How not to get frustrated when practicing John Coltrane tunes on piano

Has this happened to you?

Even though I’ve been playing piano daily up here in Alaska at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, teaching and performing for many hours each day, my experience in a practice room yesterday morning caught me a little off guard.

Since I’ve been playing so much, both in public and in my classes, my finger technique as well as the flow of my improvisations has been as good as it’s ever been. (Yes, this is a good feeling!) So I was unprepared for what happened as I sat down at the piano for some early morning practicing yesterday before I went to teach my first class of the day.

I decided to practice John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” since it will be part of my “Journey Through The Real Book” video series on YouTube. Although I haven’t played the tune recently, I expected to have an easy time of it, since I’ve been improvising over the famously difficult chord changes for over 30 years.

So what happened? Nothing, that’s what! My fingers felt stiff and my improvisation didn’t sound very good. The melodic lines meandered and didn’t come out as I expected them to sound.

Now, if you’ve ever played a difficult jazz tune like “Countdown,” you’ve probably had this experience too. It’s very fast and the harmonies change key just about every 4 beats. But for me this was unexpected. I’ve practiced it for many, many hours over the years and thought that it would just flow out of me like everything else I’ve played this week.

No fair!!!

But… if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that this will indeed happen every so often. It happens to me, it happens to Herbie Hancock, and it will happen to you too.

We need to accept this. But “accepting” doesn’t mean getting frustrated or giving up. Instead, “accepting” means to take a deep breath, relax, and slow down the tempo.

So this is what I did. I began playing it v-e-r-y slowly, and simply tried to play basic melodies that wound their way through the chord changes. It still didn’t sound too great but I kept it up for about half an hour before it was time to teach my class.

When I got back to the practice room early this morning, I was tempted to play something easier instead of facing “Countdown” again. But since I always love a challenge, I started playing slowly again. (I am also interested enough in the learning process that I wanted to see what would happen with the tune today.) At first it still felt awkward, but after a few minutes it started to feel more comfortable. My ear began to mentally “hear” the chord changes again, and my improvised lined almost effortlessly began to sound more logical and inevitable as they conformed to the twists and turns of the modulations. After a while I sped up the tempo a bit and enjoyed playing the tune at a medium-fast swing tempo. Not quite as fast as Coltrane did, but fast enough for this morning.

Lesson learned! Don’t give up. Be patient yet persistent. Practice hard today so it may become easier tomorrow. All of that came into play for me and I hope it comes into play for you, too.

You are talented, you are musical, and you love to play piano. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. Don’t become frustrated when you have days like this. (And yes, you will have days like this!)

The main reason I’ve related this experience is to let you know that this happens to everyone, and we therefore shouldn’t be too surprised or discouraged when our improvisations aren’t flowing naturally, or our fingers feel a little stiff.

It’s like playing a sport. Some days it’s easier to hit the ball than on other days. Or some days our legs feel great when we go running, while on other days we feel a little “creaky.” But an experienced athlete knows that this is just part of the deal. They know when to rest and they know when to push through it.

It’s the same with our piano playing. Notice how I didn’t give up when it was challenging, but I didn’t keep practicing in the same way, either. I slowed down the tempo and played very simply, in order to made a stronger connection between my fingers and my musical ear, and also to re-establish the musical flow. And I didn’t get too discouraged when it didn’t “happen” right away. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day when I started to play the tune better. Another time it might take a whole week. It actually doesn’t even matter how long it takes. What matters is that we keep on practicing and that we enjoy the process. Yes, enjoy the process, even (or especially!) on those days when it’s a little more challenging.

Do this, and you’ll enjoy those moments when the magic happens even more!

Remember: be patient yet persistent. That’s the key to becoming the improviser you’ve always wanted to be.

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