Tag Archives: music

The 3 Laws of Practicing

Developing a solid and productive way of practicing is a real source of anxiety, frustration, and confusion for many musicians. There seem to be so many competing factors pulling at each of us – the expectations of teachers, market expectations, and the perceived difference between where you are and where you want to be in your playing, to name a few. When we strip away all of these factors and influences, we are left with 3 concepts that together form a prerequisite for successful practice.

The 3 Laws of Practicing

1. Have A Plan.
2. Correct Mistakes.
3. Be Consistent.

1. Have A Plan – This is the most fundamental element of practicing. To me, a plan is a set of instructions that you can act upon to reach specific goals. Having a plan is important for a couple of reasons. First, it requires you to think about what you’re doing, especially when it comes to large long-term goals. The ability to break down large goals into small manageable tasks is invaluable. Also, it creates an opportunity to track progress over time. You can see what’s working (or not working) for you. You can also work out how realistic your timeline is for reaching your goals.

Having a plan is essential. In my opinion, if you’re playing without a plan, you’re not really practicing. With that said, playing music is a creative endeavor and there must be room for spontaneity and creativity. Sometimes you’ve just gotta play for the sake of playing.

2. Correct Mistakes – This sounds simple, but is often overlooked. These rules are short and simple. If I were to elaborate and give this rule a longer name, it would be “Correct mistakes mercilessly and fully.” This means that you must first remove any personal judgements about making mistakes (i.e. I made a mistake. I’m a terrible musician and a horrible human being.). No one is perfect. Top performers in any field make mistakes. The difference is that they accept that they will mistakes and then approach those mistakes with a laser-like focus and correct them.

This is a multi-step process.
1. Identify a mistake and its exact location.
2. Identify the nature of the mistake – mechanical (fingers/tongue), mental (counting errors), etc.
3. Find a solution to the mistake.
4. Practice the correction at the point of the mistake (just a few notes before and after the mistake)
5. Play it slowly until it feels comfortable and easy then increase speed as needed.
6. Play the section in context.

The process of correcting mistakes is where skill is developed. Music is built on a lot of patterns and repetition. If you encounter a particular problem in a piece or a tune, you can expect to see it pop up again somewhere down the line. Addressing mistakes fully the first time around will increase your chances of success in the future.

3. Be Consistent – The key to developing a skill over time is consistency. You have to show up and do the work on a regular basis.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts about practicing in the comments below.

Barry Harris Half Step Rules

The video above was filmed at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, NL. It is part of a collection of video chronicling workshops that were given by pianist Barry Harris between 1989 and 1998. That collection can be found on the Barry Harris Videos channel on YouTube. There is a lot of great information there. Dr. Harris’s career has spanned over half a century and at the age of 85, he continues to perform and teach.

In the video, Harris outlines and demonstrates a set of rules for dealing with descending dominant (Mixolydian) scales. The basic concept is that in particular circumstances, the addition of half steps is necessary to insure that chord tones (1, 3, 5, b7) occur on downbeats instead of upbeats.

In the handout below, I wrote out the rules outlined by Dr. Harris in the video. Harris briefly talks about rules for the Major scale, but only mentions the use of a half step going from 6 to 5 before returning to the discussion of the dominant (Mixolydian) scale.


Spots Available for Skype Students


I have 5 spots available for saxophone students who would like to study via Skype. I specialize in helping students who want to:


  • Produce a beautiful, professional saxophone tone
  • Get more out of their practice time
  • Develop greater facility
  • Clean up their technique
  • Learn music theory and apply it to the saxophone
  • Transcribe songs and solos
  • Begin their journey of saxophone playing (young students or adults)


If you’re interested in improving your playing in any of these areas, please contact me by clicking here. The rate is $50 for a one hour lesson or $30 for a half hour.

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Books about Music that I Love!

I love reading books about music! It’s so nice to have that access to someone else’s perspective and insights. Here are a couple that really influenced how I think about music and how I work at music.

1. The Talent Code – Author Daniel Coyle has spent most of his career writing about sports. There are, of course, many parallels between practicing sports and practicing music. In the book, Coyle talks about hotbeds of talent in sports, music, and other disciplines. What’s striking is that all of the hotbeds have a large number of things in common – direct, expert coaching, simple, uncluttered environments, and a lot of repetition along with a list of other factors.
The takeaway from this book for me was the importance of slow practice. Parts of the book describe the Meadowmount Music Camp. The teachers encourage slow practice and the saying around there is that if someone walking by can recognize a passage you’re practicing, then you’re playing it too fast. In my own practice, I haven’t taken to quite that extreme, but when I’m working on something new or encounter problems with something I’m comfortable with, I slow it down and attempt to play with as little tension and with the best technique I can. This has been extremely helpful.




2. Effortless Mastery – In this book, pianist Kenny Werner, writes about his life as a musician and issues with negative self-talk that we can all experience from time to time (or all the time!). He goes on to discuss how he was able to let go of this burden and gives advice to musicians who want to follow that same path. It also includes a CD that contains 4 meditations guided by Kenny Werner.
I think that book serves as a reminder of two things. 1. It’s very easy to talk yourself into walking into a musical situation feeling defeated before you play/sing a note. 2. Music is a truly joyful activity that we do with people that we care about and we have the right to feel that joy, to spread that both to our friends on the bandstand, and to the listener(s). We also have the right to revel in the joy of our bandmates.

Ideas for 2012 Music Resolutions



The beginning of a new year is always a time of reflection and renewal. Many people are making resolutions and striving to create habits or break old ones. Just like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about what I want to accomplish this year and how to go about it. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of my ideas for new year’s resolutions. You might find something that you hadn’t thought of that resonates with you or you might have a resolution you’d like to add in the comments. I wish you a Happy New Year and hope you make it a great one. Without further ado, here’s the list.

1. Listen to more music.
2. Learn more tunes.
3. Find more playing opportunities (jam sessions, start a new project, etc.).
4. Start taking lessons (for the first time or start up again).
5. Write music.
6. Go out and support live music.
7. Learn a new instrument.
8. Transcribe solos.
9. Listen to new (to you) musical styles.
10. Memorize something new every day.
11. Read a musician’s biography.
12. Develop a practice routine.
13. Improve your technique.
14. Find the equipment that you love and not just what works.
15. Learn music notation software (Finale, Sibelius, etc.)
16. Learn audio software (ProTools, Logic, etc.)
17. Learn music fundamentals on your instrument (scales, chords, patterns, etc.)
18. Create your own patterns
19. Work on music business skills.
20. Work on ear training.
21. Try to connect with a musician you admire (in person or via social media, email, etc.)
22. Practice something is awkward/uncomfortable/difficult every day.
23. Learn some basic instrument repair skills.
24. Insure your instruments.
25. Get in the studio and make a recording.
26. Sell off all the extra gear you’re never going to really need.
27. Don’t take a solo on every tune.
28. Study music theory.
29. Read music-related books.
30. Be creative everyday.

So there it is, a few ideas to start off the year. These are not my personal resolutions. I already do some of these things (my instruments are insured, for example) and strive to do some of the others. Again, if you have any resolution ideas, please leave a comment.

Transcribe! is now $39!


In my last post about Seventh String’s free online metronome, I mentioned that they also make the great Transcribe! software. You can use it to open music files and manipulate them in different ways. You can highlight areas, as in the picture above, and loop them, slow them down, speed them up, adjust the pitch, or transpose to a different key altogether.



I use this software as part of my practice everyday and have found it to be a great, easy to use tool. Until now, Transcribe! has been sold for $50, but the price has just been lowered to $39.

How Do You Practice? A Look At Practice Styles













While having a conversation with a fellow musician the other day, the topic of practicing flute came up. I have recently increased the time I spend working on my flute playing and when I mentioned this, my colleague asked what I was working on. My reply was that I was working on some very fundamental things in the hopes of improving my playing from the bottom up. I was about to explain that in more detail, but before I could, this other musician excitedly gave me the rundown of what he was practicing on the flute. It was basically one tone exercise followed by playing a couple of songs, once through, with tracks he’d sequenced.

This sounded like a very aimless way of practicing to me. I probably wouldn’t have felt this way if the other musician had talked about any kind of purpose for approaching the material he’d chosen or why he’d chosen that material in the first place. My main concern would be that it lacks the repetition that is needed to address and correct errors and accumulate skill.

After thinking about this for a few days, I arrived at an important conclusion. There are only a few different motives behind practicing. I think most practice could fit in one of four categories: improvement, maintenance, recreation, and uninformed influence.


  1. Improvement – This type of practice could be considered an active form of problem solving. In examining your playing, you’ve identified skills that you want to gain or skills that are weak. You are practicing in order to gain and improve your level of skill.
  2. Maintenance – This type of practice shows a commitment to maintaining the level of skills accumulated over time. More simply put, this is ‘keeping up your chops.’
  3. Recreation – This type of practice is done without a particular goal in mind. You play something because you like it or it makes you feel good.
  4. Uninformed Influence – This type of practice happens when someone works on something because they saw or heard someone else work on, but can’t identify the purpose behind it.


These are relatively simple views and they exist on a gradient. One way of practicing a piece of material could change to a different way of practicing as skill is acquired and/or insights are gained. Also, the purpose of practicing a piece of material could change over time.

In addition to this, it is unlikely that a practice session (or day’s worth of sessions) would be composed of only one type of practice. There will almost always be a mix of at least two of the categories, if not three or four.

In observing these different methods of practicing, my aim is not to pass judgement on others. As I mentioned at the beginning, the other musician’s way of practicing is not how I practice, but that doesn’t make it bad. He may very well be satisfied and productive with his methods.

It is very easy to slip into a pattern of practice that lacks an awareness to purpose or direction. By taking a little time to examine how, why, and what you practice, it is possible to make some changes and have more productive practice with more satisfying results.

Ear Training Exercise #2

It’s been a few weeks since I posted my 1st ear training exercise and a variation on it. I’ve been working on them and have been making some improvements.

I’ve just began working on a new exercise. It uses the same tools as the 1st exercise, flash cards and a piano/keyboard, but is a little more advanced. In the 1st exercise, we used flash cards to sing different pitches/intervals using C Major as our key. In this new exercise, we will use the interval on the flash card as the root of a major triad that we’ll sing against a C major triad.

I’ll walk you through my process working on this exercise:

1. Shuffle the flash cards and lay them face down on your work surface.

2. Play a C major triad (C, E, G) with your left hand and flip over a card with your right hand.

3. While sustaining the C triad, sing the interval listed on the card. Let’s say that you’ve flipped over b13, you would sing Ab.

4. Try to sing an Ab major triad while continuing to play the C triad.

5. After you think you have sung the correct interval and triad, play and sing the notes of the Ab triad at the same time to check yourself.

6. Repeat steps 2-5 until you work through the whole deck of cards.

I think the most important part of the process is singing the interval and its triad before you play it. It is also important to do the work in the 1st ear training exercise before adding this one. Having a good understanding of the 1st exercise makes the 2nd one much easier.

Although I haven’t tried any of these yet, I’ve been thinking of some variations that you could incorporate into this exercise.

1. If the last note of the triad you sing is a tension, resolve it to a chord tone.

2. Sing other triad qualities – major, minor, augmented, diminished.

3. Sing inversions. When doing this, the interval on the card could act as the 3rd or 5th of the triad instead of the root.

4. Sing both ascending and descending triads.

I hope that acts as a good introduction to this exercise. I might start making videos of myself going through some of these exercise. I think something is lost between being able to see and hear how an exercise works and only reading the steps.

Variation on Ear Training Exercise #1

It’s always good to try different approaches on an exercise when possible. It allows you to discover connections/associations you may not have been known about, or it can help you to solidify your understanding of concepts you kind of know, but you’d have to think about to apply. The development of skill in music really depends on your ability to be introduced to a new concept*, process it (slowly) over time through repetitive practice, and in the end, be able to use that concept without thinking through its technical details. The ability to ingrain concepts and apply them automatically is key.

The method for this variation is exactly the same, but I use different flash cards. In addition to cards that have numbers representing intervals, I also have a set of flash cards with pitch names for all of the pitches in the chromatic scale. I’m still playing the I-IV-V-I cadence in C before I attempt the exercise to have that pitch reference.

Another thing you can add to this exercise is saying the name of the interval (or pitch name) before you sing it. For example, if you’re working with the numbered flash cards in the key of C and you pull up #11, you could say F# before you sing it. Same thing working with the lettered flash cards – pull up F# and say #11 before you sing it.

One more thing, you could do these exercises in any key. I will probably rotate keys every couple of weeks.

* A concept could be almost anything – learning a new note, a new fingering, a chord, a scale, a tune.