How and What to Practice

Updated: Sep 29

By Wes Perry

Practicing is what musicians do to achieve mastery on their instrument. While this can be an arduous process, it can be quite rewarding. Practicing is critically important to the jazz musician, as this is how we are able to express ourselves freely and play the things we wish to play without being limited by the technical challenges of our instrument. This blog post will discuss two aspects of practicing: How to practice and what to practice.

First, the how:

1. Get your instrument out of the case! One of the hardest things about practicing is getting started. The act of getting our instrument out of the case, looking at it, and touching it makes it so that we have to play it. Even if we only have a few moments to play it, that’s a few more moments that you spent on your instrument, and a few moments that you have improved by. Those moments may not seem like much, but over time, they add up to make a big difference.

2. Deliberately: Practicing deliberately – that is, with intent and focus - is the best way to see the biggest improvement on your instrument. As stated before, when you practice, your goal is to master the most challenging aspects of your instrument, allowing you to express yourself to the fullest. Deliberate practice requires three things: the use of a metronome, attention to detail, and a lot of patience. When using a metronome for practicing a tricky passage, set it to the tempo in which you can play every note evenly and cleanly. This may involve playing a passage so slow that it may feel insulting, but this is the only way that you will improve. Once you can play it cleanly at the slow tempo, move the metronome up incrementally, until you can play the passage at the written tempo. During this time, if you feel like you are not sounding your best, then you are doing it right. Congrats!

3. Goal-oriented: Practicing can feel a lot more rewarding when you have a set of goals in mind. Maybe you want to learn all of the major scales in 12 keys, or you want to tackle that really difficult solo transcription. Perhaps, you have a piece you would like to perform at an upcoming recital. Whatever it is, working with a goal in mind is a great way to stay motivated, and when you have achieved those goals, you will be that much better on your instrument!

Now that we have discussed how to practice, here is what to practice. The things I discuss here are mainly from a saxophonist’s perspective, but can be applied to different instruments:

a) Scales and arpeggios – Mastering scales and arpeggios in 12 keys is of utmost importance. When practicing scales and arpeggios, play them the full range of the instrument. Start by learning major scales and the arpeggios that accompany it. Once you have mastered those, learn the melodic minor scale (major scale with a b3), then natural minor (b3, b6, b7) and harmonic minor (b3, b6, natural 7). Another thing to try is scales in thirds (e.g. C, E, D, F, etc.) Scales and arpeggios are key (no pun intended) to technical mastery and freedom. For these, remember – DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

b) Long Tones – Practicing long tones with a tuner or a drone is important to improving tone and intonation as a horn player. Looking at a tuner (or with a drone set), play the clearest and most free-blowing note on your instrument (for saxophonists, I recommend starting on middle B). When playing this note, pay attention to two things:

  1. The tone quality of the note. Is it stuffy and dull, or is it vibrant and ringing? If it is stuffy and dull, see if you can make the note ring more by experimenting with different vowel shapes (ee instead of oo) until you get a more ringing tone quality.

  2. The intonation – looking at your tuner, is the needle in the middle of the pitch? Is it above? Is it below? Is it wavering between the two? Ideally, we want the needle to be right in the middle of the tuner. If you are using a drone, listen to the pitch that is playing, and as you play, try to match the intonation of the drone pitch; that is, there should be no “beats” (the sound that results from the two close frequencies competing for your ears’ attention) as you play.

  3. Once you have completed these steps on the first note, repeat the process, descending chromatically until you reach the bottom note of your instrument. Once you have done this, start at the first note, and ascend chromatically. Throughout the exercise, try to get the tone quality of your notes to match the tone quality you worked for on that first note. This will improve intonation and evenness of tone.

3. Listen, listen, listen! – Listening to the best musicians on your instrument is both entertaining and inspiring. Hearing the greats play can shed light on many aspects of your own playing, such as sound concept (tone), style, repertory (a fancy name for tunes) and the effects of deliberate practice. And now, with streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, and even YouTube, these recordings are more accessible than ever! To get the most out of this, I recommend listening to jazz as often as possible. Here is a list of musicians that I recommend:

  • Charlie Parker

  • Dexter Gordon

  • John Coltrane

  • Joe Henderson

  • Dizzy Gillespie

  • Miles Davis

  • and more!

Not all of the musicians that I have listed are saxophone players, but they all have all made monumental contributions to jazz.

This is a lot of material, but this is what it takes to see marked improvement on your instrument. Visit the SoCal Jazz Academy blog regularly for updates and stay tuned for another post about improvisation!

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