If you think something is too difficult to play, it’s just because it’s unfamiliar. Remember that picking up your horn to make a single note felt impossible at first. But with repetition, everything gets easier.
Keeping that in mind, here’s my foolproof system for woodshedding any difficult piece, along with one weird trick that you have to try to believe!
Step 1 – Break it down
Play through the passage that you want to learn at full speed. Mark any sections that stress you out, whether you played them correctly or not. Sometimes you get lucky! If a passage makes you nervous, it’s because you don’t know it well enough.
Break the above passages down into manageable phrases that you can tackle one at a time, ideally not more than a few measures at a time.
Step 2 – Slow it down
For each phrase, slow it down to a tempo where you can play it effortlessly. Use a metronome!
If you want to truly master something, you need to practice it until it becomes effortless and stress-free to play correctly.
Step 3 – Practice backwards!
Here comes the trick: Learn the end of the passage first and gradually work your way to the beginning. Let me explain what I mean with an example from one of my recent transcriptions. Below is a four-bar phrase from a Sonny Stitt solo. The first and last lines are the complete phrase for reference.
Start practicing on line 2. When you can play that perfectly, effortlessly at your chosen tempo 5x in a row, move on to line 3. If it’s too hard, slow down your metronome and try again.
As you progress down the page, each line builds up the entire phrase from the back to the front. Once you can play the entire line perfectly, effortlessly at your chosen tempo 5x in a row, increase your metronome speed by 5-10 bpm and start again on line 2.
The more you play something, the more familiar it is, and the easier it is to play. Most people practice phrases from the beginning to the end. When they make a mistake, the stop and start over.
When you do this, you end up playing the beginning of the phrase far more often than the ending. This means that no matter how well you know the phrase, you’re subconsciously losing confidence the further you go. When it comes time for a performance, you’re more likely to make a mistake that might derail the entire phrase.
When you learn something from the back to the front, the opposite effect takes hold. Your confidence increases as you play! And if you make a mistake at the beginning, you’re more likely to be able to recover and finish the phrase strongly because you’ve done it before dozens of times!
Step 4 – Put it all together
By following the above steps, you’ll eventually learn entire phrases (by themselves) at full speed. Now connect the phrases in the same way: Play the last phrase of the song first. Then add the second to last, etc.
It’s not necessary to write things out as I’ve done above. I do this in my head as I practice. Use your own judgment to decide how to break down the phrases. I’ve shown a variety of ways above. You don’t always have to add 2 or 4 notes. There’s no right answer for every piece and every student. Find out what works for you.