Practice Joy-Subconscious Symmetry

How’s your practice routine feeling lately?  Are you practicing joy?  If you practice joy, your audience will hear joy in your performance, and that lively winsomeness in your playing will win you way more fans than all the chops in the world.

Students ask what I mean by “practice joy.”  Of course, it goes without saying that you need to develop your technique.  But music is way more than just chops. 

It may help to think of your practice session like a lavish banquet.  …(we didn’t have many of those in 2020!)  Think of it in 3 parts.

Your banquetYour practice session
1.  Introductions, greetings, catching up, small talk, hors d’oeuvres, drinks1.  Your warm-up, settling in, loosening up, getting in the groove
2.  The main course2.  Working intentionally through an idea or challenge
3.  Coffee, dessert, farewells, hugs or hand shakes3.  Reward yourself with a fun little jam!

Doesn’t that approach sound more doable, more inviting, more intriguing than staring forlornly at a closed horn case, wondering how to drum up energy to open that case and start playing boring scales?

Those 3 parts of your practice session remind me of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s comment about how a simplistic idea develops into a complex struggle but then resolves into a simple but elegant design.


So how about let’s design a practice routine  so enthralling — so much fun — that you just can’t wait to pick up your axe and blow! As one typical example, here’s a practice session from a couple days back which was both productive and immensely enjoyable. Every day isn’t exactly like this.  Sometimes the focus is on long tones, sometimes it’s reading through transcriptions, etc. But – on this particular late evening session – I followed Sonny Rollins’ advice.  Sonny said, “just start playing the horn.  Listen to the sound.  Feel your breath and the keys of your axe.  Play a blues.  Play a tune.  Play any old licks that come to mind.”  Rollins called them “clichés,” but he didn’t mean that as an insult.  They’re the bread and butter of learning.  Don’t evaluate, don’t judge, just relate to your axe and enjoy how it sounds, how it makes you feel. After I blew for awhile, this lick just popped out. 

I kind of liked it, so I kept repeating it.  Maybe I tweaked it as I went along, I can’t remember.  After getting it smooth in one key, I ran it down in all 12 keys.  Then I wrote it down in my journal, knowing full well I’d forget it otherwise. After a day or two, I looked back at the transcription and discovered an inner logic — the thing that makes a phrase seem natural and organic – that I hadn’t noticed before.  Up to that point, I’d just been blowing, without a sense of compositional coherence, or any of that theoretical stuff.  But there it was, the musical logic, just waiting to be discovered…

Subconscious Symmetry  

Below is a recording of me playing this phrase in all 12 keys along with a chart.   After that, I discuss the logic hidden within this unusual phrase.

FEB 2 2021 LICK corrected pg 2

Music seems to thrive on unity, variety, and coherence. Here are three ways the motifs within this phrase create those virtues: pitch variation, alteration in length, and rhythmic offset.

Pitch Variation within the Sequence

In these pictures, the phrase is divided into its 5 fragments (or “motifs”). 

Notice that each fragment begins with a successive note of the scale:  D, E, F, G, and A.

Now notice how each fragment also ends in successive notes of the scale:  G, A, B, C, and D.

So, what we have is a melodic contour such as the one shown by this blue line. 

That melodic shape has intermediate highs and lows.  The orange line shows the contour of the highs.  The green line shows the contour of the lows. 

This gives you three contours: 

  • The melodic shape itself,
  • The high points – like the peaks in a mountain range-
  • And the low points – like the valleys on a map. 

Coltrane creates triple-contours like this a lot, and they give his solos an added sense of logical coherence.

Alteration in Motif Length

Next, we look at the number of notes in each fragment –  4, 3, 4, 4, 4. 

If we were strictly into unity through repetition, all the fragments would be the same size.  But, here we’re looking for variety, just like Stan Getz did with his different phrase lengths described in my post “Stan’s Stella Sequence.”

Playing on the Other Side

Another way you add interest and variety is by starting each fragment on a different part of the beat.  That’s called “playing on the other side of the beat.”  It’s a ton of fun, if your rhythm section is hip.  We do that a lot in “HONK.”  Those players never get lost, so playing on the other side is a piece of cake for them.

Since we’re in 12/8, we have 2 complimentary beats going on. 

The dotted quarter pulse shown in red has four beats to the bar.  The 12 eighth notes shown in purple are grouped in sets of 3, marked “a, b, and c.”   

The fragments within this phrase begin on beats 2a, 3b, 4b, 1c, and 3a.

Those fragments end on beats 3a, 4a, 1b, 2c, and 4a. 

So you see that the fragments take on different personalities – even though their melodic shapes are similar – because of the rhythmic offsets.  This gives your playing both unity and variety.  Playing on the other side lets you kill two birds with one stone, and it gives your solo dynamic excitement.

To finish this video, here’s a recording of that jam I played over the rhythm track at the conclusion of my practice session.  You’ll note that I don’t refer to the lick at all in the jam.  I’m not sure I even remembered it at that point.  I was just having fun with the band track.   I guess that’s the “simplicity which comes after complexity” Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to.

Below is a recording of the band track along with a chart of the chord changes. Notice that these are all ii-V progressions, the most common progression in the jazz canon.

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