Tag Archives: practicing

The 4th Law of Practicing


A few months ago, I wrote a post called The 3 Laws of Practicing. After reading a great book recently, Deep Work by Cal Newport, I’ve decided that there’s another “Practice Law” that can have a real impact on the quality of the work that happens in the practice room.

4. No multitasking.

No Facebook. No Instagram. No Twitter. No Snapchat. No email. No texting. No web surfing.

While each of the above examples serves a purpose in our digital toolbox, none of them are useful during a practice session. The truth of the matter is that the messages and notifications we receive from social media et al. rarely require immediate action on our part. As such, there’s no real need to attend to our digital lives when we’re in the shed.

The real problem with multitasking is that it takes us away from the work we are trying and wanting to do. When indulged while we’re working, the distractions presented by our digital lives prevent us from achieving the level of depth necessary to make meaningful progress in our practice. Ultimately that translates to us maybe doing the work, but not work at the level we are truly capable of doing.

When I apply this “law” in my own practice sessions, that means putting my phone on silent and closing the web browser on my computer. If I’m really intent on avoiding the kinds of interruptions that give way to multitasking, I’ll shut my phone completely down and turn the wi-fi off on my computer. I would shut my computer down as well, but I use a couple of apps in my practice (Transcribe! and Metronomics). These are all things I did before I read Deep Work, but that book really hammered home their importance.

You can find Deep Work here:
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

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.

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.

Seventh String Online Metronome – Use it, it’s FREE!











I just wanted to share a great online resource I found the other day. Seventh String, the same company that makes Transcribe! (awesome transcription software), has a free online metronome on their site. You can set it for tempos from 34-250 bpm (beats per minute). The interface is pretty cool, too. It gives you a number of ways to use and interact with the metronome.


Seventh String Online Metronome

Practicing on the go!

I just wanted to share a few ideas I’ve been reading and thinking about that deal with practicing when you don’t have access to your instrument. I’m talking about when you’re driving around town, waiting at the dentist’s office, or it’s late and you can’t practice in your apartment.

In this age of smartphones and tablet computers, our access to tools that can aid in practice is greatly increased. You can find several free apps that work with Android or Mac/Iphone. I have one on my phone called Splash Piano. It has a two-octave keyboard and a few different patches. Does it sound great? No. Can I play pitches on it? Yes, and that’s more important to me when it comes to practicing. You could use an app like this for the ear training exercises I recently wrote about or you could work on playing the root movement for a tune or work on an interval that’s been giving you trouble or about a million other things.

A great use of time in the car is make a cd of a tune or solo you’re working on (or plug in your mp3 player) and sing along, paying attention to get as many details as possible. You could also do this with your ipod during a workout, but people at the gym might look at you funny when you belt out a Rick Margitza solo on the treadmill.

Those are just a couple ideas. Feel free to comment on any ideas you have about practicing when you’re out and about.

Some words from the Tao Teh Ching

I have a copy of the Tao Teh Ching sitting in my office/studio/practice room that I randomly open up from time to time. It is the edition published by Shambhala and translated by Dr. John C. H. Wu. Today I opened it up to Chapter 63 and read the following:

Do the non-ado.
Strive for the effortless.
Savour the savourless.
Exalt the low.
Multiply the few.
Requite injury with kindness.

Nip troubles in the bud.
Sow the great in the small.

Difficult things of the world
Can only be tackled when they are easy.
Big things of the world
Can only be achieved by attending to their small beginnings.
Thus, the Sage never has to grapple with big things,
Yet he alone is capable of achieving them!

He who promises lightly must be lacking in faith.
He who thinks everything easy will end by finding everything difficult.
Therefore, the Sage, who regards everything as difficult,
Meets no difficulties in the end.

The part of this that really resonated with me was the 3rd stanza, particularly Big things of the world can only be achieved by attending to their small beginnings.

It’s really easy to forgot how many small, yet fundamental things we try to bring together anytime we play music. Recently, I’ve been making an effort to attend to some of the smallest and simplest ideas and make an attempt to achieve a real sense of mastery over them. I hope that by doing this, I can take down some roadblocks that I hit when I’m playing and that I can be a stronger musician as I work toward more challenging endeavors.

Reading this today helped me feel that I’m on a good path with my practice. I hope that you find a little inspiration, as I did, with this passage.

ii-V of the day: John Coltrane – 9.24.10

Today’s ii-V come from John Coltrane‘s I Hear A Rhapsody solo from his 1957 Lush Life album.

The phrase starts on A7(b9), which is VI(b9) in the key of C. The line starts on that (b9), Bb, moves chromatically down to the 7th (G), and then descends down the arpeggio before resolving to the root of Dmin7. The next part of the line starts on the leading tone of Dmin7 (C#) and ascends in stepwise, scalar motion. This motion continues into the G7 measure with the Ab (b9) and Bb (#9, technically A#). The line then changes direction moving from Bb>Ab>G and then descending through the G Augmented triad. (G, D#, B, G). We end up on the 3rd (E) of CMaj7, repeat the descending triad motif (E, C, A), and end up on the 9th (D).

I Hear A Rhapsody is a 32-bar AABA form. It is usually played in Eb (The first chord is Cmin, but I think all the changes lead, ultimately to Eb.).

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ii-V of the day: Oscar Peterson – 9.20.10

Today’s ii-V comes courtesy of Oscar Peterson from his Au Privave solo from his Nigerian Marketplace album, recorded live at the 1981 Montreux Jazz Festival.

The ii-V starts with a 3-note pickup of a descending A Major triad, the dominant of Dmin7. Once we’re in the Dmin7 measure. We have scalar motion from the root to the 5th which then jumps down to the 3rd and moves back down the scale. In the G7 measure, we start with an extended enclosure. The line is descending by half steps on beats 1 and 2, landing on the 3rd of the chord (B) on beat 3. We then have an appoggiatura (B>G>F) which is followed by an enclosure resolving on beat 1 of the CMaj7 measure on the 3rd (E). The first measure of CMaj7 consists of two diatonic 7th chords. (The first one might not be very obvious, but if you drop the E down an octave you’ll see what I mean.) The second measure has an enclosure that starts on the G and ends on the E on beat 3. C6 is then outlined on beats 3 and 4. The last measure has a 1-5-7-1 figure, it very firmly establishes the tonic sound.

This ii-V comes from the last 4 bars of a 12-bar blues form and the phrase extends into the first bar of the next chorus. If you’re working on these with a play-along recording and the line is too long for the recording or if your recording has a turnaround on the VI7b9 (A7b9 in C) to get back to the ii. You can always trim off some of the line to fit your needs. If you do that, I would suggest ending the line on beats 1 or 3 of either of the CMaj7 measures. I played around with this a little myself to check and the line will sound fine ending in any of those places.
For saxophone players, as you can see, the line as written is too low to play on the horn. By raising the line an octave, beginning with the G on the “and” of 1 in the 3rd measure through the rest of the line, you can fix this.

Au Privave is a 12-bar blues usually in F. I have a few recordings (Hank Mobley, Tete Montoliu) that are in Bb.

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Click to enlarge.

ii-V of the day: Dexter Gordon – 9.19.10

Today’s ii-V comes from Billie’s Bounce from Dexter Gordon’s album Billie’s Bounce. It was recorded live in 1964 at Montmartre in Copenhagen. There is a series of recordings called Dexter in Radioland. Billie’s Bounce is the 7th and final recording in that series. This particular track clocks in at just over 17 minutes, so there’s a lot of fodder for transcription and learning.

Dexter’s ii-V starts off with a two-note descending chromatic pickup to the root of the Dmin7. Next comes an enclosure leading to the D on beat 3, followed by ascending scalar motion. In the G7 bar, we start off on the 9th (A) followed by an appoggiatura (A>C>B). Continuing, we then have descend to the A (9th of G7) and have a chromatic neighbor tone (A>G#>A). This is followed by another appoggiatura (A>E>D). In the CMaj7 measure, we have a descending diatonic 7th chord (Dmin7), the last two note of which form an enclosure of the E (3rd of CMaj7) on beat 3. The chromatic neighbor tone figure from the G7 measure is then repeated again based on the 9th (A on G7, D on CMaj7) and it resolves in the next measure to the 5th (G).

Billie’s Bounce is a 12-bar blues usually played in F.

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