Friday, October 31, 2008

Free Music Lesson #3 (Coordinating the hands)

I'll start this blog by promoting my November 15th guitar workshops at Dusty Strings (   These workshops are called "Playing the Guitar with Ease."  Well, I'm not sure that's actually possible but by trying we can improve our sound.  The first workshop is Saturday from 10:30-12:30 and will focus on sitting positions, posture, and muscle tension (see lesson #1.)  The second workshop, from 1:30-3:30,  will look at exercises to help play relaxed and strategies to work on technique issues.  Come check it out.  Now, Coordination.

It's arguable that the most technically difficult aspect of playing music is the coordination of the left and right hands.  I once saw The Earl Scruggs movie and in it he mentions that this is really important and difficult. It is.  Take it from Earl.  Developing a seamless flow with both hands separates the good players from the great.  As my own playing continues to develop (hopefully) I am spending more and more time on this technical issue.  Especially as I try to push into faster and faster speeds.  How can we make the two hands work as one.

Maybe, try this.

  1. Go Slow!  You can't hear this enough.  The only way we can make the hands do what we want is by very deliberately telling them what to do.  This can only be done by going slow. Play something (slowly) you know very well and focus on getting the smoothest cleanest tone you can.  This is where we get the hands to work together.   
  2. Consider the details.  For example, should this finger stay down a little longer, should that one lift sooner.  Should you shift the position of your arm a little bit to reach that note over there.  Play close attention to the way your hands feel as you play.  Try to remember that feeling and recall it the next time you play.  
  3. If you're making lots of mistakes ask why.  This is important.  If you don't figure out what went wrong with a wrong note you can't fix it by just trying to play it again.  Analyze what's going on with the hands.  Find the sequence of movements you're looking for and play that section over and over.
  4. Play scales.  Learning scales is a great way to get to know your instrument.  Its also a great way to build technique.  It happens to be a great exercise for getting the hands to work together.  Maybe some of you know a couple of scales but how well do you really KNOW them.  If you know one scale learn another in a different position, key, or place on your instrument.
  5. Go slow.
Hope it helps,

Friday, October 24, 2008

Free Music Lesson #2 "Working with a Metronome"

Working with a metronome is a common problem that occurs with new music students.  This is understandable.  A new students may be doing well just to get his/her fingers to move at all, much less in time with a relentless machine.  However, there are several reasons that working with a metronome can make you a better musician.   Here's a few:

  1. If you plan on playing with other musicians the ability to keep time is IMPORTANT.   It could be the most important thing.  If you can't keep time, other musicians (who can) won't want to play with you.  Boo-hoo.  Work on your timing!
  2. The metronome will very quickly tell you how fast you can play and is a great tool for developing speed.
  3. Playing with a metronome forces you to LISTEN while you play.  This is an invaluable skill when playing with other musicians.
  4. Telling people you're practicing with a metronome makes you sound cool.

So, you're convinced.  Now what.  Well for starters:
  1. Go slow.  Play slow.  Learn to lock in with the metronome and play "One note per click."  Play each note directly on the beat.  Playing this slowly will really improve your muscle memory on a piece and the spaces (between clicks) will allow you to get things right.  Try a slow speed 60-80 bpm (beats per minute.)  
  2. Don't try to play continuously.  If its to hard to play a long series of notes just play a few but, make sure you get those few notes exactly right.  If 3-4 notes is to many just learn to play 1 or 2 EXACTLY right.  Once you get those locked in try to add a few more.  This works for scales too.  Strive for ease at all times.
  3. Work up to playing a "two notes per click" at slow speeds.  Counted as (1 and 2 and)As your ability on a piece gets better you'll be amazed at how much faster you can play it if you've mastered it at a slow speed.  Eventually, try working up to "four notes per click."  That's four notes played for every click.  Counted as ( 1 e and ah, 2 e and ah )  That's for 4/4 time.  If the timing thing is confusing don't sweat it.  Just try getting in sync with the metronome somehow and you'll be better for it.
  4. Listen to the metronome.  This is the most important thing.  Go slow!
Hope that helps.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Free Music Lesson #1 "Unwanted muscle tension"

This will be the first in a series of weekly music lessons I hope to post on this blog.  I'm a guitarist and banjo player so it will obviously lean in that direction but I hope to get into practice strategies as well as technique issues.  In fact, I think I'll start it off on that note... terrible.   

One of the biggest issues with my students and one that I strive to continually refine in my own playing is unwanted muscle tension.  This is not a very easy to define issue but its basically as it sounds.  Your muscles are tense blocking your ability to play what you want to play.  Most people are unaware of it even happening as they play, but I assure you 99.99999% of the students I see have a significant problem with this.  Several accomplished musicians I've seen have it to.  The great players realized this early on and worked to fix it.  

Watch a great guitarist of any genere.  Doc Watson in folk/bluegrass, John Williams in classical, Eddie Van Halen in rock.  These dudes play really, really, light and relaxed.  You can too.  How?  Try this...

  1. Slow down!  Way down, slower than you think.  Most unwanted tension develops as a player struggles to get the notes out before they've actually learned the music.  Every finger movement must be memorized.  And it must be learned SLOWLY.
  2. Play the music as slow as you need for it to feel smooth and effortless.  If you screw up ask why, don't just plow ahead.
  3. Try working with a metronome at slow speeds while playing scales or an exercise.  Play as fluid as you can.  Strive to feel what its like to play as loose as possible.  Go slow!
  4. Speed, Speed, Speed, we all want it.  How do you get it?  By having %100 control over what you're doing.  If you can't play it slow, you'll never play it fast.  BTW, the highest levels of speed take years to devolpe.
Hope that helps.  Check back next week.