Often when I do masterclasses I’m asked by aspiring musicians questions about practicing, which is understandable. They figured I’ve gotten enough together to be invited to give a masterclass, then I MUST know what I doing—at least I’d like to think so.
Practicing, as I explain, means different things depending on where you are in your level of development. In fact, I’ve identified the process as having three tiers.
Tier 1: Practicing to ACQUIRE knowledge and skill sets that enable you to improvise.
Tier 2: Practicing to PLAY great improvisations.
Tier 3: Practicing to GET OUT OF THE WAY OF great improvisations.
Tier 1 is what I refer to as the building blocks stage. This when you’re working out your scales and harmony, vocabulary building, as well as building a repertoire of tunes that will enable you to do a gig. Students at this sometimes sound mechanical and are often without an original approach. This is fine. I’ve often argued that this is where they should be. That stuff is part of the macro. Right now they should be focused on the micro.
Tier 2...this is what I call the practicum. The stage in which you’re taking all that you have an accumulated during Tier 1 and are now trying to weave it together into a comprehensible, perhaps personal form of expression. This is accomplished through both playing and practicing. In some ways, the former is more important than the later. Playing forces you assess in real time, giving you a clearer sense of your strengths and weaknesses, which will, in turn, give more focus to your individual practice. Players during this stage are starting to come into their own and are not just honing skills, but an improvisatory concept. You might say that they’re moving from the micro to the macro.
Tier 3...here, we’re assuming you’ve done your homework, and that all the ducks are in a row for Tiers 1 & 2. This level is more difficult to assess since your now trying to align yourself with the forces of nature rather than forcing your agenda. This level is more about openness, acceptance, and transcendence. It can be more about your state of mind that the state of your chops—not that the latter is not important.
How do you get there? Well, that is the $64,000 Question. The irony is that you get there by not worrying about how to get there. But by being ok with getting there and not getting there. It’s about being beyond getting there, and just being.
The truth of the matter is that the lines between Tier 3, living a spiritually sound life, and getting in touch with the essence of your being become blurred. Sometimes they’re one and the same.
My feeling is that when you do arrive, everyone will notice but you.