I’ve been thinking about writing one of my articles about jazz harmony, may be transcribing some tricky jazz piano arrangement by Bill Evans or Kenny Barron and then analysing and explaining what they were were doing and may have been thinking. But then I started reading about the way we improve our performance skills and how important it is to leave our comfort zones in order to grow. So, I decided to do just that and write a blog about a 10,000-foot view of the path to becoming a better jazz pianist, based on some scientific research, of course. Further reading is suggested at the end of this article.
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Is talent a myth?
A paper by Ericsson in 1993 suggested that deliberate practice can be used to achieve epert levels of performance across a variety of fields. This is where the famous “10,000 hours rule” idea made famous in a book by Malcom Cladwell came from. The original scientific paper reported dispassionately on their findings. Cladwell’s book went beyond the evidence to claim that talent is a myth and anyone can become an expert performer if they put the hours in.
You can read about about the clash between these two authors in 2014 and draw your own conclusions about whether talent is a myth and persistant, directed hard work is all that is needed to perform at expert levels. However, the key takeaway is that intelligent practice can lead to dramtic improvement in performance. Efforts to debunk the original science failed in 2019. As one of the authors said: “Do I believe that practice is everything and that the number of hours alone determine the level reached? No, I don’t,” he said, adding that the quality of practice, teachers and parental support all matter too. “But I still consider deliberate practice to be by far the most important factor.”
Levels of mastery
There is another book by J De Flander (2019) that proposes there are four levels of mastery:
His premise is that through the harnessing of passion, persistence and ‘deep practice’, we can achieve greatness. This certainly seems to be the way musicians reach expert level. More below about the levels.
This is a discovery phase. Perhaps you can remember the first time you pressed a piano key and the fascination you had with your ability to make musical sounds. The emphasis at this stage is on play. You will get better while ever it remains fun and you are discovering new things: how to make higher and lower notes; how to make more than one sound at once; how to make louder or softer sounds. There is an awful lot that can be learned by play, and this always remains true. There is no need for a teacher since curiosity drives us on and simplicity means that we can both experiment and evaluate by ourselves. All that matters is that it makes us feel good. But if your interest is not constantly triggered, you will drop out and progression to the next level will not happen.
You have found a way to motivate yourself. At this next level, there is a lot to be gained by repetition. By repeating something we like the sound of, we rapidly achieve an acceptable level of performance. Progress is in proportion to the amount of time we spend practicing. Its an exciting time. Many school children have been through this. Teachers often treat all their pupils the same at this level telling them to practice what they consider to be the syllabus for mastering their particular instrument.
For jazz piano, this is more difficult since there is no agreed syllabus. However, those interested might want to check out the book by Santisi which claims to be based on the Berklee College jazz piano syllabus.
However, there is a risk of progress slowing down; you keep practicing but improvement is no longer directly proportional to time spent. Once acceptable performance has been reached, a new approach is needed. To reach the Expert level, we need to learn to push ourselves in the direction we individually need.
Those at the expert level have discovered ‘deep practice’. Objective assessment of performance against an ideal model is used to identify what the performer lacks and to design practice routines to remidy. This is either done by a teacher or the performer themselves.
According to De Flander, these are the top three percent in their field. They have absorbed all the available knowledge and have a unique style. They need to find their own way of moving forward, perhaps by innovating in their field or by helping others.
Doing, not knowing
The evidence is that knowing a shed load of stuff about how performance is achieved does not make you any better a performer. It does not matter how many books you own about jazz harmony and jazz improvisation if you never practice. Equally, there is little benefit in practicing stuff which someone who has never met you tells you to practice because your practice needs to be tailored to you. This is why, beyond Amateur level, you cannot achive expert jazz performance by using ‘cookie cutter’ exercises from books or YouTube videos. The key to success is finding out what you as an individual need to improve and fixing it. And this is hard to do alone, so I recommend you seek out a mentor who knows about jazz performance. You might well need different teachers for different aspects of your playing, e.g. one to tell you how to play your instrument with the least physical strain and another to tell you how to perform jazz.
Application to jazz performance
As mentioned above, we need to develop skill through practice. But we first need to identify what skills we lack and then devise a practice plan to achieve our goals. But how do we discover what skill we lack? The best way is to have a teacher, coach or mentor who can evaluate your performance objectively. They should be experts themselves since they need to compare their ‘mental representation’ of what good performance sounds like to our current execution abilities.
As we become more expert ourselves, we learn to use recordings of the jazz masters to create our own ‘mental representation’ of authentic jazz. Using this model, we continuously self assess and edit our performance to be as authentic as we can manage, remembering that every performance is a ‘report on work in progress’, so we should not be ashamed to perform. This is not classical music where each performance sounds very much like the last; jazz is very different and should be assessed as such.
I would suggest the aspiring expert level jazz musician make practice plans along the following lines:
- Develop skilll through practice: Set clear goals and practice things outside of your “comfort zone”, e.g. faster tempos, unfamiliar keys. However, ensure that you succeed 50-80% of the time in order to ensure that you keep motivated. For example, if right now you find it hard to play everything in all keys, either simplify what you are practicing or play it in fewer keys for now and introduce a key a week or a key a month; whatever is right for you. Again, this has to be tailored to you, not off-the-shelf exercises.
- Spend lots of time listening to the masters. You need to do this in order to develop your ‘mental representational’ model of authentic jazz. It is this that you will use to edit your performance to sound more authentic as you go. I find that if I listen a couple of hours’s good jazz CDs in the car, my playing is instantly improved for a while without any further practice because my mental model of authentic jazz has been refreshed.
- Learn the territory: Chess Masters are able to play blindfold multiple games at a time. This is because they are totally familiar with the territory. The easily memorise the board positions because they have seen the component they are made of many times before. It is the same for jazz performers playing jazz standards. You can serve your 10,000 hours learning hundreds of jazz standards until you know the common chord progression components that you encounter, or you can read my book where it is all laid bare. I spent the hours analysing more than a couple of hundred songs so you don’t have to.
- Gap analysis: Use impartial assessment to identify the gaps between your performance and authentic jazz. Perhaps record yourself and listen later or find an expert mentor or coach.
It has been said that there are four levels of mastery: Novice, Amateur, Expert and Pathfinder. Most performers manage to progress from Novice to Amateur by sustaining their enjoyment of playing with the newfound skill. Many languish at the Amateur level for lack of a mentor. A teacher or even YouTube videos can show what to spend time practicing and allows the student to reap dividends as the rate of improvement seems proportional to time spent practing at this level.
However, reaching the next level, Expert, requires “deep practice.” Either the student needs to be mature enough to analyse their own performance, compare it with a clear mental representation of a great performance and devise a practice plan to bridge the gap, or they need a mentor to help assess their performance and adivise them what to do. This article has focussed on how to move from amateur to expert level since this is where most jazz players need help.
The top level of performance (Pathfinder or Innovator) is much more up to the individual. This level is about finding your own path, and while a coach or mentor would undountedly be useful, it will be much more difficult to find one who has the eperience you are looking for as you strike out on your own.
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- Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363
- Ericsson, A, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, 2016. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak:_Secrets_from_the_New_Science_of_Expertise
- Gladwell, M, Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_(book)
- Ray Santisi, Beeklee Jazz Piano, Berklee Press, 1993.
- De Flander, J, The Art of Performance, 2019. https://jeroen-de-flander.com/art-of-performance/
- Elliott, J, Insights In Jazz, 2009. www.dropback.co.uk