Practice Tips

Practicing isn’t really a “whatever works for you” type of skill. It is a vital skill that we all need to use more efficiently.

I’ve been revisiting the jazz standard Donna Lee (originally attributed to Charlie Parker but seems to have actually been a Miles Davis tune). To really “know” a jazz standard (and any tune for that matter), you need to understand the harmonic structure, the basic chords and the melody. I heard the Jaco Pastorius version when his first solo album came out. And like most others, I was totally blown away. I dabbled with it in college but never really got the melody down at a respectable tempo. Now, decades later,  I’m finally getting it done. I have seen transcriptions showing the tempo to as much as 218 beats per minute (quarter note). To accomplish this, I’ve had to re-do my fingering and a number of other things to approach that tempo. Here’s a list of ways  to practice difficult pieces and passages.

  1. Read through the entire piece, identifying the major sections, key centers, phrases, etc. This is basic analysis, no matter what the genre of music.
  2. Work out a basic fingering. This is very important. Be aware that it may change as the speed goes up.
  3. Once the above steps are done, start with the first section, get it down at a slow level, then do the same for the other sections, finally putting it together. Work through the piece with a metronome until you can play it at a recognizable tempo. Then start upping the tempo with a metronome, raising the tempo 4 to 8 beats per minute as the speed becomes reasonably comfortable.
  4. Now for the fun part. Set the metronome around 75% or more of the correct speed. Start the passage you’re working on, playing the first note or so in tempo and with correct rhythm and rests. Work through the entire section. This will get you through to a good speed with some extended work.
  5. Once you get close to the tempo, try setting the metronome at a higher speed – even past the needed tempo. If you’ve spent enough time on it, this will jump you much closer to the needed speed.
  6. Try the 1 +2 + 3 + method. Sometimes you may feel that it will take forever to get a tune up to speed. Once you have the notes down, you can use this: Make sure your metronome is running at or close to the speed you want to get to. Now play the first note of the section you’re working on. Let the measure finish. Now play the 1st and 2nd notes, in time. Next notes 1 2 and 3. Continue adding the notes as you play through. You will find that this will let you skip over some of the metronome increases and get close the tempo you’re looking for.
  7. Go back through and “clean up” the section and the whole tune. Work on removing string noise, fret rattles, etc.

The items above aren’t particularly original. It’s a collection of ways that I’ve used over the years to practice.

Now for the real world example:

Donna Lee Treble Clef markedThe passage circled in red above was the most difficult for me. The passage moves in minor thirds constantly both laterally and linearly. I went through 4 different fingerings until I finally found one that works. The first 4 I tried worked well up to a certain tempo and then it wouldn’t. The one I’m using now works well as I approach 200 beats per minute. I should be up to tempo in a few more days… I hope.

I’d love to hear comments from anyone who reads this. I would love to hear about some other practice methods.


















About Dwight Mabe

I've playing music since the age of 5...a really, really long time. I've been teaching bass guitar and double bass for over 30 years, writing about music and bass guitar for nearly as long.
This entry was posted in Advanced, Basics, Chords, Intermediate, Music Theory, Practice example, Scales and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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