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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Practice Habits on the Jazz-Classical Spectrum

this posting was reproduced in 
Mouthpiece: The Journal of the Australian Trumpet Guild (Sept 2013, Vol 15, Issue 3)

I began my musical life primarily focussed on jazz.  Over time, my interests broadened and I became very serious about classical music.  In my practice habits, I have been able to use skills from one style to  help the other.  (Actually, I see the musical styles on more of a spectrum, rather than simply one or the other.  This is a topic for another time!)  Below are some of the very general strengths and weakness that I have observed in my own experiences, and then some suggestions for how to integrate the strengths, and minimize the weaknesses.  This list is extremely general, so please, don't blast me with your negative comments.  These are just some aspects that I have observed in my own practice routines.

"Jazz" strengths
  • highly creative
  • emphasis on memorization
  • geared towards technique
  • multiple keys
  • more complete performances (as opposed to small chunks of music)
"Jazz" weaknesses
  • disorganized, or stream of consciousness-oriented
  • lack of attention to minute musical details (such as tone, phrasing, and intonation)
  • poor time management
"Classical" strengths
  • very organized
  • emphasis on perfecting short passages
  • attention to sound qualities, phrasing, and pitch
"Classical" weaknesses
  • too focussed on singular details
  • frustration brought about by unachievable goals ("perfectionism")
  • boredom from lack of artistic stimulation
When I begin a practice session, I try to decide how much time I am going to put in, and what I am going to try to accomplish.  In my head, I review what I did in my last few sessions and decide if I need to continue any of that previous work, or if I will move on.  Once I have a plan, I set to work.

When practicing jazz, I try to get very specific about what tunes I am going to work on, and what I am going to accomplish in the time allotted.  I try to avoid just "blowing" on the changes until the clock runs out.  For example, I might decide to play a certain harmonic substitution at a designated place in the form.  I might work on a particular lick or pattern, and insert it in the appropriate spots.  If I find myself getting disorganized, or not getting anything done, I will borrow from my classical practice habits.  I might loop a few measures over and over, progressively increasing (or decreasing!) in tempo.

I find it very helpful to work on playing melodies to all kinds of tunes, not just ballads, as if they were classical pieces.  I decide where to breathe, how to phrase, work on my tone, and play with a drone to check for good pitch.  Treating a bebop melody, like Donna Lee, as a classical etude produces a different level of attention to detail.  Most of all, I try to keep things structured, on task, and on time.

Classical practice can become very tedious and difficult.  Borrowing from my jazz training, I ask myself questions about how I can creatively approach certain problems.  Instead of just repeating that one passage that is giving me trouble, I might try playing it in a different key.  This often highlights different aspects of the passage, or allows the music to flow in a different way.  This is especially true when specific technical barriers can be removed by playing in a different key, or perhaps a different octave.  Once those sounds are in your ear, you can move back to the original key.

As a student, I was coached by a piano professor on a very difficult classical piece for alto and piano.  We were very stiff, trying to play things perfectly.  As a demonstration, the piano prof. accompanied me with the purpose of playing all the gestures as musically as possible, with no attention to what notes were being played.  This was a revelation!  Although there were some pretty strange sounding harmonies, the music had a sense of drama and flow.  I will sometimes practice this, hunting for the essence of a certain passage.  Of course, one must eventually play with the correct notes!  This technique is helpful in freeing the music from very challenging sections.

A balanced approach to practicing will surely produce better musical results, but it will also help to keep you mentally healthy.  If we spend too much time locked into one particular focus, and it does not matter if that focus is strong or weak, we risk missing the music altogether.  Remember to reflect, act, and then reflect some more.  We tend to think that practice happens in the studio, or in the practice room, but it really happens in our brains!  Practice well.

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