it?

Before you worry about scales and chords, before you make a list of tunes to learn, and before you spend hours in the practice room, this is the question you need to answer.

Take a look at the big picture. You might say “I want to be able to go to a jam session and know every tune.” or “I want to perform with my own band.” or “I want to tour the world performing my original compositions.” or “I want to play at the Village Vanguard.”

It’s different for all of us. However once you know what you’re working toward, it’s much easier to find the practice plan that will get you there.

So stop practicing without direction, don’t even touch your instrument until you know what you’re practicing for. Instead take a moment and ask yourself: What do I want the me of the future to sound like?

II. Dig into the details

There are thousands of serious musicians around the world and all of these players are putting in long hours practicing, however not all of these players are seeing improvement.

So what sets apart the musicians that do move forward from the rest of the pack that is frustrated and struggling?

The answer is simple, the players that are improving have a plan. They’ve made a goal and have identified the practice elements that will get them there, step by step, day by day.

The goal could be learning a list of tunes, improving a technique, mastering scales & chord progressions, transcribing solos, learning concertos, or preparing for recitals. All of these big goals require a plan in the practice room.

If you’re frustrated with your musical progress it can probably be attributed to random practice. We’ve all done this. Sure you improve periodically, but without a larger goal you’re going to hit a wall.

To find direction in your playing you need to have a plan each time you pick up your instrument to practice. Get organized and specific down to last detail.

Instead of saying “I’m going to practice today,” know exactly what it is that you’re going to practice and what you want going to accomplish by the end of your session.

Start with a short list of tunes that you want to learn, a solo that you want to transcribe, or a chord progression that you want to practice. Take these big goals and break them down into smaller chunks that you can tackle each week in your daily practice.

Then at the beginning of each day ask yourself these questions:Give it a try. Can you answer these questions right now?

Don’t leave another week or month of practice up to chance, before you walk into the practice room know exactly what you’re going to work on.

III. Listen before you learn

Have you ever tried to play a tune without listening to it?

Have you ever tried to work on your time or improve your sound without listening to great examples? Are you showing up for your rehearsals and concerts without the music in your mind?

If you have you’re definitely not alone. Many musicians are struggling to learn a music that they don’t have in their ears and it’s creating a problem a big problem in the practice room.

Remember, your improvement as a musician starts with your ear and this means listening.

Here are a few ideas for ingraining the music you’re trying to learn:

Make sure listening is a part of your daily practice. Set aside time each day to listen to the items on your practice list.
Collect different versions of each tune you’re trying to learn. A different player’s approach may be just the style you’re looking for.
Note the songs or artists that catch your ear, look them up, read about them, and find their other albums. Listening is a journey that leads to a deeper understanding of the music.
Note the solos that catch your ear as you listen, these are the ones you should be transcribing. You’re learning because you’re inspired, not because you feel pressure to.
Create a playlist of songs – making a list of tunes to learn may feel like homework, but making a listening list feels like fun. Eventually this listening list will be your practice list.
Listen to music on a daily basis and write down the tunes you want to learn. Your tune list should come from you, not from a text book.
Pre-listen to a piece of music and have it in your ear before you get into a practice room, rehearsal or performance
Whether you’re learning a song, transcribing a solo, or trying to memorize a chord progression the first step is to ingrain the sound in your ear. This is true for any style of music, listen before you learn it.

IV. Get out there and make it happen!

Practicing is great.

You hone your skills, you expand your musical knowledge, and you gain the confidence you need to perform.

But despite all of these benefits, you’re still missing one crucial piece to being a musician – You need to share your music with other people.

That’s right, you need to actually get out of the practice room and perform in front of people.

Practicing is not the only reason you’re playing an instrument, music is about connecting with other people. Something important changes when you share your music. It’s no longer this hobby you are doing all by yourself in a practice room, it’s a skill that impacts other people.

So put something out there.

Michael Jordan

This is the final step of creating direction in your practice: you need to get your music out into the real world.

Schedule or attend a jam session
Record your group or a composition that you’ve written
Book a gig
Even practicing in front of other people will make a difference
Get out your calendar right now and pick a date. This is the day you are going to put your music out there for the world to hear.

Once you see that date on your calendar it makes everything real. Each day it’s going to be on your mind, every practice session counts. If you don’t practice there are going to be consequences, but if you push yourself there’s going to be a payoff.

Sure there’s always a chance of failure, but remember sounding bad is another source of motivation.

Now it’s your turn

These four exercises can be done anywhere, even as soon as you finish reading this sentence. You can think about them on your way to work and you can write them down before you go to sleep.

The steps are simple, but require a little thought and focus on your part. Don’t settle back into your old practice routine, spend 20 minutes and clarify your musical direction and make your practice much more effective.

1) Figure out the player that you want to become.

2) Get organized and detailed in the practice room.

3) Find recordings and listen to the music that you’re trying to learn.

4) Get out there and make it happen.

Got it? OK good, now go practice!

Article by Eric, www.jazzadvice.com, www.msidallas.com