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
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
is a skill in itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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
forces good technique.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.