“I’m just going to take 5 minutes and warm up. I have to; we had a day off.”
– Pat Metheny
I love watching my musical idols warm up.
It’s rare to come across. Maybe you’re attending a clinic and they warm up in front of you. Maybe you find that rare clip on YouTube. But mostly, all we see is the result of their hard work, not the details of their labor.
What book(s) should I practice from?
It’s a question I’m asked weekly. And I get it. I used to ask it. There are hundreds of books promising excellent technique, better licks, and secrets to sounding like the masters. So it often feels like if you just knew which books were the right ones, you’d be off to the races.
There’s a deluge of video tutorials on YouTube, too. And nowadays, you’re likely to find books and/or videos titled things like “129 Licks Every Jazz Musician Must Know!”
Sounds appealing. Who wouldn’t want those secrets?
Trouble is, this is not the path taken by our heroes. (At least, not my heroes.)
And look, this is not about bashing books. I have plenty of them myself. And I refer to them at different times for ideas and inspiration. But, here’s the thing: I’m not concerned with reading through the book. I’m concerned with lifting the concept and then working it out in my head.
Great players discover and create practice ideas for themselves based on things they can’t do yet or want to do better.
They know it’s about addressing their deficiencies and getting to a relaxed state on their instrument in order to be available mentally and physically to improvise with clarity and intention. And to have the dexterity to go places they’ve not yet imagined.
These videos of Pat Metheny warming up offer an invaluable look into the mind of a master as he prepares himself to improvise.
Pat Metheny warms up
In this clinic for a group in Italy, you’ll notice Metheny cycling through various chords, intervals, and tempos as he relaxes his mind and locks in his fingers. The secret here is not what he is playing but how he is playing it. Take notes.
The major takeaway is mindfulness.
Because he’s not working from a book or checklist, he is (likely) more present, focused, and connected to his inner musical compass.
A terrible thing can happen when practicing from a book: your mind wanders because you believe the information is all in front of you.
You are more likely to stay mindful of your sound and technique if you are consciously deciding what you are about to do next–with your ears, not your eyes.
Pat Metheny plays the blues with a metronome on 2 & 4
In this early nineties clinic, Metheny plays a face-meltingly-awesome blues accompanied by nothing more than a metronome. Listen to how he makes that “click” groove!
And through all of this, notice how he always sounds like Metheny, not some practice-room version of himself. His sound and time feel are always happening.
He’s not just practicing, he’s practicing sounding good.
Next time you reach for a book to practice from, ask yourself what it is you’re searching for. What do you hope to glean from that book? Now, try grabbing one idea from the book….and closing it. Work that one idea — with a metronome — over and over. Close your eyes. Be in your mind. Think of a baker kneading dough. Over and over. Exhaust that one idea. See if you feel a different level of depth when you’re done.
And remember the time–the way you make whatever it is you play feel–is what truly sticks with the listener. The more comfortable you are with one single idea, the more you can relax and focus on the delivery (where you place that idea in time).
Always allocate some practice time to practicing sounding good.
Remember: your goal as an improviser is to deliver music spontaneously. It’s not a recital where you’re performing a written piece of music. To develop those skills, you need to invest time practicing things without a book in front of you.
If you’re a member of my Virtual Studio, check out the lesson Make It FEEL Good: Do This To Get Better At Keeping Your Place And Landing Your Phrases In The Pocket
Jim Foster (San Francisco) says
One of the most practical pieces of information regarding playing an instrument, and how to get good at it, that I’ve heard in quite awile. This bit of practical advice which you ofer here, if taken seriously enough, would just about put many of our publishers of music-practice books out of business.
daniel dwerryhouse says
fantastic! first to play by ear is one of the most important advice you can give to a student. Second
now when i practice i try to put always some good feel. thank you!!!!
Tom Schneider says
Played all through high school and college and became a very solid player that covered some studio, big band, and musical work. I was married and went into musical retirement. 12+ years later I started gigging again playing mainly R&B/Funk and anything else local bands could dig up. One area that I really realized was missing from my “formal” music education was the importance of ear training. Try stepping on to a gig with no charts with the instructions of just play the horn lines like the original. I’ve been back and gigging for over 10 years now and I try not to write too much down other than notes so my 49 year old brain does not forget too much. The rest is all about connecting to the horn and developing my ear. Great stuff Bob!!!
great material! and one of the things i’m trying (and struggling hard) to get better at at the moment – just playing by yourself (with or without a metronome) and make it swing and sound good..
there is another great video of pat doing this from the same clinic as the ‘turnaround’ one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SBoV0c0JVo – playing ‘all the things you are’
thanks for the input, bob!!
My best playing is when the rhythm section is in my head keeping time, free’s you up to hear better.
Certainly can’t argue with Pat’s amazing musicianship. But there is value in using written material as inspiration and as a source of new ideas. Unless one is already at a pretty high level of mastery, all kinds of input are useful to feed one’s creativity. Using “outside” sources requires a musician to try things he might not be able to come up with on his own – whether they are technical, rhythmic, harmonic, etc. I agree that you don’t want too much of your mental bandwidth used up by your concentration on the page, but the (in your words) “mindful” use of books, audio, video etc is probably essential for developing all of your musical skills.
Awesome video of Pat Methany, liked this last interview Bob,the Spielberg, Kenny Gee & JM one!
Thanks for your help on the forum, still working one being able to improv.
Cheers & Ciao
Karl Weismantel says
I read about Metheny practicing Coltrane transcriptions. You can find transcriptions in books…
While I think that you have to play in the moment, especially when you’re practicing, so what you practice comes out in what you improvise live, lobbying against books seems counterproductive. There are, without doubt, great books about music theory, jazz and otherwise.
Metheny was at UNF for a week, while I was a music student, he is in a league of his own , Wow… His message was about urgency, intensity, hard work and realizing how competitive the music biz is. There is good stuff all over, even/especially in books. Go out and get it!
Bob Reynolds says
A book can have all the great information in the world but if the player doesn’t apply it (read: work), it does them no good in the long run. My point is not that one should never check out a book. I have plenty of books. The point is too many musicians rely on books as crutches. The difference is HOW you use a book. If you take an idea from a book and immediately start to visualize, transform and APPLY it, you will make progress FAR faster than the guy who reads out of the book to shed. I would bet the farm that no great player, Metheny or otherwise, spent much time reading out of transcription books. Transcribing is probably the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do to improve as an improviser. But reading transcriptions from a book? That is a fool’s errand. The transcription book has one purpose (if used properly): to check your work. The key being if you don’t actually DO the transcribing with your ears, you are missing the point entirely.
DJ Johnny Medley says
Thanks so much for sharing these clips, Bob. You are VERY generous with information and keep it totally REAL. The Holy Grail (of practice tempos) changed my life for the better last year.
Really can’t thank you enough. Here’s to a phenomenal 2014!
Bob Reynolds says
Thanks, Johnny. So happy to hear that!