Mistakes I’ve Made and What Really Worked in 2015

red jazz hat

(Was this hat a mistake? You decide)

Hello friends of BTB,

Happy New Year to you, and congratulations on another year successfully completed. I hope it was a good one, and this next even better.

As per tradition, here’s the 2nd annual BTB Year in Review.

Feel free to learn from my mistakes.

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At the beginning of 2015 I set a goal to up my “non-gig day” practice time to four hours per day. My intention with this goal was to seriously ramp up my practice schedule in an effort to make working longer easier, and help me achieve my musical goals more quickly.

I went about achieving this by applying some concepts that had worked well for me in the past; logging time spent practicing, and using written autosuggestion to convince myself I was already doing it.

I logged my practice times for the first three months of the year, as well as regularly writing little notes to myself like, “I easily practice four hours per day,” and, “I easily manage four hours of practice per day,” etc.

After a few months, I started feeling anxious about achieving this goal, and playing in general. This was due partly to the fact that my goal had little to do with what I actually wanted out of playing, and was more or less a “get rich quick scheme,” and part (most) caused by caffeine withdrawal.

In 2015 I decided to wean myself off of caffeine, a process taking 7 painful months. I let this become my #1 priority, allowing all else to fall by the wayside. I figured it didn’t matter how much I practiced if I was a miserable junkie.

During the weaning off, I also decided that I’d feel much better if I bailed out on my arbitrary practice goal. I was afraid of being a failure, but I did it anyway.

And I’m sure glad I did, because now I feel way better. And as it turns out, desperately trying to fill all that practice time wasn’t a complete waste, as I found a ton of things that didn’t work, plus a few that did.

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At the outset, timing my practice sessions did help me get the ball rolling. But as a long-term recipe for growth, it didn’t last. In the past, I’ve found that tracking frequency of practice (rather than volume) worked much better at motivating me to keep it up. For example, rather than saying, “I practiced improvisation for 22 minutes today,” you could just tally up how many times, or consecutive days you sit down, and work on a selected problem for at least a few minutes. Make those tallies readily visible, and it’ll be easier to keep it going over longer time-frames.

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I focused on jazz improvisation this past year because I think it’s awesome, and want to do it at a high level. While I’ve always felt I could be a strong improviser, I failed to practice it because I was scared of sounding bad, I didn’t believe certain practice suggestions would work, or I just couldn’t stand practicing them (mostly the scared part). Therefore, I decided that what I had to do was find a way of learning that was doable for me (and worked).

During lots of trial and error, I spent a fair amount of time transcribing from record to horn, which didn’t work well for me. Essentially, I’d hear something and say, “Yeah, man. That super-windy, chromatic line sounds hip, man.” Then in my jazzed excitement, I’d reach for the horn and start wiggling my fingers around until I found the right notes. Once I “figured it out,” I’d play through it in a few keys, and then try to applying it over a few tunes.

I did this for a number of very cool bits of vocabulary, and remember exactly zero of them.

Had I spent more time with each line could have done wonders for my playing? Sure. But I wasn’t about to sit around and wait for that magic moment (give me some quick wins or I’m out), and playing through melodies which are not already solid in my mind’s ear makes my chops feel like crap (anything that does that doesn’t stick around too long).

What did work pleasantly well to improve my improvisation were two things; systematic listening, and playing by ear over a single Jamey Aebersold track (ii-V7-I track in all keys).

As far as the systematic listening went, I made it a point to listen to a track I enjoy twice through while leaving my horn in the case. A practice I dubbed, “horn-in-case listening.”

The reason for repeated listening was to help me internalize the sounds from the records more thoroughly. The idea behind leaving the horn in the case was to help alleviate a nervous habit of frantic noodling.

I’ve been learning that (largely, right now) I need to just listen to the records, and my wanting to jam along was a tiring distraction. I found that just by unencumbered listening; those bits of the music I could sing along with the recording had a direct influence on my improvised lines without any additional practice.

The reason I committed to playing the same Jamey Aebersold track for 6 months or so was per the suggestion of Kenny Werner in his book, “Effortless Mastery.” It made sense in my head that learning something so thoroughly would be good for you, but I don’t think I still fully appreciate the positive effect this had on my improvisation skills.

I literally just played by ear to the same track, whenever I felt like it, on the days that I felt like it, for about 10 to 20 minutes total (broken up into smaller bits of time). If I caught myself trying to “pull off” some licks I knew, or was clamming through a bunch of wrong notes, I’d sit the horn down and listen to the changes go by. At the start, I was pretty terrible, and focused on just a few notes here and there. I also become aware of how anxious I was while improvising. Because of this, I didn’t worry too much about what I was playing (if it’s by ear, it’s good), and rather focused on the process of becoming more comfortable, and relaxed while playing by ear.

I also frequently recorded myself (playing in about five minute chunks), and listened back immediately, following the suggestion of a friend who said, “Record yourself, and listen to it. It does something to your brain.” This act alone led to massive developments in my technique, and content of my lines.

An interesting point is that in the beginning, I thought I might like to transcribe some of the lines that I was improvising with my voice while singing along to the record. I didn’t do this, which largely proved irrelevant, and after a while, I learned that if you regularly play by ear, any melodies you can now sing are simply a pre-screening of what you’ll one day be able to play on your instrument.

Another fun fact is that once a line came out naturally in one key, it magically worked its way into the others, without my needing to shed it. This is good news, because I can’t think of many things more painful than practicing licks over and over again in all 12 keys. I’ve done it, and not only was it awful; I didn’t find that it readily improved my ability to improvise.

These points are important to me because I used to think anyone who said, “just improvise” was either full of it, or forgot what they actually practiced to get where they are (I know, I know…). But as it turns out, yeah, just by listening to the masters, and playing by ear, you somehow learn to play great music.

Thank you, human brain.

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I also spent about 7 months practicing extremely slow, long-tone-esque lip slurs for about 20 min to an hour and a half per practice day. Each slur had only two or three notes (Ex: C-E-C). They were mostly in the staff (very rarely above top of staff G), played super slow, without a metronome, with the most I-don’t-care-what-it-sounds-like attitude I could muster up. I just listened to each note, and if it centered, I slurred to the next, if not, I didn’t. I did it as many days as I could (even on gig/rehearsal days), unless I was really hating it, or needed a break.

The decision to focus on lip slurs in this way was a reflection of success I’ve had in the past practicing one fundamental trumpet skill I considered to be a weak link for 6 months to a year (rather than a more comprehensive daily routine). I like this style of practice because a) it’s worked for me, and b) when you walk into the practice room, there is no question about what needs to be done.

Still, while first looking back, it seemed astounding that I had the patience to do this. I now realize that the reason I was able to pull it off was because I told myself that I only needed to do it until I split town for a seven week tour. With the end in sight, it was easier to force myself to do it even though I didn’t want to.

And yes, it was boring. However, my playing as a whole just kept getting better. My sound in the staff was warming up, and my lines were sounding more fluid. From a physical sensation standpoint, the carefree attitude I was putting into this opened me up a lot. It helped me internalize the sensation of playing in all registers with an open feeling in the throat. And even though I was practicing in such a narrow range of the horn, the sensation of the trumpet being “one inform thing,” was really taking root, as well as my ability to control the sound more in all registers, making it possible to play with what I’d call a “dark” sound in the upper register.

Another cool development is that somehow, out of all of this, my aperture started feeling more uniform and comfortable while playing lead trumpet. In the past, as I ascended or got tired, there would be subtle changes in my aperture as a way of compensation. These days I’m more often playing lead on a more “together” setting which I find suits my personal preference in sound better.

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Reviewing all of this, one of the major “big picture” lesson that I’m taking away from 2015 is that complex plans don’t work. And experience keeps trying to teach me that if a plan is not childishly simple, it’s best left alone.

To show you what I mean, here’s an example of a brilliant mastermind plan I came up with for transcribing, and learning new jazz vocabulary.

1. Like a jazz line
2. Listen to it 20x
3. Can I sing it note-for -note rubato? If so, move on, if not, listen another 20x
4. Transcribe in head by interval, one note to the next
5. Sing line to tempo with recording
6. Sing along with recording, and other tunes
7. Shed line to tempo on instrument
8. Apply to other tunes using instrument
9. You now know the sh*t out of that line

Thorough, right? Also not a good plan for me. I tried once, and gave up that day since it was such a drag.

(Side note: Think about a child in elementary school rapidly learning new vocabulary every day. How are they doing it? This plan is ridiculous.)

And in fact, most of the things that didn’t work in 2015, didn’t work because I did not do them.

By way of contrast, these three plans kicked major butt in 2015:

1. Listen to jazz I like repeatedly, with my trumpet in the case
2. Record and listen back to myself playing by ear to Jamey Aebersold’s ii-V-I track in all 12 keys, whenever I feel like it
3. Practice super slow, super easy lip slurs, as much as I can reasonably handle, until Nov. 12

Make your plans simple. You will do them. You will get results.

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Here’s another powerful thing I learned in 2015.

Rest is good.

As far as my logs show (which were admittedly not very detailed this year, and I took a 3 months hiatus from logging during the whole caffeine thing) the most consecutive days I took off from playing was 4 days. On the fifth day, I made a special note of how good my chops felt. In fact, each time I took one or two days off, I mentioned the following day in my notes how much better I felt.

While on a 7 week holiday tour, I took every “day off” from our show completely off of the horn, with the exception of one. This came out to be 12 or 13 days off the horn over a 7 week run (almost 2 of 7 weeks completely off). On show days, I played about 15-20 minutes before the gig, and then played the show (which is pretty screamin’). This was the best my chops have felt maybe ever.

For the year, I would say a conservative estimate is that I took two months completely off the horn (spread out over the year), and it felt great.

Yes, I still occasionally get worried about taking time off.

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After reading this article, and watching this video, I decided to change my right hand technique from this…

PHOTO A

to this….

PHOTO B

At first it was a little weird, but after a few months it’s really starting to feel a better way to work the valves, as well as alleviating a little toward-face mouthpiece pressure.

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Going forward, I’d like to take a more general look at my learning as a musician, and work to find a way that my growth fits more seamlessly into my life. I will continue along, centering my practice around jazz improvisation, and developing my chops so I can play lead the way I want to.

My practice plans will be constructed more from the perspective of making the plan simple.

I will also plan each idea for practice with an end date in mind. “I’ll do this as my routine on non-gig days for four weeks. At that point I reserve the right to change any aspect of it.”

I will record myself more.

I will be resting more. Over the last 4 years or so I’ve hit the practice hard to settle some fundamental issues. I now want to take more time off the horn and relax for awhile.

I will get at least two lessons this year from some of the heavies in town. I live in Los Angeles for crying out loud.

If you made it this far, thank you.

James Blackwell