Practicing 101

So often a student asks me “how much should I practice?”, and I always come back with the same response, “the more you practice the faster you’ll progress & the more satisfying it will be to play”.

So as I was thinking about this, I realized that, after 34 years of playing music, I may understand practicing differently than those with just a few years of playing behind them. Sure, in essence you are playing through your lesson material in the hopes you’ll have it together for ¬†your next lesson, but it’s more than just that.

Here are some general thoughts to help make practice sessions more effective

Focus: if you practice with a million distractions you will get almost nothing out of your practice session. Focus on what you’re doing and stay focused on the music & how you are playing it.

Make it count: I’d don’t care if it’s an exercise from the book or a scale, play it like it’s music. Make it musical. You never know what will come of imposing musicality upon the ordinary. Some of the greatest compositions are quite ordinary when you look at them on paper. Music happens in taking those dots on those lines and spaces and releasing them from your instrument musically.

A little everyday: You’ll make much more progress playing 10 minutes everyday than if you crammed for an hour the day before your lesson. Remember, it’s not about grades or getting it “right”. It’s about become comfortable enough that all the technical details of playing the instrument fade into the background and you are left free to make music.

You will struggle with music: This is perfectly normal & very much expected. It is in striving farther than we can reach that we eventually increase our reach. Let it be hard and chip away at it in small sections. This is how musician you admire got to where they are.

And finally remember that anything truly worth having takes time & effort.

The Metronome Trick

When my students stumble over chord fingerings in a lessons I often fall back on a trick I learned while at Berklee College of Music. It’s a simple method for training your muscles to get into and out of a chord form smoothly and quickly.

You set a metronome on the slow side (54-60 bpm) and let it begin counting off the time. Now, since most chords are not played in a musical vacuum you will want to approach your trouble chord with another chord, preferably the one that precedes it in the piece you are playing. So, if you were struggling with an Emi7(b5), for instance, and the preceding chord was a G7 you would use those 2 chords for this exercise.

So, with your metronome happily clacking away get yourself ready for the approach chord (in our case the G7) and count off 4 beats to get you to your first measure. On beat 1 of that measure play the G7 chord, and then immediately release your fingers and use beats 2, 3 & 4 to set up the next chord (the Emi7(b5) in our example). On beat 1 of the next measure you will play that Emi7(b5) and then immediately release it, using beats 2, 3 & 4 to get back to your starting chord.

You would go back and forth between these chords, hitting them only on beat 1 of the measure and using beats 2, 3 & 4 to position your hand for the next chord. After a couple of minutes you will feel your hand finding its way without much effort. At this point bump up your tempo a notch or 2 and continue until it’s smooth at that tempo and keep going and bumping up the tempo until you are at the tempo you will actually be playing those chords.

If you aren’t using a metronome in your practice routine, here is one more reason to go buy one. The simply help you become a better musician.