Horace Bray is my favorite kind of musician — rooted in virtuosity but with the soul and restraint to know that making music, as opposed to being flashy, is what’s most important.
Horace has polyrhythm-stacked jazz records, singer songwriter records, a deep love for producing electronic music, and is a consistent presence in the Los Angeles pop and jazz scene, notably playing for artists like Dove Cameron, India, Arie, Jordan Fisher, Taylor Dayne, Sofia Carson, Sam Fischer, John Splithoff, Michael Blume, Abir, and more.
We sat down for an hour and went all in on how he became the player he is and what defines good practice — here are the gems:
#1 Know what your ideal practice day looks like
Horace credits some of his best growth to his time between the summer after his freshman year of college to about halfway through his sophomore year, and a typical day would look like:
- Scale Studies — 1 hour
- Transcribing Kurt Rosenwinkel or whatever else he was into — 1-2 hours
- Shed a few standards he knew he wanted to call that night — 2 or 3 hours
- Go to a jazz jam session, call the tunes, get his ass kicked — 2–3 hours
That’s a long day, and this isn’t hyper-productivity hype, but what Horace does brilliantly is match his practice to his goals while putting in a lot of effort.
Every bit of his focus was devoted to the ability to walk up to a jazz jam and hold his own.
That was his north star, and he held to it.
- Match your practicing to your goals
- Force yourself out of your comfort zone
- Put your practicing in distinct categories to keep your motivation fresh (scales, transcriptions, etc.)
#2 Don’t settle for anything less than thorough
This is some of what Horace would practice when learning standards, but keep in mind, you can do this with any song in any genre.
- Perfect the melody
- Explore the root movement
- Study the way the harmony moved
- Analyze the specific voicings within the harmony
- Play the song in every key
- Play solo guitar arrangements of the song in every key
- Run all relevant arpeggios through the tune
- Alternate between melody and solo sections (e.g. 2 bars on 2 bars off)
- Write his own solo
- Record himself and check that he sounds the way he wants to
Have you ever gone that deep with a single song?
I’m not sure I have, and it makes you think about what that extra bit work of does for people. It clearly worked for Horace.
Also, chase your motivations when transcribing. Find a solo or song you genuinely love. Don’t just learn a standard or song because you think you should, or at least do some digging to find a version that resonates with you before spending a ton of time on it.
- Whatever your genre, learn the music as intimately and deeply as you can.
- Quality of transcription > quantity
This interview is an extension of the Noted Newsletter, where I send out actionable ways to get better at music each week.
#3 Try Horace’s 3-Tier transcription system
Here’s how Horace described his transcription process:
Step 1: Sing the melody, solo, and whatever part of the song you want to learn without picking up your instrument until you can sing it in your sleep.
“Loop it for days until you know it as well as happy birthday.”
Step 2: Learn how to play it on the instrument — switch between your memory and starting and stopping the record as needed.
Step 3: Write it down and analyze the changes.
Note: Horace mentioned that steps 2 and 3 often intertwine depending on the complexity of the material. It’s much easier to retain a simple solo in your head without writing it down, at least when compared to something like a Coltrane bebop chorus.
- Don’t start playing until you can sing the part you want to learn. This improves your ability to audiate and absorb the language.
- Use analysis as a springboard to writing your own solos and adaptations in the spirit of the material.
Read more: How to Transcribe Music
#4 Everyone's a drummer
“How much of your mental RAM are you giving to listening to other people in the band? I think when you are listening in a very giving way, your pocket is the best.”
Horace’s advice on pocket is simple:
- Place your mental focus on the people you’re playing with instead of yourself.
- If you’re sick of not feeling locked with a rhythm section… learn how to play some drums or bass.
- When you’re playing live, devote mental energy to listening to others as opposed to yourself.
- Let go of your own ego.
- Learn some drums and bass.
For more on developing pocket, check out:
BONUS: Try thinking of riffs / licks as drum fills
This is a genre-specific tip, so it won’t work in swing or classical, for example, but it’s a cool idea to think through.
Imagine how a drummer would accent a transition or fill over a section, and then roll those accents into your own melodic line.
It may help you get out of your typical phrasing box.
#5 Bring mindfulness to your playing with the Alexander Technique
Horace mentioned that both he and Julian Lage are really into the Alexander Technique, which is something he got into more after he had to stop playing for six months due to holding too much tension in his posture and grip.
The Alexander technique is a mindfulness-based approach that aims to re-educate the mind and the body through a series of movements so the body uses its muscles more efficiently [*].
If you’ve struggled with any sort of pain in your playing, it’s worth exploring.
#6 Consider the role of your ego
Ego is a double-edged sword in music. In some cases, as Horace said, ego is exactly what music needs, but a lot of the time it just gets in the way.
Horace describes his most joyful and musical moments as dissociative — when he is only emotionally reacting and listening to everyone. This is what people mean when they say, “you practice so you can forget everything when you play.”
Oftentimes the less cerebral our performance, the better it is. We sink into something altogether physical — and mindful.
Think about the mentality you bring to each performance. How you can lose more of yourself in the music and trust that your practice has your back?
#7 Consider the role of minimalism / revisiting the fundamentals
There’s a time and place for revisiting fundamentals. How deeply have you gone with your most basic scales? Are you sure you’ve gotten everything you can out of them?
When talking about practice, Horace was quick to bring up practicing simple things slowly and the importance of unlocking scales — you should always be seeking to close the gap between what you hear in your head and what you can play.
Who Horace Thinks You Should Listen to
- Nate Wood
- 90s Bill Frisell, including Gone, Just Like a Train and Nashville.
- Kurt Rosenwinkel
What Horace is Practicing These Days
“A lot of practice now is thinking through how I can sound the most like myself and be the most hip and still appropriate in a hip context”
I feel like we hear this type of sentiment a lot with pro players. There comes a point where the technical side of things is mostly spoken for, and the practicing pursuit shifts further away from traditional drills and more toward tone, feel, and appropriateness.
Individuality becomes increasingly more important the better we get, and we can work on this by casting broad nets in our inspiration, composing, paying close attention to gear, and staying current by listening to what’s in.
Reaching that threshold is something we should all aspire to.
Then you’ll love the Noted Newsletter, where I send out 3 ideas on musicianship, 2 things you should practice, and 1 song you should listen to every week.