Practicing Under Duress

When I was a child in grade school there was a man who came to talk to us. He was a professional wrestler, of all things, who had at one time made the American Olympic weight lifting team. Even then kids found professional wrestling entertaining and fascinating and we all knew this fellow from TV.
He came out on the stage of the auditorium and, with a roar, tore a copy of the Philadelphia Yellow Pages in half. We, of course, expressed our amazement. Then he asked "Where are the fourth graders?" The fourth graders raised their hands and the wrestler picked out the smallest, and skinniest of the girls. He summoned her to the stage. My vague recollection is that it was Marlene, so that is what we will call her.

"Marlene," said the wrestler, "did you know that you can tear one of these in half, too?"

Marlene, wide eyed, shook her head "no."

"Sure you can. I'll tell you how."
The wrestler bent over to whisper in Marlene's ear, gave her a phone book and directed her to go back stage. He then told us how he had been a weak and skinny little boy who always got picked on by the older kids. The wrestler-to-be decided to get into body building, and slowly, steadily he strengthened his body until he was able to join the football team in secondary school. As he turned into a young man he decided to continue with weight work and started to look toward a place on the Olympic team. By working with persistence and faith in the daily improvement which could neither be seen nor felt on a daily basis, he achieved his goal.
For about twenty minutes or so, he told us several tales of his exploits as an athlete, always coming back to the themes of persistence and faith in that persistence. Then he called back stage to the girl, "Marlene, are you ready?" Marlene answered yes and came out, her face beaming and the fat book torn in half, except for the binding.
"Well, young lady, how did you manage to do that?" asked the mighty wrestler.
"I did what you told me to do," responded the diminutive ten-year-old. "I tore the book three pages at a time."
Mastering an instrument and developing the skills for improvisation can appear to be as impossible a task for a busy adult as tearing a large phone book in half can for a small ten-year-old girl. However, although it is vastly more complex a task, the wrestler's basic principles apply. What we have to deal with is a set of phone books that need to be torn concurrently or, perhaps, we could try to imagine a multi-dimensional phone book.
The key is in identifying one's objectives (shorter term concerns) and goals (longer term concerns) and devising strategies for working towards them through exercises that fit one's schedule. First I want to share some principles that have guided me in my practice. One is that the player should strive for equal ease in all keys, major and minor. If you have not already achieved this ease, I would make this one of your goals or objectives, depending on how close you are to its mastery. Another is to have as many tunes as possible memorized. As Art Blakey used to say "A musicians memory is his greatest asset." You need to exercise your memory so that you can really own the tunes you play. The tunes that you play by heart are easier to play with heart. Play every day. Select music ahead of time that is comfortable to play on those days when you just cannot manage an organized practice. That way you will not have to strain yourself thinking about what to do when you are frazzled. Lastly, work on your tone; do not get so concerned with fancy scales and chord substitutions that you sacrifice the sound of your instrument. In fact, I recommend that one's practice begins with tone exercises. The great musicians, whether in history, on the current international stage or in your own backyard, are those who are recognizable with just a few notes.
Let's look at three hypothetical situations that illustrate practical applications of these principles. In all of these you may or may not be taking lessons. Sometimes we just cannot fit lessons into our schedule, but it is better if you can work with someone's guidance, even if only occasionally.
First situation: you are a parent with children and a job. You have played an instrument since grade school, but stopped when the children came along and now you want to get back to playing. Right now, your goal is to be able to hold your own at the local Sunday jam session and maybe play in an amateur or semi-professional ensemble. You are only comfortable with major keys up to two sharps and two flats.
First you need to devise a routine that can be done in twenty minutes to a half an hour, the practical maximum of time you can carve out of your busy schedule. 1) Tone exercises: long tones or tone matching exercises, depending on your instrument, three to five minutes. 2) Scales: review the ones you know, start getting the others down one at a time. Vary the way you play them from day to day, playing them straight, using various diatonic patterns, etc. Vary your articulation also and use a metronome. Play the scales evenly and slowly enough so that you can focus on the precision of your technique as well as getting the notes under your fingers. You should, at this point, spend ten minutes on scales.
3) With the remaining time you should work on repertoire. If you have only five minutes left, start with a relatively easy tune and memorize it along with its chord changes. It helps if you have a keyboard instrument or possibly a guitar and can, however slowly, play the changes while you sing the melody. And here I want to add a word about singing. If you are reluctant to sing get over it! As Dizzy used to say "If you can't sing it, you can't play it." Your voice is your personal instrument and you need to use it. If you have been traumatized by someone telling you earlier in your life that you cannot and/or should not sing, you owe it to yourself to do what you need to do to put that behind you. There is no such thing as "tone deafness" or a "tin ear". Singing is merely an act of coordination, provided that you have ears, vocal chords and a memory that function. I seriously doubt that you would be reading this article if you were lacking any of those.
As you get the twelve major scales under your fingers, you will be able to play them in one big exercise. There are many of these in various classical study books, or you can simply play each scale up and down an octave and then move up or down a half step and play the next. Getting this big exercise down may take most of your practice time for a while, but after that you will be able to do it in about five minutes, freeing up more time for learning tunes. Try to do all this every day. If you are short on time or energy one day just warm up with a little tone work and play one of your tunes or even a favorite study piece or exercise. On days when you have more time, go deeper into the repertoire section of your routine.
Here is another hypothetical situation. You have studied music seriously, are comfortable at jam sessions and gig occasionally. At one time you thought of pursuing a career in music but decided to go into some other line of work for your livelihood. Still, music is important to you and you want to keep developing your skills as a matter of personal growth. You are able to take as much as an hour for practice most days, but some days you will be lucky to get fifteen minutes. As always 1) should be tone exercises, about three minutes. Since you can already play all twelve major scales comfortably 2) will involve maintaining those and getting down all the minors and then other useful scales like diminished, augment and altered 7th. These, of course, you absorb gradually. Your scale routine should get ten to twenty minutes. 3) The remaining time goes to tunes. Start by identifying the ones you already can play from memory. These you will now work on playing in other keys, until you can play them in all keys. Then make a short list of tunes you would like to have down and go to work on them.
On those hectic days when you can only play for a very short time go for a favorite tune and approach your little bit of practice time as relaxation. Do not be critical of your playing, just relax and let things happen. What is of greatest importance here is making contact with your instrument and the music. Even if you have to do this for several days on end you will find it much easier to get back into more rigorous practice, when time allows, than if you did not play at all.
Here is another situation. You went to music school and are now struggling to establish yourself. Your time is increasingly taken up with working the phone and the Internet to promote yourself and try to get gigs. Oh yes, there is all the time you have to spend as an office temp or waiting on tables. You are gigging a couple of nights a week but you feel stuck. Since you are a more advanced player you can combine your scales with tone maintenance and development, especially when time is short. 1) Practice your scales throughout the entire range of the instrument, once slowly for concentration on tone, and again quickly for finger technique. Do not play any faster than the tempo at which you are in absolute control of the instrument and use the metronome to keep yourself at that tempo. The only way you will ever be able to play fast, in any musically useful way, is to concentrate on control. (I know you know that already, but we all need to be reminded from time to time.)
2) Work on exercises that develop your harmonic and rhythmic resources. Actually, you can incorporate some of this into your scale routine by playing them in rhythmic patterns that are different from the ones you fall back on. You should also be working on all the commonly used scales, not just major and minor, but diminished, both - whole and whole - , augmented, altered 7th and Lydian b7. In part 2)' of your practice explore any of the exercise books that introduce you to new concepts. Just take one or two exercises a day and play them the best you can. Once again, concentrate on control of the line and do not worry about speed. If you have control speed will come, if you do not have control the speed will be of no musical use to you.
3) Optional, but highly recommended, practice classical etudes for your instrument or, if you are a vocalist, study art songs. An interview with Clark Terry made me aware of the value of this, as well as my own studies of "Classical" saxophone. The Classical material forces you to perfect your control over articulation and dynamics, which are rarely addressed in Jazz practice materials, but are important to all expressive musicians. Additionally, if you are a wind payer, playing etudes with a Jazz mouthpiece helps extend your dynamic and tonal range on that mouthpiece.
4) Repertoire should have two components. One is the addition of new tunes, the other is playing the ones you know in several keys or, better yet, all twelve keys. As stated above, one plays best the music one knows by heart. Also, the more tunes you truly know, the broader your frame of reference when improvising.
One more thing a person at this level may need to practice is sight reading. If you rely on theater or show work you need to be as good a sight reader as possible. I hear you say "Wow, this is getting to be a lot to practice." Well, let us see where we can incorporate two areas of concern into one area of exercise, just as we did at the beginning by using our scales for tone production as well as finger technique. One thing would be to play classical etudes that are easy enough to play reasonably well at sight. There is not only a study repertoire for each instrument, but the repertoire of one can be played by another related instrument. For instance, the saxophonist and oboist can play each other's material; trumpeters, clarinetists and violinists can all play much of the same music; trombonists and bassoonists; and so on.
"But Paul," I hear you say, "that still sounds like what I was doing in school when I could put in four hours a day!" Yes, that is correct, and you will now have to get as much done as you can in two or even one hour. Sometimes you might have only twenty minutes or so. The principles remain the same: maintain and develop your tone, maintain and expand your technique, maintain and expand your repertoire. I have already suggested how you can combine scale study with tone study and melodic etudes with sight reading. You can also develop exercises from particularly challenging passages of songs you wish to learn. There are also ways of practicing away from your instrument. Try improvising with your voice or by whistling, practice rhythm and groove with your hands.
It can be most useful to establish a routine carefully designed to tackle your weaknesses and maintain your strengths. I recently set up a new six day cycle. My concern was that I was getting so caught up in technique exercises that I was not spending enough time on repertoire. My cycle had been a three day one, so I redistributed the technique stuff across six days and opened up more time for repertoire. I now alternate melodic etudes with memorizing my own compositions, which for various reasons I do not get to play enough, and finish with playing other tunes in as many different keys as possible. If time is short, I take one that I know very well and concentrate on putting it in a key that I do not play in much, like B or A concert. I also alternate between alto and soprano saxes, my two main performing instruments. Then, since this is an even number cycle, I alternate the instruments again at the beginning of the cycle. That is day 1, cycle 1 will be alto, day 2, soprano, etc.; then day 1, cycle 2 will be soprano, day 2, alto, and so on. Now I just need to work out a way to get the flute, my main double, into the mix. Obviously one needs to be creative about all this, and willing to make changes as necessary. I usually redesign my practice, (but not too radically) every three or four months.
Every day is an adventure, especially for a freelancer, and one needs to have strategies for a shortened practice. Since I use exercises that develop my melodic/harmonic vocabulary for technical development as well, I will often just do those if I am short on time. However, if I find that I have three or four stressful days in a row, I will alternate working on tunes with working on technique. Balance is of primary importance here, so if your day is busy because of gigging, for instance, then you might favor technique or concentrate on playing tunes in uncomfortable keys. If your time is being taken by non-performing activities then you would want to spend more time on repertoire maintenance.
I hope this article is of some use to you. Practicing itself is an art and, as with any art, it appears clear and whole but is still difficult to dissect and analyze. Here are the big concepts once again.

* Play every day. Whatever else you do, make as much music as you can. After all that is the point of all this.

* Have clear goals and objectives and make your tasks manageable. Do not frustrate yourself by trying to take on too much, or by trying to do that which you are not ready to do. Remember Marlene and the telephone book.

* Strive for ease in all keys, major and minor. The closer you get to this ideal the more you will approach a relationship with your instrument that is like the one you have with your voice.

* Use your voice, your whistle and your hands to make music on a regular basis. This is the other side of the previous point. If you have to ride public transportation, sing and whistle your repertoire carefully and study it that way. Work out rhythmic concepts with your hands on your legs. If someone gives you a funny look, ignore them.

* Memorize as much music as you can. Do not take your fake book to jam sessions, use your ear or sit the tune out and write down what it was so you can look it up and learn it when you get home.

* Try to keep a balanced approach. Devote such time as you have to everything that is important in turn. If you do not, when it is time to really play you will wish you had.

* Above all have faith in the process and in yourself. Progress is hard to notice day to day, especially when it is your own.
If you have questions or would like to discuss any of this in more depth, I would enjoy hearing from you.

Paul Combs,2002, 2012
Jazz Improv, vol. 3, no. 3.