May 2009  New Ideas on Practicing 
(click below for a link to the actual published article)

In spiritual disciplines, many aspects (ideas, techniques, prayers,
etc.) are repeated over and over as a way of gaining mastery over some
part of the material and as a way of developing a core and center. For
musicians, this may be the repetitive (and often slow) practice of
transcribed solos, licks we have transcribed from one of the masters,
tunes, play-a-long pieces, singing what we practice, etc. Kenny Werner
emphasizes this approach as the path to ‘effortless mastery’ in his
book by the same title. The idea behind this is that the material is
known so well and one can perform it with such ease that a path is
opened for spiritual expression in the music. The recordings and solos
that really move us in this way are able to take us to a different plane
of existence, and our feelings change in some way as a result. For the
ancient Greeks, this was known as 'mimesis'. It is the unique spirit of
the performer, whose soul somehow becomes present in the music that
allows this process to happen.
When one keeps an active musical diary – a kind of spiritual journal
of practice – one’s music starts going in a different direction
than when simply learning the technical aspects of scales and chords.
Carl’s diary consists of a lick book: the writing down and repetitious
practice of ideas that he wants to incorporate into his own unique
vocabulary. Personally, I have found this approach to be helpful. All
players have a stock collection of licks and phrases that they regularly
refer to. It is true among all styles. Listen to Dexter Gordon, Chet
Baker, Terry Kath and you'll hear many licks repeated – or repeated
with variation - from solo to solo. The musical diary aims at helping
us develop that kind of unique vocabulary and recognizable style. 

Jim Bastian
Let’s talk about practicing! I got the idea for this column from a
recent PG interview with Carl Verheyen, where he was asked “What do
you do to further your craft in terms of practicing?” Carl: “I’m
a serious practicer. To me, practicing is where I find my center as a
person. If I go a day without practicing, I feel useless, I don’t feel
like I’m doing what I’m here to do. I don’t feel like I’m on the
level of where I want to be. To practice, I’ve always kept a lick
book. It’s an ongoing musical diary that’s always on my music
stand….I’m always writing stuff down….my personal style is a direct
result of the lick book….Practicing is finding new things or getting the
impossible stuff you already know down better”.
In recent decades, in jazz curricula especially, teachers (often
younger teachers who are themselves coming from an academic jazz
curriculum) seemed to be focused on the technical aspects of jazz
improvisation: such as developing the technique of playing a wide
variety of scales and matching those with their parent chords. The focus
has been on the technical aspect of ‘how does jazz work?’ This is
necessary stuff, but it's not the heart and soul of the matter. A more
important focus of our practice should be: How do I prepare to express something spiritual, emotive, and unique through the vehicle of improvisation?
What -and how- should I practice? I think Carl nailed it when he talks
about both the ‘center’ and the ‘lick book’. Goals such as these refocus practice into a spiritual discipline in which we evolve as a player AND as
a person, while at the same time develop a personal unique
performance style.

There is no time line for when this integration might begin to occur.
Some players experience it earlier in life, some later. Below are some
quotes that I found insightful on practicing and developing a spiritual
approach to the music.
"It's amazing, but lately I've been suddenly feeling myself getting
better and better each time I play. I don't know why it's happening now,
at this late stage of my career, but it is happening. I must hope that I live long enough to solve more of the mysteries”. Barry Harris


“Develop your repertoire. You're better off spending time learning and practicing tunes rather than running scales up and down the neck. Play with other people as much as possible. An hour spent playing with other musicians is worth six hours practicing by yourself.” Howard Alden


Do as much recording of yourself as you can. Listen to yourself with tough love and don't put yourself down. That attitude only works against you.”   Ken Karsh


“I put everything I have into the music, and hopefully the spirituality about my music is what prevails. It's not the mathematics of it or the articulation, in so far as dealing with the amount of notes I can play within a given span of time. It is how it feels to the people that hear the music. How it makes them feel. That is my purpose—to please”. Jimmy Ponder


Transform your practice time into a spiritual art…keep a musical diary…and a new path for the music will emerge.