Re-Post: Wynton’s Ways to Practice

A jazz great breaks it down for us


One of the tools of the trade. But it’s only an object unless you learn to use it.

I’ve been a musician since my early teens — ever since I spent an entire summer harvesting tobacco –by hand! — to buy my first bass guitar and my first amp.  And while I was proud of myself for earning the money and owning the equipment, I was immediately confronted with the task of learning to play.  (Note: It is possible to own musical gear and not be able to play it.  These people are called collectors.)

Although I started with lessons, I was prideful and thought all that music theory was boring, so I quit wasting Mom’s money and learned to play by ear.  That worked reasonably well until my mid 20’s, when I became aware that there were entire genres I could not play because I didn’t understand the rules.  Slowly, I began to come around to the belief that learning music theory would make me a better musician.

Not long after I began this process, PBS ran a series hosted by jazz great Wynton Marsalis.  Although I was not a huge fan of jazz at the time, I appreciated the way Marsalis explained  music from a musician’s point of view.  My favorite episode was titled “Taming the Monster” and it was about the why and how of practice.  Wynton Marsalis laid out his rules for getting the most from time spent practicing.  He called them “Wynton’s Ways to Practice.”  What appears below is a transcription of my handwritten notes.*   I have found these useful not only for ordering my time in the woodshed, but also for living with greater effectiveness.


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

2. Write out a practice schedule.  Cover all the fundamentals of your instrument.

3. Set realistic goals to chart your development.

4. Concentrate when practicing.

5. Relax.  Practice slowly.

6. Practice longer on things you can’t play – (the hard parts).

7. Play everything as if it’s important/difficult/interesting/serious – always play with maximum expression.

8. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you make a mistake.

9. Don’t show off.

10. Think for yourself.

11. Be optimistic.

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

Whether or not you’re a musician, this is excellent advice.  Try to apply Wyntons’ Ways to Practice to your hobbies, your work, your fitness regimen and your spiritual life and let me know how it works for you.

So how about you?  In what area of your life can you use these techniques?  Add your comments below.

*Clearly, the credit belongs to Wynton Marsalis, even though my notes may contain direct quotations and paraphrased sections.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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