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  • November 2014
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Essential Music Books (age 14+)

I’ve read every practice book out there (most of them twice or more), and many other music-related books besides, as well as a raft of peer-reviewed research on practice. Here’s a compilation of the best of the best books. Great advice and excellent writing. If I’ve left out a favorite of yours, let me know in the comments. I’ve done extensive reviews of most of these titles. Look for the link, or go here.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Lots of food for thought in these books for players of every level. These books should be in your music library. The order in which they’re presented reflects my own loose ranking system. The first one is the best. All of them are good.

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Musician's Way, by Gerald Klickstein

The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, by Gerald Klickstein

Pages: 343
Chapters: 14
Back Matter: Notes, Selected Bibliography, Index
Part I: Artful Practice
Part II: Fearless Performance
Part III: Lifelong Creativity
MY REVIEW

Klickstein is a classical guitarist who performs throughout the U.S. and internationally and is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He has an excellent blog.

My favorite 2 aspects of the book are the well-chosen quotations sprinkled throughout, and the use of solid research to inform and back up what Klickstein puts forth. The bibliography is solid though not comprehensive. The book covers the nitty gritty of practice and includes concrete things to actually do, which mostly means strategies for excellent practice, but there are other worthy tidbits, too. The second section of the book is all about performance and the strategies you can use to include performance as another aspect of your practice. Klickstein also covers aspects of the body that are important to good practice: physical warm-ups, injury prevention, resting. The final part of the book covers injury prevention and valuable advice for the student. More specifics on each section can be found in my original review.

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The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green, with Timothy Gallwey

15 chapters
225 pages

Barry Green’s book is based on Gallwey’s quite successful title, The Inner Game of TennisWhat is striking and admirable is that Green didn’t just write a knockoff cribbed from Gallwey’s book. After meeting with Gallwey about the project, they decided Green should live with (and teach) the principles and then write the book. Three years later, Green was ready and this book is the result.

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image of Dan Coyle's The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, by Dan Coyle. You’ll see another great book by Coyle further down this list. This little gem here is short, sweet, and just about small enough to fit in most instrument cases, and it’s a hardcover, so it’ll take a beating if necessary.

Though I personally don’t like the word “talent,” because it’s a loaded term that tends to mean “gifted,” or “you either have it or you don’t,” but Coyle’s superb book may convince you that “talent” isn’t a gift, it’s earned through  effort, attention, and perseverance. This book is chock-full of excellent advice on practice. Get it!

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Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within
by Kenny Werner

I have to make the disclaimer that reading this book resulted in a sea change that deeply affected my philosophy and approach to teaching, learning, playing, and listening to music. It came along at just the right time to make a big impact on me and because of this, I had to revisit it as I think about The Practice of Practice. In my re-reading of Werner’s book I see again a wisdom and a reverence for Music that still shines through. I still recommend the book highly.

Especially useful in this book are Werner’s thoughts on how fear can (and usually does at some point) affect one’s playing, and even the way one listens to music. Fear of any sort doesn’t result in good playing and it may well force you into quitting altogether. This is bad. If you can get a handle on fear early in your pursuit (or at any phase of your journey), you’re better off than most.

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Cover of "Free Play: Improvisation in Lif...

Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovich

Pages: 197
Chapters: 22
Back Matter (10 pp): notes/sources, bibliography, illustrations list, bio
4 Sections: The Sources; The Work; Obstacles & Openings; The Fruits

(At the end of this review is a link to an mp3 of my improv group Meh! playing an improvised story with Nachmanovich.)

Free Play doesn’t deal directly with music practice, but it is nevertheless an important book for anyone interested in music (or other arts, or life). I strongly believe that improvisation benefits practice. To me, improvising is an essential musical skill, one possessed by musical greats (Hussain, Bach, Shankar, Beethoven, Duke, Mozart, etc.), and is practiced in musical traditions all over the world, as well as by young children who haven’t developed some of the fear associated with improvisation in those overly focused on the written notes. Remember when you drew letters over and over as a young child, taking great care (or not) with the shapes? Now imagine that despite all that practice time forming letters and sounding out words, that you never (ever) spoke extemporaneously. Crazy, right? To me, that’s about the same as practicing scales over and over until they’re memorized, but then never using that tonal material to improvise.

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Cover of "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn'...

The Talent Code by Dan Coyle.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; 1 edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars (103 customer reviews)
This is one of the most engaging reads that tackles practice in general, and what’s happening in the brain. Coyle uses anecdotes and interviews with experts to help the reader understand how people get better and what’s going on in the brain. My review of the book goes into more details. Highly recommended. ~$15
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Music by Andrew Zuckerman Music by Andrew Zuckerman. This book is chock full of the voice of experience. Zuckerman interviews musical icons from many genres: rock icons like Ozzy, pop musicians like Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash and others; jazz luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Dave Brubeck; classical composer Phililip Glass; Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar and many, many, many more. A total of 50 musicians were interviewed for the project and nearly everyone has interesting things to say about music. The last I checked, this $50 hardcover book was going for less than ten bucks! The pictures are also pretty amazing, just the artist against a stark white background.

            • Hardcover: 300 pages
            • Publisher: Abrams; Har/Psc edition (October 15, 2010)
            • Language: English
            • Product Dimensions: 12.3 x 12.2 x 1.1 inches
            • Shipping Weight: 5 pounds
            • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars (7 customer reviews)
Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.
Related articles

Do You Have a Growth or a Fixed Mindset?

Research begun by Carol Dweck in the mid-1980s explored the repercussions of how we think about intelligence. She identified two ways of thinking about intelligence that people hold. Either we tend to believe that intelligence is a fixed thing: you’re born with a certain amount of smarts and that’s what you have to work with, or you tend to believe that intelligence is something that can be cultivated and increased. n the couple of decades since that first study, she has labeled these “mindsets,” and you have either a fixed or a growth mindset.

I came across this wonderful graphic that does such  great job of explaining Dweck’s theory in a small space and I wanted to share it.

The thing to remember is that we are complex creatures and this isn’t a black-0r-white distinction. We have both of these mindsets operating simultaneously. For me, learning about this was an eye-opener because it made me acutely aware of all the ways in which I had operated under a fixed mindset in the past, especially in high school which, if anyone’s keeping track, was nearly 25 years ago. Anyway, here’s the graphic. It’s from Dweck’s absolutely fantastic book, Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success.

It’s worth reading, but do keep in mind that it’s written from a pop-psych perspective and you might be better off reading her original (much shorter) articles. The material in the book is best summed up by the graphic below. I’ll post a review of the book sometime this summer, after the PhD is in the bag. In the meantime, I urge you to check it out anyway. Here’s the graphic:

Graphic of Carol Dweck's Growth v. Fixed Mindset, by Nigel Holmes

Cover Design for “The Practice of Practice”

Practice safe design: Use a concept.
~ Petrula Vrontikis

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Well, after a good deal of thought and several years of research and loads of the hard work of writing,  I took some time to do something more playful, more fun: designing a cover! With help from a graphic designer, the cover design is finally finished. It’s exciting to see a project begin to shape up.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

I’m still looking for a worthy subtitle and once the manuscript is complete, before the end of the year, I’ll have a better idea of what will work best, but I’m totally open to suggestions. Feel free to comment. If you have a great idea and I use it, I’ll give you credit in the book and a complimentary copy.

Here it is:

The Practice of Practice: Get Better Faster

Have fun, and good luck with your practice.

5 Great Books for Musicians

Here are 5 great books for musicians on your gift list.

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Music by Andrew Zuckerman

Music by Andrew Zuckerman. This book is chock full of the voice of experience. Zuckerman interviews musical icons from many genres: rock icons like Ozzy, pop musicians like Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash and others; jazz luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Dave Brubeck; classical composer Phililip Glass; Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar and many, many, many more. A total of 50 musicians were interviewed for the project and nearly everyone has interesting things to say about music. The last I checked, this $50 hardcover book was going for less than ten bucks! The pictures are also pretty amazing, just the artist against a stark white background.

  • Hardcover: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Abrams; Har/Psc edition (October 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • Product Dimensions: 12.3 x 12.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars (7 customer reviews)

_______________________________________________by Gerald Klickstein

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The Talent CodeThe Talent Code by Dan Coyle. This is one of the most engaging reads that tackles practice in general, and what’s happening in the brain. Coyle uses anecdotes and interviews with experts to help the reader understand how people get better and what’s going on in the brain. My review of the book goes into more details. Highly recommended. ~$15

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; 1 edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars (103 customer reviews)
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The Inner Game of MusicThe Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green. This is an excellent book for any musician even though Green, like many other books, is a classical bass player. Lots of smart things in this book, based on the “inner game of tennis” format. Green took the principles from that book lived with them and applied them to music for ten years, then wrote this book. My review of the book is here if you’d like more info. Highly recommended. ~$15

  • Hardcover: 225 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (1986)
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars (31 customer reviews)
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The Inner Game of MusicFreeplay: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. An excellent book on improvising in many forms, both musical and in your life. It’s an easy read that’s well worth it even if you’re not an improviser. Lots of great material in here. My review is here if you’d like more info. Highly recommended. ~$15

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Tarcher; 1 edition (1990)
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.2 x .06 inches
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars (35 customer reviews)
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Jazz Trumpeter Avishai Cohen, on Practice

Avishai Cohen

Avishai Cohen Talks Practice

Jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen first came to my attention when Chad McCullough spoke with me about practice several months ago. I promptly checked him out and was psyched to discover a new favorite jazz trumpet player. He’s one of the most interesting players I’ve heard in a while; definitely check out his albums Triveni and After the Big Rain especially the track Parto Forte  (also check out The Trumpet Player).

Avishai was in Chicago playing with his long-time friend, NY singer-songwriter Keren Ann (here’s a clip of them at a Tel Aviv show–Avishai plays and sings). Avishai agreed to hang out and chat about his take on practice. We went for sushi before the show, and I was so caught up in the hang that I neglected to turn on the recording for a while. Before I did, Avishai talked about the gig he’d done the night before at the Playboy Jazz Fest to a huge crowd, and we marveled at the weirdness of ass implants, the mastery of Eddie Palmieri, and a lot of other interesting stuff.

The quality of the recording isnt’ the greatest, and you might hear some sushi-related Japanese spoken in the background. Hope you enjoy.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

As always, links to interesting/useful stuff we talked about can be found below.

Tal Gamlieli Live at the Lily Pad (featuring Avishai Cohen) – “Dania”

Book Review: “Free Play,” by Stephen Nachmanovich

Cover of "Free Play: Improvisation in Lif...

Click to Purchase

 

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.
~Charles Darwin

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Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovich

Pages: 197
Chapters: 22
Back Matter (10 pp): notes/sources, bibliography, illustrations list, bio
4 Sections: The Sources; The Work; Obstacles & Openings; The Fruits

(At the end of this review is a link to an mp3 of my improv group Meh! playing an improvised story with Nachmanovich.)

Free Play doesn’t deal directly with music practice, but it is nevertheless an important book for anyone interested in music (or other arts, or life). I strongly believe that improvisation benefits practice. To me, improvising is an essential musical skill, one possessed by musical greats (Hussain, Bach, Shankar, Beethoven, Duke, Mozart, etc.), and is practiced in musical traditions all over the world, as well as by young children who haven’t developed some of the fear associated with improvisation in those overly focused on the written notes. Remember when you drew letters over and over as a young child, taking great care (or not) with the shapes? Now imagine that despite all that practice time forming letters and sounding out words, that you never (ever) spoke extemporaneously. Crazy, right? To me, that’s about the same as practicing scales over and over until they’re memorized, but then never using that tonal material to improvise. Crazy talk!

Free Play is a great introduction to what improvisation is and how it can work. The book is chock-a-block with illustrations and anecdotes (including a talking tennis ball), and draws from spiritual traditions including Christianity, Sufism, Shamanism, and Zen. Despite the complexity of the topic, Nachmanovich’s style is conversational and interesting and you can tell the man is both excited about and dedicated to his art. It’s a short book, with a lot packed into its 200 pages. Some of the questions explored are:

  • What is the Muse?
  • Where does the play of imagination arise?
  • When are sounds music? (or patterns and colors art; or words literature; or instruction teaching)
  • How does the passion of life get coded into artwork?
  • How do we decode and/or recreate an artwork when the artist is no longer present?
  • How does it feel to fall in love with an instrument or an art form?
  • Why has there been a split in the West between improvisational and notational music-making?

Some of the themes in the book include but are not limited to:

  • playfulness
  • love
  • concentration
  • practice (yay!)
  • skill
  • using the power of limits
  • using the power of mistakes
  • risk
  • surrender
  • patience
  • courage
  • trust

The book is broken up into four sections, each of which will be briefly outlined below.

The Sources (6 Chapters: pp. 17-55)

After an introduction by way of a mythic story that chronicles how one musician came to be a Master, the first section continues to expand on what improvisation is and where it might come from, including the reasons why it’s important. Nachmanovich explores inspiration, the mind at play, the muse, and the dissolution of the self during acts of creation and the need to get out of our own way in order to let the Art come through us, whether it’s sound or some other medium. He covers archetypes like the Fool, the Trickster, the Child and the state of samadhi, when one is ultimately absorbed that the self dissolves into the infinite. Heavy stuff, but handled in a deft and interesting way.

The Work (6 Chapters, pp. 59-111)

This is the strongest section of the book, in my opinion and includes an eponymous chapter on practice. Most valuable for me was Nachmanovich calling our attention to the separation of practice and music-making, a distinction brought up by others, too, and an important thing to think about, as well as notions of perfection and what that might mean, how it can hamstring one’s music-making. Also incredibly valuable is his exploration of the power of limits and mistakes. The chapter Playing Together is really about improvising together, and is also worthwhile.

Obstacles & Openings (6 Chapters, pp. 115-160)

This section is about the ways in which the inherent creative impulse we have as children gets buried by living in the world, by criticism, by judgment, addictions (and not just to ingested substances but to ways of thought as well). This is balanced nicely with ways of overcoming some of these challenges, including surrender, patience, perseverance and other useful tactics. Nachmanovich stated in the introduction that one of the purposes of the book is to provide “a block-buster, a wedge for breaking apart creative blocks,” and this section fulfills that purpose most directly, while the rest of the book also fulfills the purpose but more indirectly.

The Fruits (4 Chapters, pp. 163-197)

This shortest section of the book explores what it can be like to create with freedom and how this can benefit not only the individual, but everyone and everything. He also explores tangentially, the slippery notion of Quality, and although he wisely doesn’t define it, he shows us why it is vitally important, and also delves into why Art is important to living a fulfilling life, whether one creates or enjoys it. The book ends with a celebration of the difficulty of the process and the joy of knowing that through struggle with issues and with ourselves, we can achieve breakthroughs that take us to a higher level of understanding and humanity.

This is a book I highly recommend, especially for those curious about or fearful of improvisation.

Two years ago, Northwestern University held a series of talks on musical improvisation and we heard from, and played with prominent thinkers in music improvisation including Pauline Oliveros, Ed Sarath, Victor Goines, and Stephen Nachmanovich. I invited Nachmanovich to come play with a free improvisation group I started–named Meh!–and we created an improvised story with music. One person started a story; the next person in the circle began to “play” the story musically and then all the others joined in. When that part of the story had been musically “illustrated,” the next person continued the story and the entire process repeated. Click the link to hear an excerpt of our resulting performance, “The Camel’s Journey.” Nachmanovich plays violin and voice. I’m on trumpet and percussion; Nasim Niknafs, piano; Ness Buder, sax; Eun Lee, clarinet; Racheli Galay, ‘cello; Daniel Arkfeld, saxes. Enjoy.

The Camel's Journey (by Meh! w/ Stephen Nachmanovich)

Nudge-Nudge, Wink-Wink, Say-No-More

Wink at small faults. Remember thou hast great ones.
~Benjamin Franklin

Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, know what I mean?
~Eric Idle (b. 1943, from a sketch by Monty Python.)

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Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

It’s tough to change our behavior radically, or even significantly, and it rarely happens overnight. It’s possible however, to use our own natural tendencies to give ourselves a nudge towards utopia. Some real-world examples of the nudge-in-action are putting fruit at the front of the school lunch line instead of grease-laden pizza, because hungry kids (and let’s face it, adults, too) often grab whatever is closest to hand; or the new Illinois policy that changed the process for the organ donor program so that drivers have to explicitly opt out of being an organ donor instead of signing up to participate in the program, a simple change that could save the lives of many. These nudges are examples  from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The basic idea is that we can leverage our human idiosyncracies to become better both individually and as a society. In the book they suggest useful nudges that help us behave or perform better than we might otherwise. Others nudges below are from A. J. Jacobs, author and personal experimenter extrordinaire.

Nudge-Nudge

A nudge I like to use in my own practice is to leave my instruments out and available. This makes it easy to pick one up and play it for a quick exercise or song, something that simply wouldn’t happen if I had to get the guitar/trumpet/conga/etc. out of its case in order to play. A cool tune by Tito Puente comes on, I step away from the computer and up to my conga and practice my tumbao for the five minutes of the tune and then I’m back to writing on the PhD degree. The same thing happens with my trumpet which I leave out whenever possible, as well as my guitars, which I have on stands, covered with dust cloths to keep them clean. This is an easy nudge I highly recommend.

The following nudges were thunk up by bestselling writer A. J. Jacobs (Know it All, The Year of Living Biblically, The Guinea Pig Diaries)

Wink-Wink

This one is new to me and I’m a little leery of trying it, buy I think I will anyway, just to see if it has an effect. One study showed that when a picture of eyes was on the wall, people behaved more honorably. Maybe this could be used to get us to practice those things we know we should practice, but don’t. Like all the scales I mentioned in the last two posts. If you’re trying to get your kid to practice, put up some pictures (or drawings–the eyes don’t have to be real) of eyes in his or her practice room.

Related to this is Thaler’s findings that people who eat in front of mirrors tend to eat less. You can (and should!) put up a mirror in your practice room. In addition to being a fantastic tool for checking posture, embouchure, and other important details of playing, a mirror might also boost your metacognitive ability, that is, your ability to monitor your own thought process. It may also help you to see yourself as a musician. Literally.

Another idea having to do with vision involves putting an exposed incandescent light bulb up in your practice room. A study on priming effects found that people exposed to a bare bulb (the symbol of inspiration and enlightenment) were more successful at many different tasks. A bare bulb might help you achieve the insight necessary to finally master that tough musical passage that has vexed you for days.

Say No More

The final nudge is to have a memento mori in a prominent place; a reminder of how fleeting and precious this life is, a reminder not to sweat the small stuff and to enjoy what we have, a reminder to take advantage of the time we’ve been given. This is something I don’t have, alas, poor Yorick, but which I think I’ll get soon. It doesn’t have to be an overt, macabre reminder, like a skull on your desk. It could be something more abstract, like a picture of a mayfly, or a footprint on a beach, or a rainbow. My own taste tends more toward the macabre, so maybe I’ll get a computer mouse made from the ribcage of a real mouse. Or perhaps I’ll get a skull and put a jester’s cap on it, or glue a trumpet kazoo to its mouth. Something to make me think and laugh at the same time.

I hope you can create your own nudges that get you that little bit closer to your musical goals. If you have some good ones, please share them!

I debated posting this video because for nearly the entire thing it seems sexist and a bit crass. Then comes the oh-so-quick punch line and the tenor of the whole skit changes as a result. Brilliant, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with practice and is just for fun, so feel free to skip it if you don’t need a chuckle.

Have fun, and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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