How to Frame & Focus Your Practice Routine in 4 Steps

Here’s how you can simply frame and focus your practice routine so you don’t waste your time doing pointless things. I’ll also show you how to get useful feedback to help you with your music.

Here are the 4 steps:

1. Do Music.
2. Get Feedback.
3. Practise. [Art & Craft]
4. Bridge the Gap.

Do Music, Get feedback, Practise

That’s it. Let me explain more.

1. Do Music

You’ve got to DO something first. A gig, a jam session, a rehearsal, some teaching, a recording, playing for your cat, etc.

Start your thinking about practice from here, so that the things you choose to work on have meaning for you right now. It’s all great to think about what you’d like to do in 5 years’ time, but I’d prefer you DO something, rather than make lovely lists.

If you’re NOT doing music, then this is HUGE. Let’s say you’re in a situation where you haven’t got anyone to play with. Then you have to focus on playing FOR. Whom can you play for? A friend, lover, collegue, the Internet, a fish? If you just want to play for yourself, then at least record yourself.

2. Get Feedback

How did it go? You need some feedback on how you’re doing so you can decide what to do.

Here are some ways to get feedback:

  • Ask the people you play with.

So you say, ‘Trish, how was that?’ You’ll probably hear – ‘sounds great…’, or ‘killing, man!’. You won’t hear, ‘you know what, you’re rushing a lot, have you tried [xyz]’. So how do you ask better questions to get useful feedback?

Try this:

‘Hey Trish, I really like your time feel, it sounds great. How did you work on that? I’m working on my time at the moment. I’ve looked at [xyz]. I’m thinking about doing [x]. What would you do? What do you think I should do?’

Hopefully, they won’t say, ‘Fuck you, Kid!’

With the people you play with – talk about them, or your shared interests – they’ll love it. And you’ll be more likely to find a way to get some useful feedback.

  • See a teacher

Let a teacher give you feedback on your playing and practising.

Pick a teacher that listens to you and wants to help you. Be wary of teachers who are always giving out handouts. Ok, handouts might make the student feel like they’re ‘getting’ information, but a teacher’s focus should be on listening to the student, understanding their struggles and giving them what they need. If they’ve done that and then next week they bring a handout, then that’s ok. Those teachers can live… ;)

  • Self-reflect

What do you hear in your music that needs work? What happened on the gig? What happened on the last tune? Listen to a recording. What’s lacking? Sticking points? What are you doing that’s working? What do you hear in the music that you’d like to do, too? Maybe someone has great time, maybe they’ve got interesting harmonic things happening and you want to develop that.

  • Listen to a recording with a bandmate.

This might happen after you’ve recorded an album and you’re mixing, etc. Or maybe you’re on tour or playing regularly with the same people. That’s a great opportunity to talk about the music, what they’re doing, trying to do, and so on. These conversations can get into philosophical depths, for sure. Usually in bars at 6am. Either way, you can learn a lot here.

  • Ask the audience, phone a friend.

Here’s an interesting way to get feedback that nobody does: Film the audience.
Are they listening? Where is their attention? What GETS their attention. Do they look interested or bored. Why?

How you hear your own playing is different depending on whether you’re listening or performing. Notice you’re own biases. Better yet, test them.

Try this:

After a gig, ask yourself – What do I need to work on? Write it down.
Listen/watch a video of your gig – What do I need to work on?
Play the recording to a bandmate – Ask them – What do I need to work on?
Play the recording to a teacher – What do I need to work on?

You’re looking for things you’re not hearing, so you could try saying to your teacher, ‘here’s my performance, I think my main areas to work on are [xyz], is there anything I’m missing?’, or, ‘What do you think is the most important thing for me to work on right now?’.

3. Practice – I divide this into Art and Craft

The Art is the stuff you’ve heard on records & gigs, and maybe the people you play with, too. The things you like, love, want to do. The Craft is the materials.

  • Art 80% – Learn pieces of music.

For me this is where most of my focus is. I’d even go as far as to say, you could ignore EVERYTHING else and just focus on learning tons of music and you’ll be fine.

This is how you’d like to sound. Who inspires you? What do you want to sound like? What kinds of sounds do you want to make? What do you want to do?

*Learn music that you like that addresses the issues you get from Doing Music & Feedback.*

For example, ‘My playing doesn’t sound very rhythmic, I really like what [player x] is doing with rhythm. I’d love to sound like that’.

So learn some music that’ll help with that. A tune or a solo. Go direct to the source. Don’t ‘play learning’ by looking for polyrhythmic exercises and books on rhythm. Dive into what you like, listen to it, learn it, ask the people who played it, listen to what they listen to, ask them what they do. Analyse it as you go. Analyse the bejesus out of it. Find out how it’s pieced together, learn the history, the notes, the rhythm, the form, the harmony, motifs, fingerings, phrasing choices, techniques, etc., etc.

Get Nerdy!

  • Craft 20% – Learn the material.

Technical Toolbox – Scales, Arpeggios, Time, Technical Control, Theory, Ear Training.

Some things arise that can’t be addressed by learning a new piece. Things like knowing the notes on the fretboard, or knowing what notes are in the Db major scale, and so on. The gig will let you know that you need to learn that stuff, too. This is material: scales, arpeggios, chords, keys, ear-training, sight-reading, and so on. It’s all the stuff that isn’t a ‘piece of music’.

I like to do a short practice routine every day that’s around 20 minutes long that touches base on all the craft stuff. I think it’s good to have this sort of material as a regular part of your practice because the rewards are not so obvious. E.g., you might practice hard on learning the notes on the neck, but it doesn’t give you anything to play :) But this sort of practise will work on your ability to see patterns quickly, know where you are on the fretboard, see relationships between things, play with more confidence, and so on.

Honestly, if you’re spending most of your time working on triad permutations and other stuff that nobody who enjoys listening to music cares about, then you’re wasting your time. Fill most of your practice time with actual music. Learn tunes, transcribe & play along with solos, listen to music. 80/20 sounds about right.

Some people like to practise improvising by jamming with Aebersold records, etc. But that feels a bit like hitting a punchbag to me.

4. Bridging the Gap between Art & Craft

How do you get from the Craft of knowing the Altered Scale to the Art of how, say, Michael Brecker uses the Altered Scale in solo [x]?

Can you extract principles that will move your understanding deeper? Invent exercises to simplify, clarify & control whatever you want to work on.

So, let’s say you might have an idea that you’d like to be able to play rhythm changes like Sonny Stitt.

Can you find the Craft in the Art? Or can you find things to practise from a solo so you can deepen your understanding?

How about taking an exercise and working on it so that you can own it and use it creatively?

What can you DO?

1. Do Music

etc.

So once again:

1. Do Music.
2. Get Feedback.
3. Practice.
4. Bridge the Gap.

Now, here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Do you know somebody who might use this information? Do them a favour – Pass it on!
  2. Tell me in the comments below how YOU could use this information for your own practice.