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christian howes

'Perfect Practice'

July 8, 2011 at 7:17 PM

Perfect Practice

My former classical violin teacher, mentor and friend, the late and widely beloved Michael Davis, told me many things which influenced me early on as a classical musician and later came to influence my growth as a jazz player.


Regarding the amount of time spent practicing daily, he felt that, “if you can’t get everything done in three hours, you’re not practicing efficiently”. In his view, the saying, “practice makes perfect”, wasn’t adequate. Better to adapt the mantra, “Perfect practice makes perfect”.
Many of my students at Berklee and abroad come out of a classical tradition and have developed practice habits conducive to making gains as a technician and classical player. Often though, these same habits become detrimental to growth in “creative studies”. This is not to suggest that practicing technique and jazz/ improvisation are mutually exclusive; quite the opposite is true. It’s actually advantageous to consolidate improvisation practice with technical practice. For example, one can focus on technical issues such as string crossing, bow control, intonation, double stops, etc. all while improvising- this is the equivalent of killing two birds with one stone, and offers the added advantages of 1)developing technique beyond the “given” and limited possibilities of the classical repertoire and 2) providing the student w/ a sense of ownership in the vocabulary he/she is practicing/creating.

However, regardless of how many years you have studied your instrument and/or classical music, the moment you begin to study jazz and/or improvised tonal music, you are a novice.
Accepting this is difficult, because you have come to identify yourself as an expert. Both can be true, i.e., that you are an expert musician and instrumentalist, and at the same time a novice in jazz or improvised tonal music. In studying improvisation or jazz, you are embarking upon a journey to obtain an entirely new and different skill set. It will take time. (In his 2008 book, OutliersMalcolm Gladwell refers to a study which holds up the “10,000 hour rule”, i.e., it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years at 3 hrs per day, to effectively master any given discipline. Even accounting for your accrued mastery on your instrument, you might want to allow yourself about 6 years.)

I’ve referred before to the difficulty and discomfort that comes out of accepting your new status as a “novice”. For many musicians switching from classical to jazz, this discomfort is intolerable. It can threaten one’s self esteem and cause all sorts of defensive thoughts/behaviors to arise. One of these is denial. The sooner you accept the truth about where you are in your development and get over your insecurity, the sooner you can begin to make progress. Remember, you can still take credit for the mastery that you have developed over years of practice. You have a lot to be proud of in taking the plunge into something new. Ultimately, by forging ahead in a discipline which is totally new to you, you will come out stronger for it.

One of my favorite and most accomplished young adult students frequently arrives to his lesson with a list of concerns and questions including things such as sound production, shoulder rests, philosophical questions about the state of the mind while playing, posture, et al. These are all potentially very good questions for a classical student, but often they strike me as distractions for a jazz student, (especially given that this particular student has his technique really together and claims to be primarily interested in studying jazz for now). Every week, as he plays solos for me over standard tunes, most of the things that I notice holding him back are related to gaps in his grasp of harmony, i.e. “playing the (chord) changes”. Sure, there are other things worth working on as well, but this is a consistent thing that comes up which he continues to evade. It’s not that he can’t execute ideas on the violin- it’s that he can’t conceive of the ideas because the harmony is challenging and eluding him. I continually give him exercises for internalizing the harmony, and he continually avoids doing them. Is this denial? Why do so many of us have this same tendency, I wonder. I have to be ever vigilant in my own practice to make sure I’m not “practicing” what is comfortable, but rather addressing the gaps, the uncomfortable areas. Every day you practice you are faced with one crucial challenge, which is to practice effectively. Make it count. Practice the things that matter. Michael Davis once also told me, “if you sound good, you’re probably not practicing”. Most of your practice time should be devoted to things which you don’t sound good doing, or you’re uncomfortable with. Once you sound good and fell comfortable, it’s time to move to something else. (This is equally true for classical players).

Concerning growth in jazz and/or improvised tonal music, their are several ways you can go about drilling harmony such that, over time, you assimilate and internalize the information (and once you have internalized harmony, the understanding will never go away.) I’ve covered many of these in other articles, but to recap:
1) articulate the chords on the violin in various forms (as dble stops or arpeggios in all inversions or shapes), being sure to play properly voice-led inversions when the chords fall into progressions. (It’s not really very helpful if you only play chords and arpeggios in root position).
2) play the voice-led chords on the piano (or guitar). You can also play the root/3rd/7th in the left hand on the piano and improvise, rubato, in the right hand.
3) when you listen to music, focus on the harmony instead of the melody. Try to use your ears to transcribe the harmony in any music you listen to (when in doubt, refer to the bass line for help. if you need to, sing the bass line up an octave to find your starting pitch).
4)play voice-led arpeggios or double stops of chord progressions (including both chord pairs and/or longer progressions)
5) harmonize melodies and/or solos in doublestops (both as parallel thirds, 4ths, 6ths, 7ths, 2nds, and also as non parallel harmonies)
6) play 3rds and 7ths of chords in various comping styles. Play root/3rd/7th voicings of chords. Play voice-led upper extensions of chords. Walk bass lines.
7) harmonize the melody of a tune with the chord tones underneath(root/3rd/and/or
8) Play 4-note melodic patterns up and down first position, Changing the scale through the chord progression (but don’t start on the root of each scale; Instead, start wherever you left off from the previous scale).

One’s brain is typically only able to handle this kind of practice for so long. Perhaps an hour tops. So, if you practice 2 hours in a day, you might want to spend 1/3-1/2 of your time drilling these harmonic issues. The rest of the time can be spent on other things. But if you ignore this practice, you are just stalling, and Nothing can replace real harmonic understanding. It will never come easily, and there’s no way around it. You have to practice the important things or you will just be living in denial, copping out, and on some deep level, you will be frustrated. On the other hand, make these a regular part of your practice and you will see results over time. The rewards are worth it.


From Roy Sonne
Posted on July 9, 2011 at 4:54 AM

Thanks, Chris, for this inspiring and wonderfully realistic essay. Looking forward to seeing you again sometime. Very best wishes from Pittsburgh.

From steve newman
Posted on July 12, 2011 at 4:07 PM

Hi, I'm a big fan of Christian Howes.  I heard him five or 6 years ago when he sat in with Les Paul at the Iridium in NYC and have a few of his albums.

 some thoughts re his 'Perfect Practice' article-
the problem is that jazz like most contemporary activities has become much more complicated and requires many more skills than in the past. The renaissance men of the past could be at the forefront of mathematics, art, physics, philosophy, literature, music, basically all fields, without giving 10 years to each.

  In its 'golden days', jazz did not require 10,000 hours to become proficient.  It was probably more like 1,000 hours, i.e. a couple of years.  The path was learning the rudiments of an instrument, playing in high school bands, learning some recorded solos of top instrumentalists by imitation, and then getting into working bands.  Jazz was mostly learned on the bandstand and from colleagues.  Some of the finest music ever, jazz and classical and all the others, was created by people who were mostly self-taught,  imitative, experimental and got into working situations very early on. Many of the jazz greats were  already great as teenagers. 

 Perhaps today's high bar to becoming a jazz (and classical) musician is related to the fact that jazz (and classical) is not that popular any more.  Maybe less would be more.  Spend less time studying and more time out there playing for people.To quote Paul Desmond- "Jazz can be learned, but it can't be taught".                  Best wishes to all who are pursuing this worthy activity in these difficult times.

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