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Is it possible to get more from limited practice time?

Ask any musician about practice and they will almost certainly say they wish they had more time. Charlie Parker is reported to have practised up to 15 hours a day and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule is often quoted as a practice milestone for high achievers. But throughout most of our lives practice opportunities are limited.

A lot of the time musicians are just too busy for long practice sessions. We work day jobs, have family and social commitments, rehearse or gig evenings and weekends, or fill every available slot time with teaching, touring, writing, session or studio work. Even when you do get time for longer practice sessions, it can be hard to stay focused on achieving goals.

The trick is not to let yourself feel defeated by the amount of time you are not practising, and instead focus energy on what you can do to get everything you can out of the time you have. If 15 minutes three times a week is what you can commit right now, then accept that this is better than nothing and plan to use it wisely!

How to make your practice more effective

So what can you do to get more from your practice? There are several practical strategies to maximise your practice without needing to spend 9 hours in an isolation booth with Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. The most important strategies are:

1. Set some achievable goals

• Motivation is essential for maintaining effective practice. Setting some achievable goals in the short or medium term is a great way to boost your motivation. • Spend some time developing SMART goals for your music and use these to inform and structure your practice sessions • Get yourself a practice notebook and write your practice goals down. You are much more likely to achieve your goals just by writing them down, and our own experience suggests that you often end up achieving 80% of the goals you bother to write down.

2. Learn how to plan your perfect practice session

Corey Christiansen advocates imagining a burger or club sandwich approach to give your sessions a symmetrical structure. For a one hour session you could try something like this for example:

 Warm Up 10 mins finger stretches; relax, check posture, breathing; long tones
 Old Material 10 mins an etude, or chord/scale exercise
 New Material 40 mins new vocabulary, new melodies, new chord progressions
 Old Material 10 mins favourite songs and licks, playing freely with play alongs
 Warm Down 10 mins some slow exercises or patterns

Warming up and warming down is important to keep your playing relaxed. It is an opportunity to get in the zone or enjoy listening to your sound. Don't practise tense, or with muscles or teeth clenched. Remember practice is there to prepare you for performance, so don't practice stressed and keep smiling!

Old Material is important for two reasons. First, it boosts your confidence and reminds you what you can do on your instrument; and what you have achieved from practice in the past. Second, it also helps you to remember the things you've worked on the past (otherwise what's the point in learning it in the first place)

New Material is the meat of your session. Remember that by definition new material is the toughest part of any session, because this is the stuff you don't know yet or can't quite do yet. Stay positive and take it slowly, working note by note without keeping time if necessary until you get it right. Rember that speed comes from accuracy so focus on accuracy first and speed will follow all by itself.

3. Practise away from your instrument

You can achieve a surprising amount away from your instrument. This includes reading text books, planning practice sessions, and ear training. Perhaps most important of all though is spending time visualsing. Many virtuoso players from John Coltrane to Nigel Hitchcock have stressed the importance of visualising your music - this includes imagining your sound and imagining actually playing over sequences.

4. Steal time

It's surprising how the minutes can add up if you are able to steal odd bits of downtime and use them to practice. Think of practising a new lick every time you waited for the kettle to boil. Try keeping your instrument out of its case on a stand next to your computer, or on the kitchen wall and count how many extra hours of practice you inadvertently clock up each week.

5. Practice smarter - kill several birds with one stone

If you are short on time you need to make sure  all your exercises relate to actual music you want to play and the goals you want to acheive. Practice scales, arpeggios and licks for the songs and chord progressions you want to perform.

6. What's the problem?

You can't fix everything at once. So many educators advocate a 'one step at a time' approach. Identify your biggest problem, then focus any spare moments of practice time on fixing that one thing. Alternatively, if you have time for a regular routine, you may want to develop a specific practice routine aimed at nailing the solution to your problem, and stay focussed on nailing one issue per month.

I don't know what to practice - where do I start?

Nowadays we are very fortunate to have a huge range of tried and tested learning materials written specifically for practising jazz musicans. You should consult a selection of these to help you plan and and develop a practice routine that meets your goals.

Theory & Preparation

First, get a respected theory book such as Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book for an overview of all the topics. Read this outside the practice room to help you set goals and plan your sessions. See for example: Chapter 4 ‘How To Practice Scales’, Chapter 12 ‘Practice, Practice, Practice’, and Part IV which covers song form and memorising tunes.

For more detailed guidance on what you need to work on in order to be able to improvise in a musical way get Practise Right Bundle and How To Improvise by Hal Crook.

Instrument Tutors & Method Books

Get at least one instrument tutor so you can work on material and techniques specific to your instrument. For example, for saxophone see Taming The Saxophone by Pete Thomas; for piano Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil DeGreg; or for guitar Three-note Voicings and Beyond by Randy Vincent.


You’ll want to devote time working on songs within your practice, so choose a reliable source of commonly played jazz melodies and chord progressions such as Jamey Aebersold vol. 54: Maiden Voyage or a fakebook such as The Standards Real Book.


These are studies that are written as stand alone pieces for their educational value that are also fun to play. They are excellent warm-ups or warm-downs and you may keep playing some favourite etudes for decades. Greg Fishman, Bob Mintzer, and Lennie Niehaus have written popular etude books for saxophone. For guitar, try Barry Galbraith’s two volumes of Guitar Solos and Ike Isaacs More Moods.

Vocabulary, Patterns & Licks

Learning to improvise is just like learning a language. Spend time assimilating and ‘owning’ new vocabulary each time you practise. In addition to all the artist and instrument specific books of licks and patterns, there are also key pattern books by Oliver Nelson, David Baker and Jerry Coker, among others.

Other topics to consider

There are many fundamental topics that every musican chooses to work on in their practice at one time or another. These include: Ear Training; Long Notes; Sound; Rhythm; Melodies; Scales and Arpeggios; Vocabulary, Patterns and Licks; Etudes; Songs.

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