The Practice Routine

photo:  C. Mazzoli

          The most undocumented aspect of jazz is the practice routine.  Sure, we’ve all heard of the legendary practice regimens of Coltrane, Bird, Clifford Brown, etc., but what were they doing?  The very nature of repetitive practice seems to be in contradiction to the supposed spontaneity of jazz, but the players know that it is not as spontaneous as thought of by the average person.  So the most often asked question by students is usually, “What should I practice, and how?”  By examining the details of the practice routine , we can divide the time into 4 basic areas: repertoire, linear construction, technique, and performance.
 So the next question becomes: “How much time should I devote to each of these areas, and how should I structure my practice time?  Unless there are specific performances or recordings to prepare for that require a concentrated time period, I would suggest a structure of the following percentages for your time in the practice room.

15%  technique and warm-up
15%  repertoire
50%  linear construction
20%  performance

 This is made up of things specific to your instrument and some global things, such as scales and arpeggios which go across all instruments.  The standard fare can certainly be altered to fit into the jazz language.  For instance you can practice 7th chord arpeggios on dominant, half-diminish, augmented major 7ths, minor/major 7ths, etc. and then incorporate these new skills into the harmonic scheme in a tune.  Also practicing  our basic scales such as a few dominant forms (1/2-whole, wholetone etc., also in 3rds, 6ths, 10ths and contrary motion for your pianists), straight up and down and in varying patterns such as found in the Hannon book can be good for the chops and also good for linear development.  Another idea is to take the same series of notes and superimpose them on another rhythm, which transforms them into another kind of line.

The jazz musician has no sonatas, etudes, or preludes to draw from as are found in the classical world, but what we do have are standards, which we can divide into two different groups, the Popular Standard and the Jazz Standard. This is the common language of the jazz musician, and every player should have memorized, (meaning melody and chord progressions) at least 25 tunes from each category.  This is a check you should do on yourself by making a list of tunes you know. Popular standards, such as: Green Dolphin Street,  The Song is You, I love You,  All the Things You Are etc...,and the Jazz standards: All Blues, Song for My Father, Ornithology,  Passion Flower etc.
     You should be pick 3 or 4 tunes each session and  really find a great way to play the melodies (and chords for pianists and guitarists) , and perhaps playing a quick 1 or 2 choruses just to make sure that you still remember the changes.  If there is a song you really want to practice, it is better to concentrate on that tune exclusively in the linear constructional  and performance portion of your routine to really get into that song for that day, or perhaps even that week!

Linear construction:
This is the specific practice routine for developing and expanding your linear improvisational style. The most common mistake that I find in most students is that they will sit in a practice room form an hour and do maybe 40-50 choruses of a tune or  two just randomly off the top of their head, without thinking, and before you know it the time is up, and you have to go to do the next thing, be it attend class, eat, or whatever.  Your interests are best served by having definite goals for your practice time established in your mind before you sit down to play.
      This has to do with linear development and developing a strategy for developing and expanding your linear vocabulary.  An example of this is the execution of an etude that you create incorporating the three essentials of linear construction: harmonic content, directionality and rhythmic approach.  The important factor is to play the phrases all the way through the tune you are working on.
This is important for 2 reasons:
 1) You want to be able to play that phrase across the barline, and to execute it at any point in the song. This will give you phrasing freedom that will be helpful in the “heat of battle” on the bandstand.
 2) This will enable you to develop the ability to carry your line or phrase to its logical conclusion, eventually tapering your repetition of phrase down to where you feel you have completed your idea, and not quitting on it because you have to as a result of an inability to play it over a more difficult passage of the song.
      Once you have mastered this particular piece of vocabulary, then later on in the performance phase of your practice routine, these new ideas will magically appear without your having to think about them, and will naturally integrate with your “natural” self.  So get a concept together for what you want to do before you start and then do it!

This is the uninterrupted playing of complete songs, emulating a “live” playing or recording situation.  Towards the end of your practice routine, you want to take a short break, do somtething to cool out, and then go back in and play one or  two tunes without thinking about much, except perhaps the timeframe as it should occur inside of a “normal” performance.  Just “blow” at this point, and you’ll be amazed after this practice routine about how much “new” material is magically creeping into your solos.