How to Learn Like a Jazz Musician

4 Principles of Improvement from one of the most demanding art forms

Photo by Chris Bair from Unsplash

There are few practices that require the level of expertise and knowledge as that of a competent jazz musician.

Unfortunately, the practitioners of this great American art form don’t receive the respect that they deserve from the general public.

This is simply because the appreciation of the skill isn’t obvious; it’s not like watching a dancer, acrobat, or athlete, where the level of difficulty is instantly perceivable. The mastery of jazz is highly nuanced and difficult to perceive for those who are unfamiliar with the art.

A jazz musician has spent the same hours (if not more) as a brain surgeon in perfecting their craft.

They have memorized the chords to hundreds of songs and can navigate complex harmonic terrain with ease and grace.

They have a physical mastery of their instrument equivalent to an elite athlete.

They have an extensive vocabulary of melodic and harmonic techniques that they can improvise with at incredibly fast tempos and not a note played by a fellow band made will go unnoticed by their intuitive ears.

I am not a great jazz musician by any stretch of the imagination, but I can play jazz.

I learned how to learn by majoring in jazz and contemporary guitar in college.

The process of becoming a jazz musician requires several principles of learning that can be applied to any learning scenario.

Everyone can become a better learner by approaching learning like a jazz musician with these four principles.

1. Don’t skip the foundations

A jazz-musician has taken no shortcuts in building their skill.

They have a deep knowledge of the fundamentals of music theory and the technique of their instrument.

To learn something completely, you need knowledge of the foundation of whatever it is that you’re learning.

We live in a culture of instant gratification and we’re saturated with offers to achieve results without putting in a lot of work:

Get rock-hard abs in just 4 weeks!

Become a computer programmer in only 3 months!

Earn 6 figures as a copywriter after doing this 2-week workshop!

Whatever it is that you want to learn or improve at, make sure that you are not neglecting the fundamentals and trying to run before you can walk.

You need to have the patience to go deep on what you are working at and it will be counter-productive to expect results too quickly.

2. Use the “3 Questions of Practice”

The three questions of practice are:

  • What is hard?
  • Why is it hard?
  • What can I do to fix it?

What is Hard?

Establishing exactly what is difficult about something can be deceiving if we analyze it with an approach that is too high-level.

It’s useful to be incredibly granular when determining what is challenging about something.

You want to get right to the root of the problem and not be tricked by symptoms of the problem.

For example, is this chord progression hard to play?

Or is it that one specific chord change in bar 3 that’s causing the difficulty?

Or is it the quick transition of your pinky finger in that one chord change in bar 3 that is causing the difficulty?

Those examples are fairly esoteric to the challenge of guitar playing, but this principle applies to nearly everything.

You’ll want to get as granular as you can in this process and get right to the root of what’s actually causing the difficulty.

Why is it hard?

Never simply accept that something is difficult without establishing exactly why it is difficult:

  • Is this hard because you don’t have enough knowledge on the subject?
  • Have you not memorized the material well enough?
  • Do you not possess enough strength, speed, or dexterity?
  • Do you lack sufficient specific skills and need to go back to working on the fundamentals before you try to progress any further?

Knowing exactly why something is hard will provide the insights required for the final question.

What can I do to fix it?

Have you ever heard a professional musician practice?

It might sound good if they’re polishing a run-through of their repertoire, but chances are it doesn’t resemble anything that anyone would want to listen to.

That’s because when professional musicians are practicing, they’re problem-solving, not playing.

They’ve identified exactly what is difficult, why it is difficult, and now they’re running this very small section or a technique over and over, drilling the muscle memory into their brains.

It probably won't’ sound good, but it is effective.

A jazz musicians’ practice time is valuable and once they establish exactly what is hard, they break it down into the smallest and most manageable chunks.

Working on these small chunks is far more effective than trying to practice an entire song.

You need to break things down into small, digestible pieces, and master these pieces on their own before putting everything together.

3. Don’t spread yourself too thin

When jazz musicians decide to add to their repertoire, they don’t try to add a lot of songs at once.

They will pick one song, maybe two, and then focus exclusively on these songs without distracting themselves with other learning.

A jazz musician needs to have the chord changes to a song internalized if they are to improvise on it well.

If you spread yourself too thin by trying to learn too much, you’re not going to internalize anything.

We only have a chance at excelling at something when we have the foundations internalized.

It’s crucial that you focus on learning something specific and then reinforce that every day until you have it internalized.

It’s like carving a path through the jungle.

You could do an incredibly thorough job of clearing a path, but if you only did it for one day it would grow back in no time and your hard work would have been a waste of time.

However, if you were to spend smaller amounts of time clearing a path every day, you’d end up with a much clearer path. At a certain point, the path can just be maintained through regular use and doesn’t need to be actively cleared anymore.

That’s the process of internalization and it is essential that you approach learning this way!

Focus on the most important thing you’re trying to learn and make sure that you’re learning it consistently until it is internalized.

4. Play live

A jazz musician will practice diligently in their practice room, but they recognize that the most growth will come from testing their skills on the bandstand.

They are constantly going to jams, booking gigs, and playing with other people. The practice is important, but it’s necessary to put the practice to the test and raise the stakes.

Think about how you can play live with what you’re learning.

Learning a new language? Find a language group and actually talk to people!

Learning how to write code? Put a hold on the tutorials and attempt to build an app!

Learning an instrument? Play with a friend, or even complete strangers as soon as you can!

Yes, you need to spend time practicing. But it’s easy to spend too much time learning and practicing without putting that work to good use.

Testing your learning is going to expose the weaknesses in your game and show you more clearly what you should be learning in your private learning time.

So to learn skills efficiently, think like a jazz musician:

  • Don’t skip the foundation
  • Ask the three questions of practice
  • Don’t spread yourself too thin.
  • Play live!

Good luck and don’t forget to support the local jazz musicians in your neighborhood!

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Colin Matson-Jones

Colin Matson-Jones

Writer, fitness addict, lifelong learner | On a mission to reach my potential and share what I learn | I write about health, mindset, and personal growth