A little while back I wrote a jazz guitar article titled “Play the Tune Not the Changes.”
The article got a bunch of good feedback from readers on my site, on facebook and in the jazz guitar forum from many players learning how to play jazz guitar.
What was interesting were some of the forum comments.
People liked the article, but they expressed some frustration in having too much good material available and they weren’t sure what they should be practicing, especially those with limited time.
After reading these comments and having several readers suggest I write an article on the subject, I decided to sit down and lay out my thoughts on this important, but often ignored topic, “Practice-Room Overload.”
In the following article I will lay out several ways in which I like to determine what I need to work on in the practice room using recording, self-analysis, organizing practice material and peer/teacher consulting.
Not all of these will appeal to you depending on where you are in your development and comfort level of self-critiquing.
But, take a look through each idea, you might be surprised in how doing a quick recording and taking a few notes on what you liked and didn’t like can really help you figure out what to spend your time on in the practice room.
Have a question or comment about this lesson? Post it in the Jazz Guitar Overload thread at the MWG Forum.
One of the best ways to figure out what you need to practice is to record yourself performing, either solo or with a jamtrack if you don’t have a band to play with quite yet, and then sitting down to listen and analyze your playing in a critical but constructive fashion.
Though it can be difficult to listen to ourselves back on a recording, and then analyze our playing without being too negative, it is one of the best ways to figure out where your strong and weak points are, allowing you to direct your practice towards fixing the rough spots and accentuating the good points.
To begin, take a tune you are working on in your practice room.
Record yourself playing the tune, in whichever form you are focusing on, solo guitar, chord melody, with a jamtrack etc. Then, listen back to the take and take notes, as if you were listening to your favorite player on record.
Ask yourself the following questions.
By answering these questions you can generate a pretty good picture of where you are as a player, at least on this tune, and what you need to work on to improve.
Remember, don’t just focus on the things you thought needed work.
This is easy to do but not very productive. Instead, give yourself a pat on the back for the good things.
Then, dig into the stuff you need to work. It’s easy to get discouraged when analyzing one’s own playing, so make sure to find good points to be proud of as well as other areas where you can work to improve your playing.
Once you have answered your questions and done a self-analysis, you can start to plan out your practice routine for the next day, or even the next week or so.
For example, if you find you were having trouble outlining changes, then it would be a good idea to practice exercises that help you better yourself in that area, such as running arpeggios or guide tones through the tune(s) you are currently learning.
With so much practice material to choose from, especially if you own a lot of books or have a large collection of lesson notes, this is where you can start to feel overwhelmed in the woodshed.
If you have a large amount of material, try to keep it organized in binders or on your bookshelf by practice category, such as:
By doing so, you can have easy access to exercises and practice material that you have collected over the years to address specific problems that you have identified in your playing today.
So, if you found that your soloing was fine on the recording, but you just didn’t have enough good ideas when it came to the chord melody, then you could dedicate some time tomorrow or this week to working on chord melody exercises.
Simply go to that section of your binder or book shelf and pull out some exercises that you have collected, but maybe not worked through in a while, to work on in the practice room.
One thing I like to do is have a list of 10 or so exercises that I really like in different areas that I am working on, such as improvisation, comping, rhythm-time, chord melody and textures.
Then, if I find that my recording for that day was weak in one or more areas, say textures and rhythm, I then start my practice session the next day by focusing on exercises from my sheet in those areas.
Over the course of a month or so, as I discover new ways to practice this material, I change up the exercises on the sheet to keep things interesting.
So, I have a set number of categories that I need to work on, but the exercises themselves will change over time as I get them down, or just feel the need to inject some more variety in the practice room.
This is also a great thing to have lying around, a list of exercises, for those moments when you want to practice but are tired of your normal routine.
Just grab the sheet and see if you can run through any/all of the exercises over a tune you know to test yourself on these items.
If you can’t do some of them, that will help you decide on what to work on tomorrow, and if you can nail them all then it’s time to change things up on your list by adding new exercises and avoiding falling into a practice-room rut.
Sometimes it may be too difficult to analyze your own playing, as you may be down on your progress, or you find it hard to be self-critical in a positive way.
Also, sometimes we just need an extra push from a teacher or peer in order to get out of a practice rut, or avoid feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information out there to learn.
At these moments you may want to take a lesson or two with a guitar teacher, either in person or online, in order to get a second opinion on where you need to go with your playing.
A lot of players avoid lessons because they feel they are expected to take steady lessons over a long period, but this is not really the case.
In my experience, I have gone to more experienced players for one or two lessons when I needed a little push in my playing, and I have players come to me all the time asking for one or two lessons to help them with their practice routine or to learn a particular subject, getting them off the ground so that they can continue on their own.
If you don’t have access to a teacher, try a friend who plays guitar, or any other instrument for that matter.
Recently I was working on a solo arrangement of Stella by Starlight.
It was coming along but just wasn’t meeting my expectations yet.
So, I went to my friend Tabajara Belo, a Brazilian guitarist, and played him the arrangement. He gave me a few subtle suggestions on the piece that turned out to be just what it needed to become a finished work that I am not preparing to record.
So, you don’t always have to take lessons to get feedback on your playing.
Try talking to a fellow guitarist about what you are having trouble with, or record yourself playing and post it in a jazz guitar forum if you think that might help as well.
The goal is to get some constructive criticism in order to help you figure out where you are in your development, and what is the best plan of attack in the practice room to get you to the next level.
With such a wealth of information available these days, it is easier than ever to have access to an abundance of videos and written-lessons/books on the subject of jazz guitar.
When choosing the right path in the practice room, the best and most important critic/guide is always going to be you and your ears/tastes.
So, this week try and record yourself playing a tune. Then, sit down and see if you can find areas where you are improving, and other areas where you need improvement.
If you use these as a guide in the practice room you will ensure that you are always moving in the right direction, as your ears will help guide you to find the sound they are looking for.
And, if you need a little push along the way, consulting a teacher or peer/friend is always a good way to go.
Have you tried recording yourself and analyzing your playing in order to better your practice routine? If so, share your experiences in the comments box below.
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