7 Lessons On Practicing Music You Can Take From John Coltrane, the “Athlete” of Improvisation
“You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere” — John Coltrane
Coltrane’s blistering lines and soaring beauty are often complemented with a sort of zealot mystique. It’s easy to recognize his genius, but it often feels shrouded in unattainable prestige.
Apart from his stunning music, Coltrane was known for his feverous practice sessions and obsession with harmony, so is there anything useful we can learn from a genius like Coltrane?
I believe there is always something to be learned from people who “get it”. Coltrane is no exception. In fact, his thinking is deeply insightful for any musician looking to better their playing — or even their approach to thoughtful living—precisely because he was such an introspective and analytical musician.
Here are 7 tips for bettering your never-ending practice journey—inspired by Trane himself.
#1 Take ownership of the music you love and learn all of it.
Coltrane repeatedly talks about the impact Charlie Parker (a.k.a. Bird) and Dizzy Gillespie had on his playing. He was obsessed with understanding how they were able to play like they did and was desperately trying to match it.
“I think I was first awakened to musical exploration by Dizzy Gillespie and Bird. It was through their work that I began to learn about musical structures and the more theoretical aspects of music.”
It’s easy to feel pulled in different directions as a musician. We’re told to make music that sells. Or to make music that is at least popular — or we feel pressure to make music that our friends like.
There’s an understandable tradeoff between creativity and market viability when attempting to make a living. I have a friend who makes a lot of money creating what are essentially derivative works of the most popular songs on big sync sites and then pitching them back to those same sites — and there’s no shame in that — but Coltrane understood that his growth — a.k.a. his practice, should be all-in on the style and sound he wanted to help create and discover.
In other words, own your genre. Own what you love to make. Don’t let society, your community, or your own psyche hold you back from practicing what you want to get better at. This is often a blend of what you listen to the most and what your chops are best equipped for. If you love and only want to play gypsy jazz — gear your practice toward that. If you are all-in on metal or folk. Go for it. There is no wrong answer.
Motivation is critical in practice, so once you determine what motivates you, run for it with all of your energy.
#2 Obsessively analyze and critique your weaknesses
Practicing efficiently requires knowing your weaknesses. Spotting holes in your musicianship is key to understanding what to practice. Coltrane understood this and obsessively worked at being more comfortable in different musical situations. The catch? It’s different for every person.
Working through books that Coltrane did like the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns isn’t necessarily what you need. Instead, you should always design your practice based on your unique weaknesses and goals.
Try analyzing your strengths and weaknesses by these criteria:
- Ear Training
- Phrasing (a.k.a. musical vocabulary)
- Sense of Timing (rhythm)
Think of these as your big branches and then drill down into each of them individually. Is your improvisation over a blues lacking? Why? Perhaps you need to improve your sense of rhythm and feel. Or maybe you can’t think of what to play when improvising? That means you need to hone in on your phrasing and pull out more vocabulary from your desired genre.
Then use that analysis to create a practice routine that fixes them. Continuing with the blues example, you could look up the 10 most common blues licks, strip them away to their rhythms, and then do routine metronome work playing them at slow and fast speeds while focusing exclusively on “time feel”.
#3 Relentlessly practice technicalities to unlock soundscapes
“There is never any end…there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are . . . we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”
Saxophonist Jimmy Heath called John the “most dedicated practitioner that he ever met,” and he was obsessed with soundscapes.
Being more technically proficient on our instruments naturally produces the ability to explore different soundscapes. Even if we understand what a Mixolydian lick sounds like in context, we won’t be able to access that sound in real-time unless we have the technical proficiency to pull it off.
There’s a difference between conceptual understanding and skill development. You can have conceptual understanding without practicing, but developing skills requires practice. It’s the difference between understanding what a butterfly stroke looks like and actually being able to do it for 25 yards [*].
Whatever “sound” you want to create, practice exactly what you need to produce it. Build specific drills around it. For example, say you wanted to intertwine darker Phrygian sounds with classic rock licks. What should you do?
- Practice the Phrygian and minor pentatonic scales in all 12 keys to a metronome.
- Find 3 licks in the music you like that does this.
- Transcribe these licks.
- Write 3 of your own licks loosely based on the licks you transcribed.
- Play those licks in context with a backing track.
- Loop the changes and record yourself.
- Improve and iterate on the licks until switching between Phrygian and the minor pentatonic feels natural.
- Test that you can still switch between those sounds in different keys and at different BPMs.
See how this uses a technical foundation and combines it with musicality to foster efficient practicing? That’s the goal.
#4 Find your heroes and join them
Coltrane didn’t wait around to be “perfect” before finding his heroes and joining them and their community. He understood he needed to learn from the people who were doing what he wanted to do, so he started climbing the ladder early.
“Coltrane’s apprenticeship took place from 1946 to 1955. He was a horn-for-hire, blowing the blues out front of small groups, backing various jazz and R&B singers, adding to the punch and blend of the sax section in a number of big bands. He worked his way up the ranks, from local groups (Jimmy Heath’s big band for one; Bill Carney’s Hi-Tones, a small R&B outfit, for another) to national ensembles in the early ‘50s — like big bands led by saxophonists Johnny Hodges, and Earl Bostic, and Dizzy Gillespie, the latter demanding he switch from alto to tenor saxophone. Coltrane followed orders, and his development continued.”
Competitive environments do wonders for your motivation.
Don’t waste time and use that to your advantage. Jump in headfirst and use the times you inevitably fail as benchmarks for your progress. That could mean anything from moving to a new city, attending a music program at a school, finding online communities to interact with, or simply showing up to venues and making relationships with other musicians. Don’t let doubt or fear get in the way of action.
#5 Build pattern-based thinking into your practice
Coltrane was “theory mad”.
“He continually studied recordings and books about music and philosophy and created challenges for himself and other musicians based on that study: “The ‘Giant Steps’ changes were the stiffest exercise he had as yet given himself as an athlete of improvising…. Why did Coltrane do this?… He felt…he wasn’t good enough.”
He would critique his playing, identify a soundscape or weakness he wanted to work on, and create musical exercises to push back or beyond them.
How can we apply this thinking? By creating patterns and mathematical exercises around a specific goal.
“All musicans are subconsciously mathematicians.” — Thelonius Monk
For example, let’s say you noticed when learning a tune that maj9 arpeggios were giving you a hard time, and you wanted to be more fluid at accessing them. Why? So you can unlock that sound in your improvisation and better your access to them.
Let’s think through this.
A “maj9” chord is made up of the 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 of the major scale.
In D, that’s D, F#, A, C#, and E.
Okay. So the simplest pattern would be to play up and down the arpeggio. So 1–3–5–7–9–7–5–3–1.
While that’s important to have in your toolset, it’s just the beginning.
Here are just a few options you could build from this:
- Skipping the fifth: 1–3–7–9–7–3–1
- Up 2 intervals 1 back: 1–5–3–7–5–9
- Repetition of every third interval: 1–3–5–5–7–9–7–7–5–3–1–1
And then, you can add BPM and key considerations into any of these options.
- Choosing any of these arpeggio patterns and cycling through the circle of 4ths: C, F, Bb, Eb, and so on.
- Applying the spider technique for BPM practice: so start 60, then go to 80, then go to 70, then go to 90, then go to 80 — going up higher and then back down a bit with each repetition.
The point? It’s not just about practicing more — it’s about getting better at choosing what to practice based on your unique needs.
More on that in the next point.
#6 Practice for depth over breadth
Coltrane reportedly spent more than 10 hours practicing a single note. His wife even talked about hearing the sax stop and going to find John asleep with the instrument still in his mouth.
Even if the details are apocryphal, what was he doing? I suspect working intently on tone, vibrato, sustain, and single-note expression.
This is the ultimate form of depth over breadth. A man who was famous for playing “sheets of sound” practicing a single note for hours?
It’s always better to practice more thoughtfully on fewer topics than to spread yourself thin. Put another way, you can get more out of an hour and a half of focused practice than you will in 8 hours of mindless practice. This is true across any sort of learning.
Josh Waitzkin, a famous productivity coach and chess player, says that “depth beats breadth any day of the week because it opens a channel for intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”
Josh also says that “growth comes at the point of resistance” — in other words, the best practice resides at the edge of our abilities. The edge of our abilities isn’t comfortable — if it sounds good, you probably aren’t pushing yourself.
Remember: noodling is the death of practice.
#7 Having a goal is more important than the time you put in.
On a similar note, Coltrane only practiced when he had a specific goal.
In the book “Coltrane on Coltrane” (Chris DeVito), there is an interview of Coltrane conducted in 1966 where Coltrane is asked: “About how many hours a day do you play, would you say?”
Coltrane replied: “Not too much at this time. I find that it’s only when something is, is trying to come through, you know, that I, that I really practice. And then it’s, it’s — I don’t even know how many hours, you know — it’s just all day, on and off.”
To Coltrane, practicing was pointless without understanding what he was trying to achieve.
With everything you do, understand why you’re practicing. Is it to expand your vocabulary in your genre? To develop a specific technical proficiency? To improve your sense of timing? To be more comfortable with standards? To not make a fool of yourself at a rehearsal, gig, or seminar?
You must understand your why before you can best create your how.
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