Having discussed my practice regiment advice for students, some people have asked me what about myself: Do I practice and how much time do I put in. The answer is yes: serious players practice too. My mentor, Big John Patton told me stories of coming home after gigs in the wee hours of the morning and actually hearing Thelonious Monk shedding away in his own apartment.
So, how do I practice? Well, basically, it goes back to my approach as a teacher. One of my goals is to get students to the point that they can play tunes, or at least learn tunes quickly. Once they reach this level, tunes are used as drawing boards to apply different concepts and ideas. (In my own teaching, I never ever ever teach a student a lick, line or etude, unless it has some kind of direct application to the students' functional repertoire.
So how do I practice? Well, there are two types of practice I engage in. Meditative and Critical. I rise in the morning and go to my instrument and play. I go out, and once I get the opportunity I go back and play some more. And at night I play some more... even up until the moments I go to bed, and I may pretty much stick to the same tune or few tunes each day. -When I'm being creative, my main goal is simply to get my emotions flowing, and play great spontaneous as possible music as if I'm playing in front of other people. When I'm critical, I'm thinking of ways to improve upon what I'm playing. Sometimes I even record myself, play it back and listen to it over and over and over. If I have to, I even take notes.
Is this the best and only way to practice? No. There are many approaches to practice, but this is my basic regiment. It might sound simple, but imagine playing a tune like Stella By Starlight over and over and over again not just for weeks on end, but years on end. At first you get good at it, then you get a little bored, maybe frustrated. Soon you find yourself constantly forced to reinvent the tune in ways that keep it interesting (and bearable to play.) In the end, you find yourself forced to think of ways to stay imaginative, especially if your main goal is never to play it the same way twice.
So, after all these years, can I honestly say that my Stella is the best Stella anyone can play? Of course not. Jazz is all about continual evolution. The more I play it, the more dissatisfied I get, then the harder I try. The end result is that the better I get, the more frustrated I become with my playing. I call this the Sysyphean Approach, but actually it ceases to be truly sysyphean once you realize that learning plateaus are nothing more than signs that you've outgrown the old clothes and are ready for new ones.
OK, so are you ready to take things on a spin in your practice regiment?
Here's one approach:
Pick at least one quintessential tune (blues included) and commit to playing it for at least 7 minutes a day for the next several weeks. Record yourself. Listen. Do you find yourself getting any better? Staying the same? Are there recurrent strengths that develop, or weak points that inhibit? Take notes, pinpoint things you need to practice, work out etudes, try new things... Most important, consider: do you find yourself taking away anything meaningful for this approach.
2) Next, go a couple of weeks without touching the tune. but listening to your recording over and over while thinking about things you would improve if you had the chance to.
3) Now, take a break. Go about a week or two without playing the song, or even listening to the recording.
4) Listen to the recording again. How does it sound with a fresh ear? Are you hearing things differently? Any appendices to your notes?
5) Critical Practise: Back to the drawing board. Work on and experiment with the things you caught in your notes.