5 Pro Tips for Practicing Jazz Piano

Here are some ways to get the most from your piano practice sessions.

It doesn't matter if you're learning a jazz standard or a Chopin nocturne, here's how to make practicing the piano an inspiration rather than a chore.

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Somewhere on this site I put the two steps to getting good at anything:

  1. practice
  2. repeat step one

This is great advice except that there are a lot of ways to practice and not all of them make you a better player.

Maybe this is you: "How do I fit practicing into my life? I don't have time!"

30 minutes a day.

Can you free up 30 minutes a day? How about 20? If you free up a small block of time for practicing and follow the guidelines below I guarantee you'll make progress, and fast.

1. Don't practice mistakes.

LearnJazzPiano.com - don't practice  mistakes

It doesn't matter what you are practicing or jamming on, if you play over mistakes once, you'll play over them again, and that means you are practicing your mistakes. 

Do you play a mistake and then go back and play it right? You are practicing playing something wrong then going back and playing it right. That's practicing a mistake. 

These are a common problems but they are easy to fix.

Here's how to delete a mistake from your playing:

  • Stop playing immediately when you make the mistake.
  • Work out the problem spot very slowly until it's perfect.
  • "Bracket" the problem spot and play through it. That is, start a few beats ahead and play through the problem area for a few more beats. Then expand the bracket a little bit and do it again. Repeat this process until you're playing a couple measures ahead and behind the problem area without making mistakes. 

This erases the mistake from your brain. It's a fool-proof method of working out problem spots.

2. Work on the small things.

It's the details that count. If you play a passage that has difficult time or notes, or maybe there's a chord voicing that is giving you problems, or maybe in a solo there's a tough transition, or maybe it's technically challenging, these are the opportunities that will make you a better player.

Let's say you're working on a tune, maybe "Angel Eyes", and the last part of the bridge is giving you issues.

LearnJazzPiano.com - practice the small things

Figure out the exact spot where things go wrong and take it apart. Figure out the intervals in the chords, how the melody is related to the chords, and determine exactly what the issue is. 

Are you playing a flat 13 instead of a natural 13? Or is it the sus 4 or flat 9 that is the issue?

Whatever is going on, break it down into it's smallest components and then eat them. Immerse yourself in the flat 9 interval if that's the issue. Play it in 12 keys, play it in both hands, and don't stop until it's as easy as breathing.

Any issue in chords, notes, voicings, form, technique, whatever, break it down into it's components so you can see how they fit together at the musical molecular level.

You will be surprised how this affects your playing. Not only will you fix the issue in the song you're working on, you will fix the issue in any song with a similar situation.

Kenny Werner talks about this in his must-have book Effortless Mastery. This is one of those desert island books for jazz pianists.

3. Make a list of what you're going to practice.

LearnJazzPiano.com: how to practice
One of Scot's practice lists

Lists are great. They define what is going to happen next. I always have a mental list of what I'm going to work on when I'm practicing and often a physical list.

A list helps you stay on schedule and work on the things you intend to work on. If all of a sudden you find yourself jamming and then you glance at the list it will remind you to get back on track.

The last thing on my list is always, "Jam". That way I have a reward at the end of the practice session.

4. Focus. 

LearnJazzPiano.com Pro Tips for Jazz Piano Practice

Don't jam during your practice session unless it's on your list.

If you find a cool new chord or lick in the middle of your practice session, you have a few choices about what happens next. 

You can work it out by burning the lick or voicing into your brain (see tip #5 below), you can make a note of it and continue practicing whats on your list, or you can give up practicing and start jamming. 

Jamming on it is fun and has it's own benefits, but if you are in a practice session for 20 minutes, all jamming will do is dilute your practice session. Sure, it's fun, but your 20 minute practice session is for practicing, not jamming.

5. Burn chord voicings and licks into your brain.

This is where I most often diverge from my practice list because if I discover a cool new jazz piano chord voicing, I want to get that into my playing as fast as possible. Same with discovering new licks or phrases.

LearnJazzPiano.com practice tips

The easiest way to burn a lick or chord voicing into your brain is to work out the science behind it which usually turns out to be the intervals between the notes of the lick or voicing. When you have that worked out, create the formula out of those intervals and play the lick or voicing in 12 keys over and over until it's natural.

For help working out the intervals and other science of jazz passages check out Mark Levine's Jazz Piano Book or Tim Richard's Improvising Blue Piano book.

You'll only have to work do this once. There is something about working a new idea out in 12 keys, somehow the deliberate thinking of the interval formula throughout the 12 keys will permanently add it to your repertoire. At least that's what happens to me.

It's important to be deliberate. 

No guessing. 

Guessing is as good as throwing darts with a blindfold on in a snow storm. If you get it right it's because of luck. We want to get it right because we intend to get it right.

Be deliberate in music, be deliberate in life. Following habits when practicing is the best way NOT to improve.

Bonus Tips

1. Practice in your mind.

Do you take the bus or train to work? Do you take walks? Whenever you have time for yourself you can do mental piano practice. 

Try playing a song you know in your head. Think about the keys and where your fingers are going, think about your chords and your solos, and do it in your head. If it's a new song, bring the chart with you to help.

I learned this from a fantastic jazz pianist named Dave Peck in Seattle and do it while I'm taking walks. I can learn a new tune on a 30 minute walk, and when I get back home and try it on the piano it's like I've already been practicing it.

Exercise: take a walk or go hand out somewhere and bring a leadsheet with you of a tune you don't know. An easy tune. Practice this in your mind the same way you'd practice it on the piano. Melody and bass line, simple 3rds and 7ths for the chord. Once you have the tune memorized go back to your piano (practice in your head while you do this) and give it a shot. You'll be surprised at the results!

This may be difficult at first but it will get easier the more you do it. 

2. Learn a new tune at night, right before bed.

This is just pure science. Recent studies show that the last thing you learn before going to sleep turns into the strongest memory as your subconscious brain sorts and files and decides what to retain and what to toss from everything that happened that day. 

3. Use the "George Cables" method of learning a song.

I once had the opportunity to ask George Cables how he learns a song. 

He said something to the effect of, "I play through the song a few times, then I turn the page over and try to play the song from memory. I slow down for parts I can't remember and do my best to work them out. After I'm done, I'll turn the page back over and work out the spots I couldn't remember, then do it again."

I've used this method and it also works. 

The reason practicing in your head and using the "George Cables" method of learning a tune works is that you are deliberately deciding what notes to play.

Consciously thinking about the notes rather than letting your fingers or your playing habits do what they already know creates better learning paths in your brain. Deliberate thinking is a higher form of thinking and will always give you better results, in music and in life.

Do you have any practice methods that work for you? Let us know in the comments section!

If I'm not back in 24 hours, call the president.

Scot is available for skype jazz piano lessons (and google hangouts, phone call, etc...)
Use the contact link at the top of the page.

by Scot Ranney on 05/31/2017, 14:34
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