Charlie Hall

Musical Development 301 - How to Practice


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This is an article I wrote some years ago; it was first published in the May 1999 issue of The Black Rose, the newsletter for the Black Rose Acoustic Society.

When Charlie Vervalin and I first discussed my writing a musical development article, the original title was "How to Practice," the idea being that concentrated, effective practice yields big results, even with a small daily investment in time. It grew into "Musical Development 301," of which this particular installment, Getting the Notes Under Your Fingers, or Practicing, covers the original subject matter. First weíll discuss some general concepts and principles, then get down to some hands-on strategies. While weíll be using guitar terms every once in a while, the principles can be applied to any instrument.

Practicing is a skill in itself. Practicing is one area where classically-trained players often have a distinct advantage. Besides learning playing techniques that maximize their technical potential, they learn how to practice, which is in itself a critical skill.

Practicing versus playing. If someone says "I practiced four hours yesterday," I tend to wonder if they really practiced four hours, or if they just played their instrument for that period. Four hours of practice is just about indistinguishable from Hell. One hour of real, focused and concentrated practice is a lot. Even a half hour of real practice a day will yield big results.

Isolate and improve. When you go out and play softball with friends, itís about the same as playing a song you know well. Itís just for fun, youíre not really concentrating on any one skill, and youíre just executing all the different pieces as well as is easy. Now, if you say, "I want to improve my hitting," there are a number of things you can do to improve. First, you can put your glove down and pick up the bat (BIG plus). You can watch the ball more closely, so you can better distinguish a good pitch. You can practice your swing itself, so that you place the bat right on the ball, and your swing is smooth and accurate. You can practice timing your swing, so that you can be more selective about where you hit it, hopefully dropping it out behind the right fielder. You can reinforce these changes by repeated and concentrated practice. And finally, you can go so far as to lift weights to strengthen those muscles which operate the bat.

You apply the same process in isolating and improving your musical chops. Isolation can be done to several different levels of detail, from concentrating on a particular section of a piece, all the way down to working the change between two chords or notes. Once isolated, improving the physical skill involves mental work (concentrating on the sequence of notes), neural improvement (timing and directing the muscles), and muscle development (to minimize the percentage of effort required). There are some instruments for which strength is less critical and fine-motor control are more critical, such as violin, keyboards, etc. For those, the skills are more concentrated in the neuralótiming and touchóarea.

OK, the point of all this painful detail is just to illustrate that there is a lot of detail that most folks never consider in learning their instrument. Thereís no way we can cover all the different aspects of practicing here, but there are ways to quickly improve almost any component of your playing if you really isolate and improve it.

The Fundamentals. Just a few words about that which everybody hates. In the classical world, fundamentals are the poor playerís nightmare, and, well, absolutely fundamental to being a great player. Proper posture, hand position, relaxation, articulation, tone, etc. are critical, not just to allow the musician to play expressively, but often just for executing an otherwise-impossible series of notes.

In the non-classical world, thereís rarely such a thing as a "fundamentally proper" hand position. Often we see these famous musicians who have no clue of fundamentals, yet theyíre incredible players. If they donít need fundamentals, we donít either, right? Donít kid yourself. These great players are, by and large, mutants who not only can operate a touch-tone phone with their elbows, but they generally have some debilitating character flaw which renders them the social equivalent of okra. You and I more normal types will generally find that the more effectively we incorporate the classical fundamentals into our playing habits, the easier lots of things will be.

If you have any doubts about the value of fundamentals, go take lessons on your instrument from a classical teacher for a while. First, as you re-align your playing with the fundamentals, youíll feel like you canít do anything right. Then, after 6 weeksóor monthsóof angst and self-loathing, youíll start discovering a whole new set of skills that werenít available to you previously, and the net result will be greatly increased facility. And, of course, self-loathing.

Use something to keep time. If you forget everything else in this article, remember this. I could spend an entire newsletter just on Your Friend, The Metronome, but Iíll try to keep it brief if you promise to believe every single the word Iím about to tell you. See the FAE (Frequently Articulated Excuses) if you just canít play with a metronome.

These days, besides the tried-and-true standard of the metronome, there are drum machines available, as well as some great music-learning software (see the related article on Band in a Box). They all work; for the purposes of this discussion, letís just call it a metronome.

A metronome is not to make you play faster, at least not directly. Its most important function is to slow you down to a speed where you can execute the notes accurately; then, as your accuracy improves, you can gradually speed it up. Itís also to keep your rhythm steady and highlight the places where youíre cheating the notes, either by playing them too fast, or by just not playing them clearly.

If you donít own a metronome, get one. There are a lot of good ones out there; I prefer the electronic ones, but many arenít loud enough. Donít get one that beeps. Get one with a loud click or pop.  The Matrix MR-500 or MR-550 seem to be a good deal, at about $20-$30. 

Practice extremes. You want to build your capabilities so that normal playing requires a smaller percentage of your maximum physical, neural, and muscular capabilities. How to do this? By practicing extremes. Play loudóI mean really loudóand slow, and fast, and quiet, and if that bar chord is hard, play that same chord up and down the neck, getting all the notes to sound each time.

The underlying principle here is very simple, but very rarely do we relate it to music: the smaller the percentage of total effortómental, neural, or muscularórequired to do something, the more "brain cycles" you can devote to other things, like thinking ahead to the next section, singing, or just enjoying the music. Sound engineers might call this "headroom," the difference between the effort required and the total potential; more headroom is better. When you pick up a heavy trash can, it takes all youíve gotóyou probably donít even think of anything elseóbut when youíre carrying groceries into the house, you can hook any number of those plastic bags onto different fingers, carry them in, and exhort your kids to get back outside and help you. If youíre struggling to get that pinky on the B string, itís a safe bet that everything else is going to get short shrift, like the next chord, or the words to the song.

Problems versus opportunities. A few years ago, they were fond of this euphemism in my workplace, and maybe yours; theyíd refer to every problem as an "opportunity." Yeah, right, and I believe everything I see on the "X-Files," too. However, in playing music, that is how I view things. If I canít get through a particular passage because of a technical problem, I know that if I fix that problem, the increased measure of control and facility will carry over into other areas of my playing. So, letís say youíre trying to play a chord which is too much of a stretch. If, instead of walking away from it, you practice that stretch until it becomes easy, youíll be amazed at how much easier several other chords are.

Donít Practice Mistakes. This happens all the time; we all do it. You play a passage five times and make the same mistake each time. The sixth time, you get it right. Oh, youíve got it now! You can go on, right? NO. You practiced playing it correctly once, and practiced playing it incorrectly five times. Which lesson did your nerves and muscles learn?

Donít "do it Ďtil you get it right." Do it until you canít get it wrong. If you play it incorrectly once, fine, then play it five times correctly.

Good tone forces good technique. If you strive to get a good tone, the physical movements you perform to achieve it will invariably result in good technique, so that speed, strength and accuracy fall into place as well.

Simplify, simplify. If a passage continues to be difficult, rethink it. Do you really need all those notes? Can you use an easier fingering? The best players are also the best cheaters. They play only whatís necessary, and youíd often be amazed at how little that is.

Schedule a time to concentrate. Find a time when you can practice without distractions. A great time is early in the morning before the family gets up.  Itís also very pretty and quiet at that time.

Hands-on Strategies

Letís now discuss a few cookbook-type methods for improving your accuracy, speed, strength, and dynamics (soft-to-loud). These are only a few examples, but you should be able to extrapolate them into other exercises, as you identify those parts of your playing that you want to improve.

Accuracy. Letís improve your accuracy on a passage that you currently have trouble with. It could be playing a melody, a solo or just a difficult transition from one chord to another.

The length of the passage you work at one time should be inversely related to the difficulty, so if itís not too hard, you can take a long section (maybe a few bars). If itís got some real finger gymnastics, you might want to take just four notes or so.

  • Promise yourself to concentrate on just this section for now. After you get it nailed down, you can tack on the sections that precede or follow this, but for now, isolate and improve on just this.

  • Set your metronome at about the speed that you want to play it.

  • Now cut that speed in half. If the metronome was set at 96 beats per minute (BPM), change it to, uhhh, lesseeÖ wait; let me get the calcuÖ OK, 49, no, uh, 47 beats per minute. Got it.

  • Now play the section LOUDLY and accurately as possible. Your goal here is to make every note clean, accurate and last as long as possible before the next one. This will often bring to light some fundamental problem you have where one finger was actually trying to do the wrong thing. Oh, yeah, thereís the problem; letís get that finger corrected. Canít do it at this speed? Cut the metronome speed drastically, again, then try again. At a slow enough speed, itíll be easy; easy is good.

  • Now, after you can play it very accurately, several times consecutively at that speed, set the metronome up a few beats and try it again. Itíll probably be easy at that speed, so easy that youíll decide to play further into the piece.

  • HOLD IT! Donít play past the section youíre practicing. Youíre supposed to be isolating and improving, right?

  • Keep incrementing the speed by one or two metronome settings at a time. As you get faster, you may find some inaccuracy creeping in. Resist the temptation to gloss over mistakes, even if it requires slowing the metronome again slightly.

  • If you totally lose control, go back to your slowest speed. Playing it five times, accurately, at the slowest speed is infinitely more productive than playing it a hundred times inaccurately at any speed.

This whole process should take five to ten minutes, maximum. You may still not be able to play it accurately at your target speed. Thatís OK; you couldnít before, either, but now youíve made considerable progress which will be evident in just a few days. For now, concentrate on something else for a while; maybe another passage, or just playing for fun.

Tomorrow, repeat the process. Set the metronome back to the original slow speed and do the play/increment thing again in the same fashion. This time it should be easier to handle each increased rate of speed and you might wind up playing it even faster.

After just a few days, you will see resultsónot only will you be able to play faster and more accurately, but it will require much less effort. Eventually, you want to increase the metronome significantly past your desired speed, so that playing at the desired speed is relatively effortless.

Sound oppressive? Yes, if you do it for four hours. But not if you do it for the prescribed 5-10 minutes, then play for fun for a while, and youíll see big results in a short time. By the way, thereís no shame in playing slowly; thereís plenty of shame in playing with bad rhythm.

Speed. This is an extension of the accuracy exercise above, but with a few twists. The point here is to get your nerves and muscles used to the idea of moving quickly, so weíre going to use short bursts of speed.

  • Letís take a short passage of, say, eight notes, or two or four beats, possibly a little longer. Letís say you can play this section fairly accurately at 100 BPM.

  • Set the metronome significantly faster than the 100 BPM, like 120. Try playing it at that speed, then increase speed gradually, up to something virtually unplayable, say, 144 BPM or higher.

  • As you play it faster and faster, your fingers will tell you "this is ridiculous; you know we canít do this." You respond with "you WILL, or youíll die trying." Mental approach is critical here; you really want to push your fingers to move just as fast as possible for these short bursts.

  • Youíre not going for accuracy; youíre trying to stretch your speed boundaries. If you canít get all eight notes to even come out, OK, see if you can get six. The important thing is to educate your fingers about real speed.

Strength. On some instruments such as guitars and string basses, strength is an issue. For guitarists, itís bar (or barre) chords. You donít want to be strong enough that you can execute this particular bar chord; you want to be strong enough that it requires only a portion of your total potential. OK, a barred G chord is difficult, so letís isolate and exercise it.

  • Grab the barred G chord, play it once, ensuring that all strings ring as clearly as you can make them.

  • Now slide up one fret to an A-flat chord and do the same thing, again ensuring your best sound on all strings.

  • Continue repositioning, playing, and ensuring a good sound. Youíre not in a hurry. Go up the neck and all the way down to an F chord (first fret). Yes, your gripóusually that big thumb muscleówill quickly get very tired.

  • This is just like lifting weightsóthe further you push past that "tiredness," the more muscle youíll build. If you take it to the point of true muscular exhaustion (which is a long way away), skip this exercise every other day.

After a week or so, youíll be amazed at your progress.

By the way, I do not advocate any sort of strengthening other than on the instrument. For example, there are "Gripmaster" squeezy-thing devices designed to improve a guitaristís grip. However, they donít really simulate a guitar neck, and misuse can result in tendon problems. There may be external-to-instrument strength training exercises that work, but Iím not aware of them. Also, be sure to distinguish between muscular pain (good) and joint pain (bad). If you experience joint pain, STOP doing whatís causing it, now. Either change the notes youíre playing or the way youíre playing them. Joint problemsódamage to ligaments and tendonsódonít go away with repetition, only rest.

Dynamics. Extremely loud practice, if coupled with good timing, will benefit not only your dynamic range (soft-to-loud) but your rhythmic accuracy. Even if youíre just playing rhythm chords to a song, this is very effective in improving your "headroom" as it relates to dynamics and accuracy.

  • Set your metronome at a reasonable speed, and play your series of notes or chords as loudly as you can.

  • As loudly as you think youíre playing, itís likely you can do it even louder, so try it.

  • Youíre not really playing as loud as you can, are you?

  • Is that the best you can do?

  • Now, as you play louder and louder, youíll find that your rhythmic accuracy suffers; youíll generally get ahead of the metronome (you are using the metronome, right?) Just as you had to force your fingers to move quickly in the speed section, here you want to force them to strike the strings in good rhythm.

Youíll find that if you do this, in a short time, not only will your rhythm be much better, but your accuracy will be greatly improved and everything will be easier at normal volume and speed.

Invent your own exercises. The above are just some examples of ways you can isolate and improve your playing. Next time you have difficulty with something, slow it down, find out where the problem lies, and make your own exercise to fix it.

Canít I just play for fun? Good grief, yes! Donít ever lose sight of enjoying music, and always be sure to allow yourself to play for fun. But, if and when you practice, concentrate your effort. Successful practice, for me, is very rewarding, because I can see the results quickly. If you really concentrate, you will too. 


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