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10 March 2013


How much should traditional jazz musicians practise?
Obviously, when you are in the early stages of mastering your instrument and learning tunes, a great deal of practice is needed. But after you reach an acceptable standard and play regularly in a band, do you really need to practise at home every day? If so, for how long?

I don’t think there is a ‘right’ answer. But let me pass on some observations.

Sometimes I come across musicians who consider themselves so clever that they have no need to practise. They arrive at a gig saying with pride, ‘This is the first time I’ve had this instrument out of its case since we last played here a month ago!'

In 1958, when the internationally-renowned Fodens Motors Brass Band was giving a concert in Hyde Park, London, I asked their principal cornet player Edward Gray how much he practised. This man was one of the very best cornet players in the world at the time. ‘Two hours every day,’ he answered. Yes, he still felt he needed that amount of practice in order to stay at the top.

And in New Orleans, I have learned from conversations with them that the great contemporary young traditional jazz musicians regard daily practice as very important. Even on days when he has to head off to two or three gigs, the trombonist Charlie Halloran always begins with a warm-up session at home. James Evans, one of the greatest reed players, told me he still works very hard at his playing in order to do well amidst so much competition. And Barrie Marshall told me: 'When I went to New Orleans some years ago, Orange Kellin was in town and had the flat above us. You could hear him playing every day, lots of scales and arpeggios'.

The Wihan String Quartet – one of the world’s greatest – told me that, whenever possible, they treat their practice like an office job: they assemble at 9am and work solidly on their quartets until lunchtime. After that, they are free to go to their separate activities and engagements, which include giving music lessons.

Like many trying to play traditional jazz, I am self-taught and I often wonder what I missed by not having a musical education. My guess is that those young people who studied music in colleges (such as many of the younger generation playing in New Orleans today) were taught how to make the best use of time spent in practice. They must have experienced coaching such as the rest of us can only imagine. I guess they were put through skilfully-designed drills, routines and exercises.

Most of us have to make do with what we can devise for ourselves and a few tips picked up along the way. Here are some pieces of advice that have been passed to me by good musicians:

(1) If you have trouble with a small segment of a tune, play it over and over again – just that segment – until you manage it comfortably. Come back to it the following day, and repeat.

(2) Do not practise continuously. Take short breaks between exertions.

(3) 'It’s not enough to practise something until you get it right. You must practise it until you never get it wrong.’ This comment was made by Erich Höbarth - one of the very best classical violinists in the world, whom I once had the pleasure of meeting.

(4) You may think you should spend half your time playing exercises (e.g. scales and arpeggios) and the other half working on tunes and improvisations. But one very fine classical pianist told me exercises can be boring and can discourage us from practising. She said you can find all the exercises you need within the music itself, if you select tunes that are sufficiently challenging.
Having said all that, I must end with a confession: I find it very difficult to motivate myself to practise.