How to Practice Jazz

Let’s take a look at the differences between practicing written and improvised music.

Q: What is the practice goal when studying a piece of written literature?

A: To get as close as possible to perfection. As the saying goes, Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong. There are so many great reasons to study classical music (by which I mean written music designed for concert performances). It builds fabulous technique, connects us with our musical heritage, gives us insights into the minds of masters, makes us sound like good musicians… However, there’s a drawback to studying it exclusively. Too often, classical training seems to scare the creativity right out of musicians. They become paralyzed by perfection. It’s because classical literature is learned through a process of constant self-critiquing. The notes one plays when compared to the page can only be right or wrong.

Q: What is the practice goal when studying jazz or improvisation?

A: To be never play the the same tune the same way. To be on a journey of constant discovery - always exploring but never knowing how it’s going to come out. We learn to live with the expectation that some days our improvisations will sound terrible and some days they’ll sound better.

Watch a replay of an archived livestream on this topic.

Jazz Practice Strategies

Improvising musicians practice by combining technical exercises with music theory, creative concepts, and personal taste. It’s like speaking. When we meet a friend and start a conversation, we don’t rely on a written script. Rather, we draw from cultural expectations i.e. being with “Hi, how are you?” and then apply what we know about grammar, idioms, recent events, etc. It’s actually incredibly complex but conversing on the spot feels simple because we’ve become fluent speakers over a lifetime of learning to communicate in thousand’s of settings and circumstances. It’s the same with creative music making. In order to become more fluent speakers in the language of music, improvising musicians practice these skills in many different contexts:

1. Technical exercises

Scales – Play many variations preferfably squared to fit even phrase lengths and with many variations.

Chord Drills – Drill triads, 7ths, chord/scales, chord/basslines on paper and keyboard, arpeggios, voicings, chord sequences with RH patterns…

Squared Scale.png
Sample chord drill

Sample chord drill


Scale the Chords – Combine improvised scale fragments with chords. See my blog post Scaling the Chords for details.

2. Ear Training

  • Drill recognition of intervals, scale and chord types.

  • Pick out known tunes by ear.

  • Cop tunes in recordings.

  • Transcribe jazz solos.

3. Tunes

  • Analyze chord/scale relationships.

  • Experiment to choose a style and groove.

  • Decide on the form.

  • Apply creative concepts (learned independently of specific tunes i.e embellishing techniques).

4. Unstructured

  • Doodle around with unstructured improvising.

  • Delve into whatever is currently most interesting.

I love classical music but I dislike what it does to musicians.
— Bradley Sowash

Classical or Jazz?

Which approach is better? Here’s a poem that sums up my music education philosophy.

Musical Balance.png

Until next time, enjoy your creative music making journey,

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