It’s a fact. You just won’t get much done in your practice session unless you know what you are going to practice before you sit down at the piano.

Life can be busy and practice time can be precious. I know that if I sit down at the piano without a plan I’ll start noodling around and next thing I know half of my practice session is gone! For that reason I’ve always been a list-maker. There’s almost always a list of some sort on or near my piano.

When I was in school and at my most productive I was super organized about it. I was on a mission to learn to play. I was specific because my time was limited. I kept a practice schedule on a piece of paper that listed all the projects I was working on in rows down the left side of the paper, and the days of the week in columns across the top. So if I did something on Monday I checked it off under the Monday column, when I sat down on Tuesday I knew immediately to start with something else. No time wasted. I updated the schedule every week with what I wanted to accomplish and looked honestly at what I got done the week before.

Here are a few of the things I included on that schedule every week.

Technique

I worked on scales, arpeggios, finger patterns, warmup drills, pentatonic patterns, playing in two keys at once, etc. Whatever crazy thing I was working on that week went on the list.

Be specific, set time limits and only practice the things you assign to yourself. If you are tempted to work on something else, jot it down and put it on next week’s list.

Learning & Reviewing Tunes

Since a big part of being a working jazz musician is repertoire and memorizing tunes, I kept three lists of tunes and every day I would play through at least one from each list (playing the tune in a random key, especially if it was an important tune that I might have to play with a singer someday).

  1. The couple of news tunes I was working on that week.
  2. The tunes I recently learned and I wanted to review so they would stay fresh.
  3. The tunes I tell myself I’ve got down cold – in any key, with intros and endings.

Chord Progressions

Are you working on how to play over ii-7 V7 I progressions? Are you working on the blues? Are you working on Giant Steps changes? Put what you want to learn on the list as specifically as you can so you don’t have to think about it when you sit down at the instrument.

Transcribing Solos

Jazz is like a foreign language and transcribing and learning solos is how you practice your pronunciation. I was told that Clark Terry described the process to jazz creativity as: “imitation, assimilation, innovation.” There really isn’t a shortcut. If you want to sound like you’re speaking the language of jazz you have to learn to pronounce it.

The first solo you transcribe will be tough. The second will easier. The one after that is easier. Get the point?

Oh, and you’re a pianist so transcribe both hands (if it’s a piano solo) – at least the basic voicings and patterns of the left hand. Once you’ve got it written down you need to learn it, memorize it, absorb it, dream about it, quote it in your own solos, sing it to your friends – get obsessed!

Licks

These come from your transcriptions (see above), or from your teacher, or from a friend who showed you something cool to play over particular chord or progression. Practice them in every key and at every tempo. Practice them over the tunes you’re learning and reviewing that week. Sing them. Change them slightly to make them your own. Play them everywhere until you forget where the lick ends and your improvisation begins.

Listening

I can hear what you’re thinking. “What? You needed to practice listening?” YES! We all do.

I made an exercise out of listening to music. I assigned myself specific things to listen to – specific tunes, the bass part, the ride cymbal pattern, the bridge, the turnaround at the end of each chorus. I did it every day.

Listen actively. God knows people don’t do that in normal life. But you’re not people, you’re a musician! OK, maybe you’re people too. But you’re special! Practice listening. A lot.

 

What’s On Your List?

The list you put on your piano is going to be different than what was on mine, but I believe the most important thing is to be as specific and realistic as you can. What are you working on? What can you honestly accomplish in the amount of practice time you have?

I like lists that expire. What do you want to do today? What do you want to do this week? Then at the end of the day or week take an honest look at what you did. Did you get to everything? Are you giving yourself too much to do? Maybe something needs to wait until next week, or next month…  I like starting small and adding to the list if I find out I’m easily getting to everything I assigned – not the other way around!

Oh, and lists like these belong on paper. Your computer or your iWhatever represents too many distractions. Take a few minutes and write it down the old-fashioned way. It doesn’t have to look pretty, just be specific. Try it for a few weeks and you’ll be amazed what you get done.

Let me know how you do!