NeffMusic Lessons: Learning How To Learn!

I’m writing this article to all my Neffmusic members to help them get the most out their lessons at Neffmusic.
In order to really get the most out of my lessons there are some skills that you need to develop. These lessons are a bit different than going to a teacher and taking one on one lessons. In those types of lessons you get immediate feedback and there is an interaction between the teacher and student. If the teacher sees the student do something wrong he can immediately correct it and teach about it. It can be tailored to the students needs at the moment. Finally, specific direction and homework can be given based off of the students abilities and level. As weeks and lessons go by this direction can be adjusted for the student so they get the most out of their practice time. If the homework given was too much then the teacher can scale the assignment back. If it was too little the teacher can add more to the assignment for next time. If the student didn’t really click with the assignment the teacher can think of alternate ways to teach it or pratice it that would interest the student more.
Certainly, there are many positive aspects to teaching one on one and in person and this is how I teach most of my students.
With my online recorded lessons much of what I talk about above needs to be done by the student themselves. In each of the lessons I give tons of information and tips on practicing and using the materials but when it comes down to the specific practice regime for each of you, you must figure out the specifics on your own.(I’ll do my best to help)
Since I was in 9th grade this is something I’ve been good at. Sure, I took tons of private lessons but I would say that 90% of what I know and am good at playing came from my learning outside of those lessons. I used to go down to the local music store every month in Syracuse and use my paper route money to buy a new book or method. I would buy records constantly to listen to as many players as I could.
As time went on I found myself developing my own goals and methods to practice. My weekly lesson with my teacher was nice but I was impatient and always had other things I was working on. Below are some of the things I was doing that really helped me to grow and learn that I think will help you to really excel with my online lessons.

1. After you receive your 4 lessons for the month and listen to them you need to come up with a goal for the month. It needs to be realistic but still challenging for you. You need to consider how much time you have to practice and the other commitments you have on your time. Whatever you set your goal to be you need to make sure that you meet it thoroughly. If you decide that you want to learn all 12 dominant bebop scales then you need to be specific with what that means……
Do you want to be able to play all 12 without hitting any wrong notes?
Do you want to play them one after another through the circle of fifths?
Do you want to play them at a metronome marking of 80,100,120,320?
Do you want to play them through in quarter notes, 16th notes?

The more specific you are with your goals the better. They can’t be vague. It’s best to set some sort of finish line or benchmark to it so you know that you have met the goal. Setting a goal like above of learning the 12 scales is great but….what does that mean? when have you learned them enough? When are you ready to move on? These are things a teacher will address usually but if you can start thinking this way it will become a powerful tool to help you teach yourself.

2. Set up a weekly and daily plan to reach your goal.
What I do is set a goal and then on Monday I come up with a plan for the week. When am I going to practice? How am I going to practice? What keys will I tackle this week? Challenge yourself but be realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting a goal that is crazy. I’ve been there and done that. It’s not fun. I have a family and 3 kids and many commitments. I can’t set a goal of practicing 8 hours a day and ignore my family and other commitments. I mean I could but in the long run is it worth it? Those kind of questions are the ones you need to wrestle with when setting up your plan.

3. Be flexible!!!! You have to be disciplined and try to stick with your plan but don’t be so rigid that you make yourself and others miserable. If something comes up then readjust. Stick to the plan. Don’t get depressed and stop trying. Just think about the next day and come up with a plan for that day that is reasonable and doable.
get back on track.

4. Don’t be motivated by guilt!! This is a big one for me. I use to set up these challenging goals and plans and then if I messed up or didn’t stick to it I would feel guilty and bad. I would use that to motivate me to get back in the practice room. The problem with that is after awhile I would look for things to be guilty about or feel bad about for motivation. If I didn’t feel like practicing I would start thing about how bad I was or how if I missed a practice time I would be a loser. Sure this would motivate me but in the long run it killed my mindset. That is no way to live a positive joyful life. You end up being miserable all the time.

5. Reevaluate things constantly.
I don’t mean change direction but evaluate how you are doing and make changes to the plan to compensate and meet your needs. Again, don’t change directions. This is a common problem with many people. They try something and come up with a plan but they don’t follow through. They don’t complete the task. It so much better to practice one thing and master it than to practice 10 and not master any of them. When i think back to the times in my life when I grew the most it was when I focused on one thing and mastered it.
The summer I spent learning all my bebop scales.
The 4 months I worked on nothing but approach notes.
The 4 months after I got my first gig that I just spent learning the repertoire by memory.

This same concept is true for around my house also. I can walk around my house and show you the projects I completed. the pond I put in, the door installed, the walls I painted……I’m proud of those things. I did a good job. I was focused and completed the task. At the same time there are 20 other things I’m diddling around with that are always in a state of not being completed.You see my point.

I usually reevaluate on Mondays when I’m coming up with my plan for the week and around the first of the month when I’m coming up with a goal for the next month. I think about the last week or month and the positive and negative things. I then come up with a new plan. If last weeks plan was too hard then I make this weeks more reasonable. Sometimes it just means I have to look at my schedule and come up with a better plan for my time. I’m someone that has to schedule my practice time and write things down. Sure, I have many times where i just feel like playing but to be honest there are many times I feel lazy and don’t. Those are the times where having that plan and schedule on paper help me to push through.

5. Write everything down.
Get some sort of book or pad to write everything down. Your goals, your plans, your practice time details, your self evaluations. the more details the better. If I’m going to practice something in 12 keys and have a goal of a specific speed then I write 12 keys on a piece of paper and track which one I’ve practiced and at what speed. This helps me to stay focused but also to know what I’ve worked on and what I need to work on tomorrow. When I start to practice I look at the sheet and decide what to practice today. If I mastered the key of F# yesterday at 320 then I might review it for a second but I know that I don’t need to spend an hour on it. Instead, I might move to Ab which I know I haven’t done and need work at.

6.There has to be a balance between discipline and freedom.
To achieve anything great you have to have discipline. But at the same time you have to allow yourself some freedom to go with the flow. You have to be hard on yourself to practice and stick to the plan but you can’t be so rigid and obsessed that you make yourself miserable and insecure. You have to be positive and enjoy the journey. Trust me, there will always be someone better than you. You will never be as good as you want to be. You will always make mistakes. You will never perfect your saxophone playing. These things are facts. Just accept them. Get over it. Let it go. Focus on just loving the music and the sax. Focus on enjoying the journey of getting better and improving whether it be at a fast pace or slow pace. If you feel negative thoughts and feelings and don’t feel like practicing, motivate yourself with positive things. Listen to a great recording. Let it inspire you. Close your eyes and imagine you are the person playing. Focus on that feeling and that sound. That’s what is all about. That’s what all the practice and planning and lessons are about. Enjoy it. I hope this helps. Steve

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site Neffmusic.com.

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