Don’t spend too much time trying to find the perfect thing to practice. You just need one thing to practice. One thing that you can spend a little bit of time on and make a little bit of progress. Then, after a while, pick something else.
One thing at a time, a little bit of progress at a time. That’s the only way we can do it.
Improvisation, in music, rarely means “making it up.” Yes, we decide which notes go where, and are likely creating something never heard before.
But we’re not making up new notes. We’re not playing them in a new order. If you play “the blues” then they usually go in a certain order. If you play “jazz” then they go in a different order. If the notes don’t go in any particular order, then that’s a kind of order too.
But improvisation is spontaneous and risky all the same. If we’re not “really” making it up, then what are we doing?
Improvisation is the music of right now. It’s not the music you practiced, it’s what you’re playing in the moment, composing on the spot. Making it up is a nice idea, but what can you do to connect to right now with your improvisation?
I forgot to show up and write a blog post this morning. But I’m showing up now to tell you (me) that I’ll be showing up tomorrow morning.
And now I probably will.
Learning by ear is a simple task. You listen to something and write down or memorize what you hear. Simple, but sometimes difficult. Sometimes frustrating. Sometimes impossible.
Go one note at a time. Listen to the first note. Listen to it as many times as you need to to figure out what it is. Listen to the note, play a note, listen to the note, play a note. Repeat until you find the correct note. There are a limited number of options, so eventually you will find the correct note. Then move on to the next note.
At first this may be a painfully difficult process. It may take you what you perceive to be an unreasonably long period of time to figure out just one note. It’s not. It’s exactly the amount of time it takes. And it’s going to take less time next time.
You can’t skip any part of this process. Your ear will gradually develop whether you like it or not. If you focus and work hard it will develop a little faster, but you’re not going to skip to the front of the line.
You’re not always going to see the results of your work. You’re going to get results, but it might not look like what you thought it might.
Trust that your work is meaningful. If you are sincere and do the work then it is having an impact. If you need clear evidence of your efforts every single time you do something then you’ll burn out quickly.
Is your work something you can do without constant positive reinforcement?
The work benefits you, the results benefit the people you serve.
One of the most productive things you can do while practicing is to record yourself. Giving your full attention to listening to yourself will instantly show you areas that you’re going to want to work on.
But there’s a risk when you record yourself. There’s a risk that you’ll record yourself, and then listen back to find out if it was good or bad. Or to find out if you are, in the larger picture, a good or bad musician. This is not going to help you. Your job is not to decide if you sound good or bad. Your job is to play when it’s time to play, and practice when it’s time to practice. That job doesn’t change if you started playing today or if you’ve been playing your entire life.
So record yourself, and then find something to work on. Maybe your timing could use some attention. Maybe you aren’t getting the tone you’d like. There’s always something that you can devote some time to, but if you aren’t going to do the work to fix it then don’t bother identifying it.
Walk away from the practice room saying “I was honest about my weaknesses and put in some work on them.”