10 Facts Of Life About Music Practice

Whether you are practicing Music by yourself, with a mentor, or group, an honest assement of your ability in each of the following catagories is absolutely crucial to productive learning. Always remember the difference between Practice and Play.  Aim for 50-50 of both and for SOMETHING daily.  My favorite quote: “If it sounds good you’re not practicing.”  I wrote about that.  But remember to play just as much!  My favorite concept: nobody learns a language successfully without using it regularly and in context.  (see Victor Wooten interview)  My main experience is with guitars.  These 10 concepts apply to any instrument.

1] Interpritation – What the #$*^ is this telling me?

There’s a real skill in deciphering sheet music, tabs or lead sheets.  They all have their own way of doing things.  Most online TABS or chord charts require AT LEAST a good re-formatting and at most a general corrections overhaul.  Reading exercises such as chord identification from unlabled tabs and diagrams will expose you to all varieties of written music. Multiple free sources include Musicnotes.com, Chordie.com, Songsterr.com and UltimateGuitar.com.  Learn to format user-submitted music in a word processor for printing.  The skill of interpritation also involves reflection on what the important parts are for you and a training your ear to identify them and especially, how to simplify (and being okay with a simplified version).  Any measurement or observation is only as good as the measuring device.  Listen to music on good speakers when practicing.  (see post)  Ear training exercises with others use observation, role-playing, co-operation and leadership: Repeat-After-Me, Chord Solo-er (with style-shifter), Including Your Own Hey, others?

2] Repertoire – I take requests…

Keep track of the songs you can play.  Ask for easy ones.  Ask for hard ones.  There should be easy ones and difficult ones, ones you play to entertain with and ones you play for your own self.  The songs you want to learn are the reason you started to learn this instrument in the first place, and should be given priority over everything else period.  Learn your songs and be able to play them.  I have a google doc of re-formatted and corrected tabs and lead sheets that’s always in the works. With repertoire performance in mind, the following issues will arise as challenges along the way:

3] Vocabulary – the Victor Wooten thing

I asked Victor once in a workshop what percent of the notes he just played during that demonstration were on purpose.  His astounding answer was a question: “What percent of the words you used to ask that question were on purpose?”  How amazing would it be to develop your musical skills like that of a baby learning to speak?  Learning to speak Music will be a direct result of incorporating the vocabulary, tone, phrasing, etc… of those Musicians you are exposed to and admire.  You will learn to recognize certain pieces of Music as derivitives of scales or chords and be able to claim a fluent and ongoing chord vocabulary or “chops”.

4] Musical Knowledge – Keyboard player: “What note is that?”  Guitarist: “Uh… Three”

For the curious, Musical knowledge can answer questions like: Where does this solo come from?  What chord is this?  How does he know what notes to play?  You shouldn’t memorize a series of notes that sound good together without knowing why they sound good…. well…. On the other hand, gypsies, old bluesers and punk rockers never learnt any of this.  Are you okay sounding like “Whatever that biggest string is here, the top one? – right next to the second dot.”  How bout calling that Bb?  What chord are you playing?   Being fluent in the Musical Language will let you communicate with other musicians on instruments other than your own.  Labeling worksheets are a great way to familiarize yourself with your instrument.  So is this chord Modulation page.  Memorize the musical alphabet with the help of a piano.

5] Strength, Coordination and Muscle Memory – No pain, no gain

Plain and simple the only way to get faster on a riff or new chord is practice it over and over.  Nobody can make you faster.  Only you can from strength training with repetition on a metronome (or not) and will give you the ability to sight read when mastered:  if you don’t have to watch your fingers you can watch the page.  Drill it until your fingers hurt, then drill it a little more and then stop.  My favorite exercises for general strength, coordination and muscle memory also work instrtument knowledge and technique: Octaves and the Chromatic Scale.

6] Clarity and Technique – What’d you say?

Do you mumble when you play? Can you actually get x thing to sound good?  Do you have the technique required to physically produce a clean sound?  Does it matter what fingers you should use?  Ask questions.  Use trial and error.  There is usually an extremely enormous amount of private one-on-one time wasted sitting in front of a metronome or drum machine drilling over and over again.  Use exercises on your own time to improve your co-ordination and strength.  You don’t need to spend time working this with a private instructor: all you need is patience, honesty and a metronome.  A good instructor will simply record your fastest time and track it as you progress on your own.   (see tweet)

7] Instrument Knowledge and Maintenence 

Eventually you’ll break a string.  Way before your strings lose their coating and the bronze/steel/nickel starts to get sticky you’ll need to change them.  It also needs regular tuning – like the first thing you do every time you sit down with it regular.  Make sure you have extra strings, know what string guages you like, and know where to go for help.  I’m here for that and also there are plenty of knowledgable pros around.  Find someone you get along with and trust.  Secondly, tune every time you pick up your guitar.  This app is great but there are free ones.  The clip-on ones are also excellent.  You should be able to tune your guitar and change strings.

8] Play-along Exploration – Wander around and get lost

Jam with pros or those who are better than you (in person or recorded) with the intention to imitate vocabulary, phrasing and improve overal powers of aural observation.  (see Jam posts)  This is also essential for rhythm development – you are using what you know in context.  Explore.  Imagine you just got a scooter and you’re driving around new routes or going off-road for the fun of it.  Imagine you won a bid on a storage unit and you’re digging around for treasure.   Can you recognize your surroundings?  Can you find your way home?  What can you get out of x scale?  Keep track of your favorites on this sheet.  You’ll begin to expect certain sounds from certain things.  You’ll begin to be able to speak through your instrument.   There are no rules during play-along exploration.

9] Jam, Perform 

Practice what is hard and Play what is easy.  Perform only the easiest.  The best practice is with those who are better than you whether it’s in person or recorded.  But everything changes when you’re standing up.  What about a stick-twirl?  The pick hide?  Timing a jump to land on the downbeat?  If you’re brave seek out open-mic nights – Roadhouse Wednesdays are bluesy, Novak’s with Aaron is anything goes.  Another type of play is Instructional Play (commonly with others) that utilizes and develops skills in role-playing, co-operation and leadership: Repeater, Random Chord Solo-er (with style-shifter), Including Your Own Hey, others?

10] Preserve, Reflect, Share 

Audacity is a free audio recorder and editor but you might have to tweak your soundcard and/or audio settings on your machine.  A quality soundcard will convert analog to digital cleanly and a powerful processor will reduce input lag (the time it takes to compute sound coming in).  You could just record on your phone just to hear yourself – it’s a good idea! Use Soundcloud (my Soundcloud pageto preserve, reflect and/or share your playing for simple enjoyment or honest critique.  Record from the web app or upload.  (see Audacity post)

Required tools for guitar practice:

Tuner or good app, Metronome or good app, extra strings or REALLY good app, Space to practice with good speakers, ability to pause music playback, Blank TAB paper, notated music

Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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