That’s by far the most common question asked by students of jazz. I mean, learning jazz is no small feat. There’s a ton that goes into it. There are thousands of books, articles, lessons, DVDs and websites dedicated to learning jazz. There’s just a mountain of information to go through. Let’s talk about a few ways to make your practice choices much, much easier.
There are several things you want to consider when you’re putting together your jazz improvisation practice routine. First of all, your present abilities will weigh heavily on these choices. As a general rule you want to make sure that whatever you are practicing is challenging but doable. In other words, success with the practice topic needs to be within the realm of possibility. If you are a relative newbie to jazz you don’t want to be working on ridiculously hard tunes like Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Count Down, or working on some wacky odd time signatures, or blazing up-tempo playing, etc.
On the flip side if you’re an advanced intermediate player you don’t want to be practicing the same stuff like etudes or exercises you’ve already got nailed. You want to be sure that the material is pushing you out of your comfort zone. But not by too much. Again, challenging but doable. Another major consideration is your long-term goals with music. What kind of music do you want to play? What music do you like? What players do you dig? What styles do you want to master and take further? I’m all for being well rounded but the fact is you can’t master it all. In fact you can only master a few things.
Now, there are 6 fundamental areas that make up the core of your musical training. This stuff comes from my friend and mentor, Hal Crook, a badass trombone player and an equally skilled teacher I met at Berklee. They are as follows:
1. Instrumental Technique- this is control of your axe. Topics to study would include, arpeggios, scales, scale patterns, accent patterns, range, articulation, dynamics, rudiments, coordination, etc.
2. Etudes- These are any classical or jazz pieces written for your instrument and designed to bring the instrumental techniques together into a musical setting relating to execution, technique, expression and interpretation.
3. Sight-reading- this is, of course, the ability to read new material at will. You can choose appropriate material each day to hone and practice your sight-reading skills. This material could include rhythmic sight reading, reading lines with no rhythms, chords, classical pieces, music written for an instrument other than your own, etc.
4. Repertoire- jazz is a language of music built on and around tunes. You should constantly seek to expand your repertoire by learning tunes from the whole library: standards, jazz tunes and modern tunes.
5. Ear-training- this is your ability to recognize musical elements by ear (pitch, harmony, rhythms, forms, articulation, dynamics etc) and respond on your instrument.
6. Improvisation- this is what it’s all about–creating art in real time. Topics for improvisation would include chord-scale soloing, rhythmic values, phrase lengths, pacing, motive development, etc. Again, I’m gonna plug Hal here. Check out his books, “How to Improvise” and “Ready, Aim, Improvise” for a comprehensive list of improvisational topics and exercises to master them.
Now let’s talk briefly about two of the most important areas. Technique and improvisation. Technique is most important in the beginning and intermediate stages of your development. There is just no way around it. You gotta have control of your instrument in order to become a player. Now many cats continue to practice technical exercises, even after they have already achieved technical mastery. But the closer to the beginning you are as a player, the more technique heavy your practice sessions will be.