Category Archives for Practice Better

Ten Things I Learned From Jamey Aabersold

If you've been playing jazz or blues for any length of time, you're probably familiar with Jamey Aebersold.

Jamey is the father of the playalong CD

For those of you who don’t know who he is, Jamie is the father of the play-along CD series for learning jazz improvisation.

By his website, there are 133 books in his series of books now. And I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of users of these books over the years, if not millions. They’re effective if used properly. They help to develop a facility with the different scales and modes - major, minor, playing the blues.

I’ve been aware of him for over 30 years now. And his recordings and books have been around longer than that. He is in his late 70’s now and starting to slow down with his schedule a bit. But he has done music camps and clinics all over the world. And he has a passion for teaching people to play by ear and to improvise. I’ve learned a lot about him lately, from stuff I’ve read and discussions I’ve heard him in.

I have a number of his books and have used them on and off over the years.

One of the things I didn’t know until recently was that he started out doing these recordings so he could have something to practice to on his own. But a good idea takes on a life of its own sometimes.

He is a master at teaching people how to be more confident as improvisers. And I thought it would be good to put together a list of things I’ve heard him say or read in his books as a summary of some good points to keep in mind on your journey to learning to play better.

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If you've been playing jazz or blues for any length of time, you're probably familiar with Jamey Aebersold.

Jamey is the father of the playalong CD

For those of you who don’t know who he is, Jamie is the father of the play-along CD series for learning jazz improvisation.

By his website, there are 133 books in his series of books now. And I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of users of these books over the years, if not millions. They’re effective if used properly. They help to develop a facility with the different scales and modes - major, minor, playing the blues.

I’ve been aware of him for over 30 years now. And his recordings and books have been around longer than that. He is in his late 70’s now and starting to slow down with his schedule a bit. But he has done music camps and clinics all over the world. And he has a passion for teaching people to play by ear and to improvise. I’ve learned a lot about him lately, from stuff I’ve read and discussions I’ve heard him in.

I have a number of his books and have used them on and off over the years.

One of the things I didn’t know until recently was that he started out doing these recordings so he could have something to practice to on his own. But a good idea takes on a life of its own sometimes.

He is a master at teaching people how to be more confident as improvisers. And I thought it would be good to put together a list of things I’ve heard him say or read in his books as a summary of some good points to keep in mind on your journey to learning to play better.

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Four Benefits To Practicing Slowly

Rehearsing your instrument slowly has its own rewards.

It's pretty much any sax player's wish that he or she could pick up the sax and play like greased lightening. A good solo is always awesome. But a fast solo is like a good martial arts trick. It leaves everyone in awe and almost worshipping the musician for their technical prowess. But while speed makes for an amazing technical demonstration, we sometimes miss what it takes to get there. 

And one day I discovered something by accident that opened my eyes to the benefit of practicing slowly.

It's amazing what you can learn about a superhighway when you run out of gas.

I'm one of those guys that tends to live a little dangerously with the level of gas in my car. But every once in a while, it catches up to me. And one day, I ran out on a 4 lane divided highway. And I had to go for a walk.

It's fascinating the things you notice about the road at a speed of three miles per hour that you just don't notice at seventy.

Have you ever realized how long those lines really are on the highway?

I had actually stumbled onto the little factoid of the length of the lines in the centre line of the highway and the length of the spaces in between. When you're driving in a car, it's easy to incorrectly estimate the size of those little suckers.

If you've already been told the numbers on these stripes and spaces, it's a little easier to imagine it as you're driving past them. But they blast by so quickly. Most people guess the lines are anywhere between 3 and 5 feet long.

If you've never been told the numbers, let me give you a little surprise. The length of the dashes on the highway are ten feet long. And the spaces - get ready for it - are thirty feet long.

I actually remember that day I was out walking. There was a break in the traffic and, since I had that little factoid in my head, I just had to test that out. So, I got out there with my size 12 clogs and paced those lines out. And then I paced the spaces out. And then I quickly moved out of the way of that semi-truck. Because unlike me, he wasn't going slow enough to appreciate the length of those lines.

But, yes. The lines are 10 feet long and the spaces are 30 feet in between.

You notice a whole different set of characteristics about the road at that speed that you can't imagine if you're always driving fast.

I was finally able to get a perspective on the length of those lines, and the fact that I had missed the reality of that fact about them up until that moment. I knew it in my head. But I experienced  it that time. The thing I noticed, too, is that once I gassed up and was driving again, I noticed some of the things I saw at three miles per hour in a different way at seventy. I knew what I was watching for after I had seen them at slow speed. And now I could see them. And now, I could more easily imagine those stripes as actually being 10 feet long.

So what does this have to do with your practice routine? 

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Training Your Lip For Endurance

Your lip is a muscle. And understanding the physiology of that muscle can help you play better - and longer.

In another post, I wrote about a concept sometimes referred to as "muscle memory." You can read that post if you click this link; but essentially, muscle memory is a term that refers to your body and brain forming connections so that your body "remembers" how to do certain motions.

Essentially, according to Wikipedia, muscle memory is "a form of “procedural memory” that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with “motor learning.”

In other words, muscle memory is how your body turns your practice sessions into "not wasted time" if you do it right, and "somewhat wasted time" if you practice wrong, because your body remembers the form and the detail of what you practice as much as the course motor movements. It really is worth a read.

Watch out for fatigue and how it can hurt you to practice when you're too tired.

One of the topics I addressed in that post was the importance of not practicing beyond your "fatigue limit," especially when working on tricky stuff - like trying to hit low notes when your lip is really tired. The reason is that in a case like that, your body is going to start to do all kinds of things (little things, but all working together against you) to compensate for the fatigue to try to get those notes out anyway, but if you can't control what you're doing, you're not going to control how the body remembered (wrongly) how to do it that last time you practiced when you were tired.

So the question is: is there any trick to help you develop more endurance? The short answer is "yes."

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Muscle Memory And The Importance Of Accurate Practice

Some thoughts on muscle memory, and the importance of accuracy in practice.

When you practice a physical motion with your body, the body tends to "remember" how to do that motion. For those of us who can walk and ride a bicycle, you realize pretty quickly when you think about it that you don't think much about these things when we do them. Your body just does those things pretty much without thought.

As a matter of fact, if you hop on a bicycle after having not been on one for years, you realize how quickly you can get on it and not have to rethink how to keep that sucker upright. It just stays up. This is a phenomenon that occurs due to the brain-body connections that form through repeated cycles of activities  Part of it is something called “muscle memory.”

According to all things Wikipedia, muscle memory is…

a form of “procedural memory” that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with “motor learning.” When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard,… playing a musical instrument…

And for reference, and to round out the picture, the wikipedia article references a concept called “motor learning.”

Motor learning is a change, resulting from practice or a novel experience, in the capability for responding. It often involves improving the smoothness and accuracy of movements and is obviously necessary for complicated movements such as speaking, playing the piano and climbing trees.

So practicing your wind instrument will cause changes in the brain - those changes develop in relation to the muscle movements that are involved with playing the instrument. (It seems that is the “motor learning” part. And then, as you do it more repeatedly, it starts to become more “second-nature.”)

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Why You Need To OWN The Pentatonic Scale

Note: If you've subscribed to the website and logged in, you can gain access to the free exercise download HERE...  And if not, please join to have access. You'll love it.

We've all heard how important it is to practice our scales and chords. But sometimes it's hard to know where to start. There are major scales, and then there are minor scales - melodic minor, harmonic minor and normal minor scales, without even mentioning the dorian scales and a whole bunch of other patterns to learn.

But is it possible to perfect them all, all the time, forever? Does it feel like even if you could work all that into your practice schedule, you'd be spinning plates?

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Focus On One Thing

Sometimes it can be overwhelming to try to figure out where to start down a road to getting to where you want to go. If you're floundering with conflicting feelings about how or what to practice, or where to start, sometimes you just have to start somewhere,  and go from there.

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Music Is a Language And Musical Phrases Are Vocabulary

Years ago, I took some lessons from a guy named Steve Woods. He was a music professor at a community college in the metropolitan Detroit area. And even though I only had a handful of lessons with him, some of the concepts I took away from those lessons has shaped the way I practice and the way I have played over the years.

One of the "sound bites" that Steve said to me that has stuck over the years is the idea that music is a language and the musical phrases we learn to articulate become the vocabulary we use to express ideas in that language.

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Not All Practice Makes Perfect

In the "members section" of the site, I link to a video where I describe something called "muscle memory," and how, for good or for bad, when you practice a physical motion with your body, the body tends to "remember" how to do that motion. When you practice your sax, your body "remembers" it in ways you might not think.

This might or might not seem obvious at first. But for those of us who can walk and ride a bicycle, it is a pretty quick realization when we think about it that we don't think much about these things when we do them.

As a matter of fact, if you hop on a bicycle after having not been on one for years, you realize how quickly you can get on it and not have to rethink how to keep that sucker upright. It just stays up. But what does that mean for your saxophone practicing?

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The Pros Are Just Masters Of The Fundamentals

There is a bit of a step between bad and good. Learning the basics of something makes you better.  The difference between good and great is perhaps a little harder to reach. It takes work. What you might not realize, though, is that there is a real "thing" about how people who are good at playing saxophone become great at playing saxophone. A lot of it comes down to this:

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