A reader recently wrote in the following question:
I used to play classical guitar, then stopped for a couple of years, and am now trying to teach myself jazz guitar. Here’s the thing: I’m a college student. Between classes, homework, and work, it’s hard to get in practice time. What would you recommend working on the most if I only have maybe 30-45 minutes a day? Sometimes it’s difficult knowing where to start/what to do…
I think most people can relate to this reader’s question. Being crunched for time is just how it is these days. Not to worry. You can still make huge positive leaps in your playing with very little time.
Scope and depth
The concept of scope and depth relates to how broad and deep a selection of anything may be. With regards to practicing, scope has to do with how many topics we choose to cover during any given practice session and depth describes how deeply we study each of these particular topics.
Most people’s practice sessions tend to be broad in scope and shallow in depth. For instance, they’ll attempt to tackle tone exercises, dozens of scales in all keys, five new tunes, and what ever else they can cram into an hour! On top of that, the method they approach each of these topics with may be completely inefficient. For example, most people tend to learn new tunes from play-along recordings as opposed to learning them off the record, or they make one of these other 6 disastrous mistakes.
A person who practices this way feels good about what they have done because they think they’ve put in their dedicated time into improving, however, sheer time in the practice room does not measure how much that practice benefits you. Let me repeat that: Time in does not directly correlate to benefit obtained.
To have truly beneficial practice, scope must decrease and depth must increase. In an interview with Marian McPartland, Bill Evans expressed:
“If you play too many things at one time [while practicing], your whole approach will be vague. You won’t know what to leave in and what to take out. Know very clearly what you’re doing and why. Play much less, but be very clear about it. It’s much better to spend 30 hours on one tune than to play 30 tunes in one hour.”
Heed Bill Evans’ advice. Reduce scope. Increase depth.
No distractions. Period.
If you have only 30-45 minutes a day to spend practicing, the way you spend that time is extremely important. Treat it like gold. Turn your phone off. Log out of email, Facebook, and any other time-sucks. You don’t need a snack or anything else. Focus.
In some respect, having so little time is an advantage. People who have plenty of time in a day often have trouble finishing what they need to because they say to themselves, “I’ll just do it later, ” and it never gets done. With a specific amount of allotted time for a given task, you’re forced to do it. Knowing the start and end times helps motivate you through the entire process, all the way to completion.
The most efficient practice plan
Ok, so you’ve limited your distractions, you understand the value of your time, and you know you want to make the most of it. Time to reduce your scope and increase your depth as much as possible. In fact, reduce your scope to one topic. One topic? Really? Yes. One. That’s it.
The idea is to simplify. Simplify so much that you create a practice space where you have no other choice but to obtain mastery over one small thing. Forget how much you think there is to learn and pretend that the one thing you’re working on is the only thing to work on in the world.
Your first topic of practice
The best way to learn jazz is to spend time with the recordings of your heroes. The first topic you choose for your single-topic-practice-plan should be a solo (one of your heroes on your instrument) that absolutely floors you and is wihthin your technical ability. Look for high gain solos, meaning solos that contain a lot of accessible and applicable jazz language. It’s easy to tell upon first hearing if there is a lot of language and concepts to absorb from a solo.
A great solo/tune combo to begin with is over a blues because the melodies are easily learned, lines are easily extracted, and you already know the general chord changes. Specifically addressing the reader who wrote in the question, I don’t play guitar (yet), but when I start learning to play, I would start with a Wes Montgomery solo because I love listening to him play. I would choose a solo like the one that follows because it meets the requirements I previously specified, as well as a few others:
- It’s over a blues
- It contains a lot of jazz language that seems easily accessible and applicable
- It’s not too long
- It’s not too technically challenging (although not easy)
- I really love listening to it! (This is the most important. You gotta love it if you’re to spend so much time with it and it’s going to become a part of you)
Please do not think I’m telling you what solo to specifically work on. Choosing what solos you internalize is a personal process. This is merely a solo I would select. Who you choose to be influenced by is your decision.
After choosing your tune/solo and ensuring it meets all the previous requirements, listen to the track any moment you get. Any waking moment you have that’s not occupied, simply listen to the track. It’s as easy as hitting play.