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I recently published a new video in my series on my AI called Jazz Master Chat. The video asked for tips on improving the effectiveness of practicing a musical instrument.

Jazz Master Chat uses the transcriptions of the entire 75 hours of interviews I conducted with jazz master players and educators to respond to questions about playing music.

Quality over quantity in practice

After each tip given by Jazz Master Chat, I chimed in with my own take on that particular tip.

One of those tips was about “Quality over quantity” and after the initial explanation, I mentioned that in my interview with Ron Carter, he told the story of calling up a student and telling him what he was working on. Ron was playing the C major scale slowly and while doing so, listening very carefully to each note. If any note was not perfect, he started over listening for perfection.

The point of this is not that all practicing must be perfectly executed since one point of practicing is to improve aspects of playing we have not yet mastered. So the sound of one practicing–especially younger players–may not be one of sweet perfect music.

But the point Ron was making was that there can be an aspect to playing that focuses on deep listening and striving for perfection on just one note at a time.

The Quality of Your Warmup

One comment I recorded in the video that I later removed regarded what I sometimes hear as players are warming up for a rehearsal or a gig. I hear them playing high or fast or complicated but in the process, missing notes and/or pitches. And they continue to keep beating it, never really sounding improving. They eventually end that unpleasant exercise, considering their ‘warm-up’ to be complete. My sense is that they practice similarly.

I’m not suggesting that your warmup always needs to be musically and technically perfect, but rather that as you warm up, guide your playing to a point of sounding good. Start with the easiest notes you can play well and advance to the more difficult ones. I think of this progression as a steady ramp up the degree of difficulty. When I eventually reach the point of straining for high notes, they sound solid and in tune. Perfect.

I find it curious when lead trumpet players warm up by blasting fortissimo double Fs, never quite hitting them solidly. And that’s the extent of that portion of their warm up. Instead of working their way up to those notes so that they have a solid foundation of air support for tone and intonation. And yes, I know I’m directing this example to brass players but every instrument has its own version of this.

So this longer point to the mention of Ron’s tip on practicing is to strive to eventually gain perfection (or as close to it as your current abilities provide). An example is to play in B major. You may miss a few notes of the scale at first or be a little out of tune, so slow it down or do whatever you must to eventually play this more difficult scale or key sounding good.

Don’t end a portion of your practicing or warm-up sounding broken. Your muscle memory will remember that incorrect muscle movement feel and you run the risk of it becoming engrained. Remember, practice a musical instrument doesn’t make perfect-it makes permanent!

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Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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