You can practice for fluency or complexity, but not at the same time

As a pianist, there a two main ways to improve: by becoming able to play your music with a new level of fluency and by learning more and more complex music.  But you can’t practice them both at the same time (at least not very successfully).

Here’s what I mean:

When you practice for fluency (ease, flow, however you want to put it), choose something you can already play and work at playing it steadily, until it comes easily and without as much effort. Choose things like improvising with the blues scale, repeating chord progressions, and classical pieces you kind of know already and want to play better.

But don’t pick something that’s at your complexity limit because you’re not ready to play it fluently yet. At this stage you’ll need to spend time breaking it down, analyzing it, picking it apart. Later on you can play it fluently but if you try to do so now, you’ll just get frustrated.

A few examples:

In jazz, practicing for fluency means playing the Ab Lydian scale for 2 hours, at various tempos and in different rhythmic feels until you know it as well as you know the C major scale. Practicing for complexity means taking a hard tune like Giant Steps and struggling to play a solo using one chord tone per chord change.

In classical music, practicing for fluency means memorizing that Bach 2-Part Invention you already “kind of” know and playing it over and over until you can play it in your sleep. Practicing for complexity means trudging through a new Chopin Etude at a snail’s pace, laboriously figuring out every measure even though nothing seems to “stick.”

In blues music, practicing for fluency means transposing your favorite tune to an unfamiliar key until it gets easy.   Practicing for complexity means delving into Art Tatum’s transcription of Aunt Hagar’s Blues, which would take most of us a few months to a year to learn!

Keep in mind that by “complexity,” I mean the edge of what’s complex for you right now.  Yes, there will come a time when you know the chords to Giant Steps well enough that you can practice them for fluency. Same with the Chopin Etude and even (maybe!) with Art Tatum. But by that time, there’ll be a new threshold of complexity that you’ll need to deal with slowly, step-by-step.

Here are some fun and interesting ideas to help you practice your scales. Good luck!

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