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Practice Routine

Achieving Expert Levels of Performance

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:

  • Novice
  • Amateur
  • Expert
  • Pathfinder

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.

Novice

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.

Amateur

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.

Expert

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.

Pathfinder

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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Further reading

Categories
Jazz Books Keys memorising

Masterless Effortry

I had a painful experience about 25 years ago and I found a really powerful solution that I know will help others and is worth sharing.

I was the pianist in a big band populated mostly by amateur players run by a retired professional trumpet player. We were on a gig in a local town hall and played the first half of our set of arrangements that we had rehearsed. All was going according to plan. And then it happened.

The leader chatting with the audience over the microphone suddenly said: “Any requests?”

Someone shouted back, “Pennies from Heaven”.

Our leader turned to me and said off mic, “Can you play it?”

I shook my head in a mild panic. He looked at me for a few seconds more, then said, through a Cab-Calloway-like smile, “Try.” Before adding, “In Bb.”

With that he turned back to the audience and started to play. He played once through the melody in order to fulfil his contract with the audience member and fashioned a small cadenza on the last chord which I joined him for, knowing it would be Bb. Almost every other chord I played before that was wrong. No matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do because I did not know what I was doing. In short, it was a train crash. For me at least.

In hindsight I displayed “masterless effortry” (an amusing take by a friend of mine on the title of Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery, a book I would not come across for another 15 years or so).

The sense of shame I felt for not being up to the job was extreme. I quickly dealt with that uncomfortable feeling inside my head by blaming the leader (again, inside my head) for taking such an irresponsible risk by creating these unhelpful thoughts:

  • How could he be so rash/stupid/unkind?
  • If I’d had a chord sheet, I could have read it with ease.
  • It was not my fault! No one else in the band could have done it.
  • Why is the job of pianist so much harder than that of any of the other musicians in the band?
  • It would be ridiculous to expect me to know the chords to random jazz standards in whatever key he decides.

If I had read Nick Bottini’s, Just Play book about overcoming our unhelpful thoughts, I may well have handled the thoughts in my head better. Nick recently gave me a free copy of his book for making him laugh on his Wellbeing and Excellence Facebook group with a Limerick:

There was a young man called Bottini

Whose methods were rather unseemly

He’d post up a graphic

With words psychopathic

And host Zoom calls in just a bikini.

But I digress; back to my story: I received sympathetic looks from the rest of the band. We finished the set, packed up and went home. Nothing more was said about it.

Playing in jam sessions I occasionally found similar experiences would occur. I remember being so ashamed of my performance after being called to play on a standard tune I had not learned that I had to leave the building and walk the city centre for half an hour just to calm down. And when accompanying singers, it was often worse because you were lulled into a false sense of security by being given a chord chart in their key that usually turned out to be completely useless.

The Penny Drops

Eventually, I realised that the problem was never going away if I kept expecting the world to change. You can only change yourself and how you respond to the events that come your way:

  • Deal with your internal thoughts: Problems for musicians commonly occur becasue of the stories we tell ourselves in our heads about what other people think of our playing and what they expect of us. Learning to clear this out of the way can remove a massive barrier to our enjoyment of playing music. See the reading list below for a couple of books on the subject.
  • Learn the territory: You need to identify and practice in many keys the chunks of chord progression that occur in the kinds of music you play. If you focus on the perfect voicings of Bill Evans playing with no-one else but his own trio, you will not be well prepared for what the world throws at you. There is so much listening and responding needed in a jazz performance, it is not possible to do if you don’t know the material and impossible if you are reading.

Something had changed. I knew that I wanted to know how to hear and memorise the changes to a song without having them in front of me to read. And I was on a journey to find out how I needed to change in order to achieve it.

I’d never had an experienced jazz teacher who could teach me about the oral tradition, common song forms and how chord progressions work. What I did know, I had mostly taught myself from books. Though I had done quite a lot of transcription, it was of random songs that I liked in order to learn a cool voicing from Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans and I rarely transcribed more than a few bars. And, therefore, I did not get to understand how songs are put together and, thereby, how to hear where a song will probably go next.

Another friend of mine mentioned a book by Conrad Cork about an approach to learning jazz harmony like LEGO bricks that join together to make songs. It was sold by Jazzwise, a UK publisher, at the time. This was in the days of books printed on paper. I read it from cover to cover.

I was hooked because I knew this was the key to the answer to my problem. Not only did it explain the method of analysing and memorising chord progressions in a key-independent manner, but it had at least half of the book dedicated to explaining how jazz should be taught and explained why most teachers from the classical music tradition simply don’t understand how to teach jazz. His approach is based on listening to recordings of the masters and the oral tradition. But also he explains very well the difference in mindset between classical and jazz musicians. One idea that really helped me was the notion that each jazz performance is just a report on progress on playing that song. It is not meant to be some kind of perfectly finished product.

It all made so much sense to me. So much, in fact, that I started to analyse jazz standards using the approach in order that I could analyse and memorise them.

I can be a bit obsessive about things. I soon found that I had analysed over 200 songs using a spreadsheet to build visual roadmaps for each song. It occurred to me that others could benefit from my work and, with Conrad’s blessing, I wrote my own book extending the method and including all the song roadmaps.

Conrad’s book is no longer available. My book was also published in paper form by Jazzwise for a few years, but I decided from the beginning to also publish it myself as a PDF e-book which continues to be a popular form.

Things have moved on since 2009 when I first published my book:

  • PDF e-book is more convenient than paper form because it is electronically searchable. Owners can print out pages should they wish to. Less paper is wasted, sunk costs are reduced and everybody wins.
  • I made a series of free podcasts about the method and examples song analyses.
  • I run a discussion group online where users of the method can share their experiences.
  • Practice charts for the chord “bricks and joins” are available for free on the iRealPro Forum. The iRealPro app can be used with the free charts to learn all the sequences in any key with auto-generated backing tracks.

Pennies from Heaven

So, back to my devastating experience with Pennies from Heaven. What have I learned since then? Well, it is actually one of the simplest jazz standards and its chord progression is very easily memorised in a key-independent way.

Here is the roadmap from my book for the song:

The overview is as follows:

  • The chords are written in the key of C, but once the bricks and joins are understood, can be played in any key.
  • A section: a common jazz turnaround. (Many variants are possible and you can find them by listening to various recordings of this song to see what people play.) Play the turnaround twice and that is the first eight bars covered and the key is firmly established.
  • B section: Cadence to IV followed by the Slow Launcher (II7 V7) that we learn to expect at the end of B sections.
  • A’ section: Starts like the first A section but ends with a cadence to IV like we saw at the beginning of the B section.
  • C section: a “meta brick” over eight bars that is probably the most common sub-sequence in jazz. A variant of this is the last eight bars of the 12-bar blues, so it’s sound will be familar to you for sure.

One of the advantages of this approach is that you are not phased by chord substitutions. It encourages you to think in large chunks of chord progression within which some chords might be substituted, but you still know where you are in the song and where you are going.

As an illustration of how powerful this approach is, take the last eight bars of the chord sequence. This brick is labelled as the “Pennies Ending” after this song it is found in. But it is well worth becoming familiar with because it (or a close variant) is also found in the chords for the following songs:

  • Last eight bars of the blues.
  • The More I See You
  • There’ll Never Be Another You
  • A Weaver of Dreams
  • You Go to My Head
  • I Thought about You
  • It Had to Be You
  • You Turned the Tables on Me
  • Moonglow
  • I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me
  • East of the sun
  • Emily
  • I Fall in Love Too Easily
  • It Could Happen to You
  • It’s You or No-one
  • In a Mellow Tone

Taking this approach allowed me to memorise hundred of jazz standards and retain a trio gig for 12 years before the global pandemic temporarily stopped live music.

If you would like to read more about my book, download sample pages or purchase it, please check out my website. If you would like to read more about handling your own thoughts and emotions which are stopping you playing music, check out the reading list below.

Further reading

Elliott, J, Insights in Jazz, 2009.

Werner, K, Effortless Mastery, Jamie Aebersold Publishing, 1996.

Bottini, N, Just Play, ReThink Press, 2018.