Abstract and applicable practice

What is abstract or applicable practice?

Jazz Lesson (chalk)

I want to talk about two types of practice concepts that I have been thinking about – “Abstract” and “Applicable” practice. I don’t want to emphasize those exact words strongly, it is just the terminology I decided to use. So take everything with a grain of salt.

By abstract I mean either practice that develops muscle memory and technique ,such as doing arpeggios and scales, or practicing the fundamental groundwork of a bigger setting such as an isolate 2-5 chord progression in jazz.  Abstract-type of practicing is very common in classical education – the control and sound of your instrument is utterly important after all. A good musician does not have to think about the physical things needed to play in a way he wants to – it should be internalized. In that way one can focus on actual expression.

Having the same or similar fingering for similar passages and motives fortifies muscle memory. This is great for music that does not require improvisational skills – the focus of the music is in the interpretation and technical ability to express oneself the way he or she wants. But when improvisation is needed both in comping and soloing over changes the physical requirement changes because usually the improvisational musical language has phrases with unique shapes. Thus it requires a new mindset and practice method as well. Folklore music from around the world, blues and its subgenres (jazz, rock, soul, RnB, pop, hip hop, funk) all require a different approach than the static one learned in classical education. It is quite interesting to think of classical music from a historic point of view since improvisation was a prominent part of classical (education and) performance for a very long period.

Thus, if one wants to excel in other genres besides classical, one needs to start practicing applicably to one’s genre. And that is also quite instrument-specific. Here I will focus on the piano since it is the instrument that I play.


Abstract/Applicable practice in jazz (piano)

So how does that translate to jazz? Well, I see it as all your scales, arpeggios and chord voicings by themselves etc. and also practicing the same thing with both hands are all part of the “abstract” or muscle memory part of practicing and developing technical groundworks. And I think they are very important, I just think they need to be rationed appropriately with the applicable practice with the specific instrument and genre in mind.

So now we get to the applicable practice. Jazz piano is quite vast and specific at the same time. It is a “imitative” instrument in a sense that you “imitate” singular instruments with it and place them simultaneously as a group. So the “role” of the piano can be to imitate, to name a few examples, a big band brass section, a walking bass, singing or guitar. So that means that the left and right hand have very specific roles as well create that picture.

Examples of applicable jazz piano practice for the left hand could be left hand walking bass, Latin bass patterns, 1-3-7->1-7 and 1-(7)-10->1-7 patterns with their inversions, left hand rootless voicings, the “2” of the drop 2 technique, stride piano, “Bill Evans Ballad” type bass movement and just 3-7 for an upper structure chord in the right hand. On the other hand (pun intended) ,right hand jazz piano practice could consist of rootless voicings, drop 2 voicings, quartal and upper structure (the triad part) voicings, scale-based motives, patterns or “licks”and also voice leading with the top note of chords. No need to know these concepts at all, it is just important to understand the general idea.

All these things are good to practice with both hands but knowing where they fit in the “big picture” and how they are used in context is crucial. The goal is to find the right balance with technical (abstract) and applicable practice.


What is a good ratio of abstract to applicable?

This is quite subjective. For me I have found that a 1-5 to 1-10 ratio is good. I want to point out that this ratio is sort of a reference point for one’s warming up routine. It should just be used as a “workload” ratio of basics to applications. That is practice all things needed to practice at the same with both hands time 10-20% of the practice time. That means that around 80%  should  be either practicing the technique that is applied to the specific hand or using the “abstract” groundwork and creating genre specific patterns (for example making actual musical patterns from the scales to fit the chords in a way that they voice lead nicely from chord to chord).

This concept can be applied also to any type of pattern learning as well although the ratio is not so important here. For example when learning a motive or “lick” play it 10% of the total time for the exersise with both hands and then “focus” on your performance hand and try to stress the nuances that make the “lick” sound good such as phrasing ,rhythm and embellishments. Always focus on tone and nuances. Rhythm, subdivisions, variation of rhythm and rhythmic phrasing should be one’s main focus for a long time when starting to develop jazz improvisation. That is both with comping and soloing but it is a topic for another lesson since I need to get in depth with it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg since we haven’t gone into any practical applications regarding the concept. Stay tuned with the lesson series as we cover this and other interesting topics. Remember that this is just my subjective view and that is what has been helping me personally along the way. I understand it might be misleading to categorize those two terms and I think one could think of “abstract” being the physical practice and “applicable” being the practice of nuances or the application of the physical practice.


Here is an example of excessive abstract and (excessive) applicable approach to an interpretation of a jazz standard (Take Five). The first pianist is without a doubt an amazing pianist and very technical. She just communicates with the classical vocabulary although she is playing a jazz (literally Paul Desmond’s solo from the classic Dave Brubeck album “Time Out”) solo. For her to get into the phrasing vocabulary she should try to emulate the nuances that Paul Desmond does (if it was the inspiration for her solo) more carefully and not just the notes or note values.

The second one is playing with the applicable approach of the jazz language. But perhaps without the polished finesse in technique that the first one had. However his approach is the way jazz has been approached historically – imitation and tone.

In the end I have a “pro” version with some big jazz stars for you to enjoy! Here you can see what happens when both the abstract and applicable practice methods have been mastered.

I wanted to take less famous people for the comparison so one can really pinpoint the different approaches one needs to playing different genres withing their appropriate context.

“Abstract” version 

(Olga Emirald (p). Content owned by Olga Emirald, used for educational purposes)

“Applicable” version

(Terrence Shider (p). Content owned by Terrence Shider, used for educational purpouses)

“Pro” Version

(International #JazzDay 2016 with Al Jarreau, Chick Corea, Sadao Watanabe, Lee Ritenour, Brian Blade)

(Content owned by InternationalJazzDay, used for educational purpouses)

This is a sort of gateway lesson to my other lessons to come since the topic is prominent in my pedagogical philosophy. Enjoy and see you again soon!


Sibil from Sibiljazzpiano


Copyright © 2018 Sibil Yanev. All Rights Reserved

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