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7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

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7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby Nathan Phelps » Thu Dec 03, 2020 8:42 pm

I've been really into improving my practice routine lately, and there's arguably no better source for inspiration than Coltrane.

I did some digging into old interviews and tried to pull out some useful lessons.

Lessons like:

- Take ownership of the music you love. Don't let anyone tell you your style isn't worth pursuing.

- Obsessively analyze and critique your weaknesses. Practice is much less effective without a plan built uniquely for you.

- Conceptual understanding isn't enough. You have to push beyond understanding into actual skill or you'll never be able to apply what you learn.

- Use pattern-based thinking. E.g. running arpeggios in different combinations is a great way to challenge your technical abilities.

Also found some fun quotes like “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere”.

What's your best advice for practicing? Any habits that you stand by? Let's talk woodshed!

And if you wanna read the whole blog with images and such go here: https://nathandavidphelps.medium.com/7-lessons-on-practicing-music-you-can-take-from-john-coltrane-the-athlete-of-improvisation-f296bb3a0915.
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby The Elf » Thu Dec 03, 2020 9:52 pm

Welcome Nathan! :thumbup:

Some food for thought there.

When I practice I try to do something different every time - often just playing slower, or faster, or usig different chord inversions. I stops my mind settling and keeps me working for it.

When improvising I listen for patterns that work, then I repeat them, break them up and twist them around. If I hit on something appealing I don't mind a bit of repetition, but at the very least I'll move to a different sound. Improv is a very personal experience, both for player and audience. When it works well it can be magical, but finding that place rarely comes from repeating anything you've tried before.
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby Nathan Phelps » Thu Dec 03, 2020 10:50 pm

Hi! Thanks for your reply and welcome!

I think there is some truth to the idea that "magical" improv is the kind that is authentically spontaneous, but I'd argue that you can't create new sentences without relentlessly practicing the syntax and words. My current teacher said that what most of us think of as improv is really only ever about 10-20%. Most of the time people have run the tune enough times to have reliable motifs and ideas they can jump off from. This is perhaps with the exception of absolute masters, but I'm not sure we can separate the improv from the exercises that enable it.

I think practicing something different every time is smart, by the way! That gets at always focusing on playing "at the edge" of your ability. That's where growth resides.
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby CS70 » Fri Dec 04, 2020 8:50 am

Improvising is like language... you have words, you put them together to say what you want to say, without much of an effort. The same way, reading a lot (i.e. listening to various music) the more skills you gain in writing and inventing.

As of technical practice, I completely subscribe to the idea that one has to be brutally honest and relentlessly look for what's not working - comparing the sound you want to the sound that comes out.

If something's not how it should, It can be quite difficult to find exactly what is causing it - but once you do, it's usually fast to practice enough to learn/correct it.

But then it's no different than with anything else in life..
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby Murray B » Fri Dec 04, 2020 9:58 am

I think I'll try to more of this...

One of the biggest challenging I face is connecting my thoughts to my hands. I've found that singing a line and then trying to recreate it on the guitar has helped. But I still think I have the tendency to play what my hands want to do rather than what my mind could create if I had a better connection.

Of course as always I suspect that the answer is to put the time in :headbang:
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby Arpangel » Fri Dec 04, 2020 10:22 am

Nathan Phelps wrote:Hi! Thanks for your reply and welcome!

I think there is some truth to the idea that "magical" improv is the kind that is authentically spontaneous, but I'd argue that you can't create new sentences without relentlessly practicing the syntax and words. My current teacher said that what most of us think of as improv is really only ever about 10-20%. Most of the time people have run the tune enough times to have reliable motifs and ideas they can jump off from. This is perhaps with the exception of absolute masters, but I'm not sure we can separate the improv from the exercises that enable it.

I think practicing something different every time is smart, by the way! That gets at always focusing on playing "at the edge" of your ability. That's where growth resides.

Improv is the only thing I play, conventional, and abstract, if we're pinning things down, although the boundaries are blurred in reality.
I never practice, I’ve learnt things that I can bring out when I need them, I don’t feel the need to add more tools to my toolbox, I have all the ones I need to hang my particular picture on the wall.
We all have varying degrees of technical ability, and I’ve found my limits, and I don’t need or want to go beyond them, besides, I can’t anyway.
I love the bit in your OP about taking ownership of our music, that’s very true, my take is like it’s exploring a house, some of the rooms are crowded, already taken, but if you carry on exploring you’ll find an empty room somewhere with no one in it, claim it and make it your own, decorate it in your style, that’s the way I see my music, and my approach to music.
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby blinddrew » Fri Dec 04, 2020 2:20 pm

Murray B wrote:I think I'll try to more of this...

One of the biggest challenging I face is connecting my thoughts to my hands. I've found that singing a line and then trying to recreate it on the guitar has helped. But I still think I have the tendency to play what my hands want to do rather than what my mind could create if I had a better connection.

Of course as always I suspect that the answer is to put the time in :headbang:
Completely with you on this. :thumbup:
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby The Elf » Fri Dec 04, 2020 2:35 pm

The more I practice, the more I hone my ability (and I can *always* improve!), the easier I find it to go past simply trying to hit the notes and play from my heart. It become a direct connection between intent and creation.

The more my hands know the rules, the easier it is to bend and break them. Many people use 'improv' to allow themselves a 'get out' when it goes wrong - I don't want to alow myself that luxury.
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby Nathan Phelps » Fri Dec 04, 2020 4:10 pm

CS70 wrote:Improvising is like language... you have words, you put them together to say what you want to say, without much of an effort. The same way, reading a lot (i.e. listening to various music) the more skills you gain in writing and inventing.

As of technical practice, I completely subscribe to the idea that one has to be brutally honest and relentlessly look for what's not working - comparing the sound you want to the sound that comes out.

If something's not how it should, It can be quite difficult to find exactly what is causing it - but once you do, it's usually fast to practice enough to learn/correct it.

But then it's no different than with anything else in life..

This is spot on, and it's what I think a lot of people miss — you have to get in the habit of being brutally honest. Art is so personal and subjective I think many people have trouble separating themselves from it in actionable ways. And yes, that is exactly the same skill you need to develop for pretty much everything in your life.
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby blinddrew » Fri Dec 04, 2020 5:10 pm

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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby The Elf » Fri Dec 04, 2020 5:36 pm

:lol: :clap:
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby merlyn » Thu Feb 18, 2021 6:03 pm

Given a lot of free time I would have thought that I'd practice like a demon over lockdown. I didn't. I played Bach on an acoustic guitar.

For some reason I started playing a John McLaughin tune, couldn't quite remember it and listened to the recording. I got my pick out for this, which I hadn't been using that much, as I'd been playing with my fingers.

Woah. Oh dear. I used to be able to keep up with John, at least in the sense that I could alternate pick in the same ballpark. Nope, not happening.

So I need to get my picking back and remembered Frank Gambale's Chop Builder video :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v82bbEa8GRk&t=688s

This could take a while. :)
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby ManFromGlass » Thu Feb 18, 2021 10:02 pm

I’ve found quite a number of things that the mind thinks the body can still do.
But fortunately the Genie named You’llBeSorry visits usually in time, but not always. Then the other Genie named Hindsight will pay me a visit.
Anyone who can come close to McLaughlin is a master in my book!
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby OneWorld » Thu Feb 18, 2021 10:34 pm

Nathan Phelps wrote:I've been really into improving my practice routine lately, and there's arguably no better source for inspiration than Coltrane.

I did some digging into old interviews and tried to pull out some useful lessons.

Lessons like:

- Take ownership of the music you love. Don't let anyone tell you your style isn't worth pursuing.

- Obsessively analyze and critique your weaknesses. Practice is much less effective without a plan built uniquely for you.

- Conceptual understanding isn't enough. You have to push beyond understanding into actual skill or you'll never be able to apply what you learn.

- Use pattern-based thinking. E.g. running arpeggios in different combinations is a great way to challenge your technical abilities.

Also found some fun quotes like “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere”.

What's your best advice for practicing? Any habits that you stand by? Let's talk woodshed!

And if you wanna read the whole blog with images and such go here: https://nathandavidphelps.medium.com/7-lessons-on-practicing-music-you-can-take-from-john-coltrane-the-athlete-of-improvisation-f296bb3a0915.

I tend to get by with the ancient 2 step plan - Practice? Regular and often, but if I were to extemporise on that basic plan, then I would add ‘listen’ seems obvious, but how often do we just go through the motions and end up with what I call fortune cookie music, novel, but forgettable
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Re: 7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation

Postby merlyn » Thu Feb 18, 2021 11:32 pm

ManFromGlass wrote:But fortunately the Genie named You’llBeSorry visits usually in time ...

Yeah, well hopefully it was in time. :) I ain't got no gigs coming up. If I had a gig next week and I discovered I was a bit rusty, that wouldn't be so good.

Shake off the pandemic rust!
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