12 Rules of Music Practice (Wynton Marsalis)

Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center for the ...
Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Wynton Marsalis knows how to practice. As a younger man, he was equally at home in front of a symphony orchestra playing the Haydn concerto, or laying down some serious jazz with Art Blakey. Check out Wynton’s discography for more evidence of his skill and artistry.

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.

For a while now, he’s turned his full attention to traditional jazz and his own new compositions. Back when VHS was the only option for video releases, Wynton did a program called Tackling the Monster: Wynton on Practice.  In the video excerpt below, fast-forward to 3:00 to get to the practice tidbits. After that, check out Wynton playing some sweet choruses at the Jazz in Marciac festival in France, in 2009. So tasty and relaxed. After the first tune, the concert goes on for another 45 minutes, and is equally tasty. Put it on in the background while you work, or stare at it raptly like I do. That’s what tens of thousands of hours of practice sounds like.

Lately, I’ve subscribed to live concert video/audio feeds from Jazz at Lincoln Center, where you’ll hear the world’s best jazz musicians doing their thing in real time. On the LiveStream site you can check out other feeds, too. Wynton latest appearance at Ronnie Scott’s in the UK was a concert I enjoyed a lot. Knowing it’s happening live is pretty cool.

Here are 12 practice suggestions from Master Marsalis. Each one could be the subject of a book on its own. After the videos, I’ve added some suggestions to consider below each of Wynton’s practice rules. Some of them will be covered in more detail in the book, The Practice of Practice.

  1. Seek out the best private instruction you can afford.
  2. Write/work out a regular practice schedule.
  3. Set realistic goals.
  4. Concentrate when practicing
  5. Relax and practice slowly
  6. Practice what you can’t play. – (The hard parts.)
  7. Always play with maximum expression.
  8. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
  9. Don’t show off.
  10. Think for yourself. – (Don’t rely on methods.)
  11. Be optimistic. – “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.”
  12. 12. Look for connections between your music and other things.

(start the vid below at 3:00 to skip the credits). I’ve found some evidence in my own research talking with master musicians that, instead of being something dreaded, as Wynton and YoYo Ma mention, practice is also something many musicians love dearly. It’s good to have a challenge and work toward it, even if that work is sometimes supremely demanding, and at times frustrating.

Here’s Wynton and crew in 2009. Around 16:00 you can hear Wynton and Wycliffe Gordon sing. Listen to the concert as you ponder the suggestions for each rule below the video.

Suggestions for Each Practice Rule:

1. Seek out the best private instruction you can afford.

  • In a study by Sosniak, she found that most accomplished classical musicians’ first teachers lived in the neighborhood, and that teacher was instrumental (haha) in finding the second teacher. Find someone close by who is willing to teach you.
  • Teachers are also be the people you play with, or hang out with. Just getting together to play and talk about music with a few people is a fun way to spend some time, and can teach you a lot. Make a point of getting together regularly to make music with other people. One fun option anyone can do is free improvisation.

2. Write/work out a regular practice schedule.

  • Sitting down to think through how and when and where you’ll practice will help make it happen. Daily, 20 minutes or more. Fund
    • Fundamentals like breathing (for wind instruments), tone quality (everyone), relaxed playing posture, intonation….
    • Pick one song, or one part of a song, to work on. And then….

3. Set realistic goals.

  • Setting easy goals is better, at first, but continue to challenge yourself.
    • What’s the easiest goal you can set?
  • What’s your ultimate goal?
    • Writing out 10-year goals, 5-year goals, 1 year goals, 1 week goals, and any other that come to you can be helpful.
    • Think big when you imagine long-term goals.
    • Make your goals easier the closer you get to the present moment. What is your goal for the next practice session? Keep it short and simple.
  • A great first goal is to sit down in the chair for 20 minutes of practice, 5-6 days a week.

4. Concentrate when practicing.

  • Easier said than done. Choosing small, realistic goals will help you concentrate.

5. Relax and practice slowly.

  • It takes time and repetition for the brain to grow synaptic connections and lay thin coats of myelin over them. By playing slowly, you can more easily avoid and address errors.

6. Practice what you can’t play. – (The hard parts.)

  • Tuba legend Rex Martin says he never labels anything as “hard,” or “difficult,” because that sets up an expectation of the thing. Instead, he prefers to identify these parts as “unfamiliar.” Through repetition and careful study, they become familiar, and “easy.”
  • When accomplished practicers get a piece of new music, the immediately identify the “most unfamiliar” parts, the parts that look most challenging. These are tackled first.

7. Always play with maximum expression.

  • Listening to great musicians will help immensely.

8. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

  • Buddha is said to have said, “You yourself, as much as anyone else in the entire Universe, deserve your love and affection.

9. Don’t show off.

  • And while I’m quoting people, why stop now. CS Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. Humility is thinking of yourself less.”
  • To me, showing off is a weird combination of needy and aggressive. Nobody really likes showoffs because the point is the performer, not the music.

10. Think for yourself. – (Don’t rely on methods.)

  • You don’t get harmony when everyone sings the same note. (Doug Floyd)

11. Be optimistic.

  • “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.”

12. Look for connections between your music and other things.

Uncle Charlie comic. Large man yells at a smaller man, who paints the large man's face on his bass drum, then beats on it. The large man is the marching band leader.

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