Monday, January 31, 2011

Technique checklist

Here's a technique checklist from my upcoming book on how to practice.
Technique Checklist

1.    SLOW DOWN! 

         If you’re having trouble chances are you’re playing to fast.  Play at a speed that feels totally comfortable. 

2.    Check your posture.

         Are you slouching?  Are you relaxed?  Experiment with different positions.  Find the one that is best for you.

3.    Do you have unnecessary muscle tension?

         Chances are good that you do.  Always monitor your muscle tension and work to eliminate it EVERY time you practice or play guitar.

4.    Use a mirror

         Checking your posture with a mirror is a great practice device.  Watch for tensions and places you could improve your fluidity.

5.    Pay closer attention on difficult passages.

         During a difficult section (which are all of the sections for beginners) your chances of tensing up increase big time.   Focus your attention even more during those passages and stay as loose as possible.

6.    Play all the time

         You can’t improve if you don’t play.  Strive to play 5 days a week even if its only for ten minutes.  That’s ten minutes you can work to improve your playing.  It all adds up!

7.    Check your ego

A musical instrument is HARD to play.  Don’t sabotage your efforts by rushing through things.  All the best players have played for many years, play all the time, and they pay the closest attention to these details.  Do you?

8.    Study with a good music teacher

I’ve had several music lessons ranging from guitar, banjo, piano, trumpet, and voice lessons.  Some of those lessons were incredible and have helped me tremendously.  Others not so much.  Do some research on teachers in your area.  Find one that looks like a good fit.  If they’re not,  keep looking for one that is and don’t feel bad about moving on. 

9.    Remember Muscle Memory. 

This is dealt with in detail in chapter 4.  Constantly remind yourself that you are “programming” muscle memory into your playing.  If you are practicing with lots of muscle tension and sloppy practice you will “remember” it that way.  Strive for good muscle memory.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Another book excerpt

Here's a section on knowing where the fingers go.  Mucho importante.


Fingerings require vast amounts of memorization.

         The amount of memorization involved in learning fingerings is tremendous.  Do not underestimate it.  In fact I believe that you need to develop a profound respect for the amount of information needed to be stored and recalled to play music.  Even at the beginner level.   Perhaps especially at the beginner level when everything is so completely new.  
         Here is a version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Figure 3.1).  Arranged for a beginning piano student.  Let’s take a look at the details of what it means to memorize all the details of where your fingers go so we could get to where we could play this little piece of music.
         Let’s start by analyzing the song’s structure.  The song has a phrase that repeats three times over the course of this arrangement’s 12 measures.  With two of those phrases repeating in exactly the same way.  This cuts down on the amount of memorizing we need to do.  But there’s still the challenge of memorizing everything in order and remembering when each phrase is played. 
         Even taking into account the repeating phrases that’s still quite a bit of information to recall.  For measures 1-3, 5-8 and 13-16 (which are the same) that’s a total number of 22 movements including both hands.  Measures 9-12 also happen to have 22 movements total.  Add in measure 4 with its 4 moves and we’ve got a total number of 48 movements.  They all need to be memorized in sequence and coordinated perfectly between both hands or the music won’t sound right.  
         48 movements in sequence might not seems so bad with so much repetition going on in Ode to Joy.  But, you also need to account for which finger is playing which note.  We’re not playing each note with only one finger.  We’ve got (presumably) 5 choices on each hand.  This helps to add to the confusion.  Let’s assume that the thumb plays only and all the C notes in this song.   Ok, one less thing to remember.  This helps to cut down on the confusion but this isn’t always the case.  
         Let’s look at a song with a few more notes in it to help illustrate this point.  Old Joe Clark (figure 3.2) is an old folk tune that’s been around longer than anyone can remember.  It’s often taught as a beginner song to beginning fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin students.  This arrangement for guitar consists of an A part which is played twice and a B part which is played twice.  Each part contains approximately 46 individual movements.  That makes 184 movements total since each part is played twice.  Both the A and B parts have several measures that if not identical are closely related.  This will make the song a bit easier to remember.
         However even taking into account the repetition in the song we need to memorize everything in sequence and pay attention to the subtle differences between the phrases.  They may be similar but each phrase contains important differences that bring out the song. 
         Look at it this way.  What if I asked you to repeat a series of numbers that followed the sequence 345676543345676555534?  It makes my head hurt just to look at it.  Even worse, what if you had to recall each number (in sequence of course) with a specific combination of movements that required both hands (as required of guitarists) to work in unison to recall the number?  That sequence of numbers I wrote happens to be the first four measures of Old Joe Clark written numerically. Only the first 4 measures.  21 moves out of 184 we need to recall.  And this is a beginners tune.
         That might seem kind of difficult to remember all that especially when both hands (or feet, or mouth) is needed to remember each number.  That basically doubles the amount we need to memorize.  So really instead of 184 the number of moves is more like 368.  See what I’m getting at?  BOTH hands together.  Mess up a combination of hand movements even slightly and the music is botched.  I like to belabor this point because I feel that it’s an often overlooked aspect of music education.
         Of course memorization does not take into account the physical side of playing a music instrument.  Getting an instrument like a violin, guitar, or saxophone to sound good can take years of effort. Tone production is an entirely different but equally important aspect of practicing.  And what about emotion and feeling in your playing?  That’s a whole other aspect of practice.  And sight reading, and tab, and music theory. 
         Whew!  Feeling a bit overwhelmed?  It’s easy to feel that way.  Try not to.  Practice can encompass so many things so let’s focus on one thing at a time.  (As you always should with music practice.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Happy New Year

I'm working away at this book about practicing.  Here's another sample.  This is about the importance of learning where the fingers go.


How well do you know where they go?

       Knowing where the fingers go seems like a simple concept.  Of course you have to know where your fingers go.  You’re stating the obvious again, let’s move on to something more useful.
         But wait.  Hold on a second.  I have a question.  How slow can you play that instrument of yours?  I’m not interested how fast you can play.  Show me how well you know where your fingers go.  Take your time.  I’ll wait patiently for you to get ready.
         Ready.  Go ahead.  Oops you made a mistake there.  Sure you can start over.  Whoops.  Another botched note.  I know it’s never wracking to play in front of somebody.  No big deal.  Play something easier.  Play the easiest thing you know, and play it slowly.
         Yes I know it’s hard. Can’t do it huh?  You know why?  Because you don’t really know where your fingers go.  When I say know where your fingers go I mean every little itsy bitsy tiny nit-picky detail.  If you hope to play any piece of music you’ve got to know what you’re going to play before hand.  I mean know it stone cold solid.
         Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh yeah.  Well what about people who improvise?  They don’t know what they’re going to play.  They make it up as they go along.”  Ok, fair question.  I’ll answer that question with a question.  Do people who can type, type the same sentences over and over exactly the same way?  Every single time?  No.  Instead, they know their way around the keyboard well enough that they can just type their thoughts as soon as they come to them. 
         A computer keyboard is quite a bit smaller than say a grand piano but the mechanisms are the same.  A jazz pianist has spent years getting to know their instrument well enough that they can communicate with the piano in the same way a typist can.  They have a thought, and their fingers react.  Instead of using words, our pianist is thinking sounds. 
         Don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck has to say about improvisation.  “Just because they’re improvising doesn’t mean they’re making it all up out of nowhere.  It’s based on everything they know how to play, and the sounds that they like…interspersed with coming up with good guesses of things that might sound good because of how well they knew the (banjo) neck and learning how to recover from a new idea with style.”  (Masters of the 5 String Banjo.  Trischka, Wernick)
         Jazz Guitar master Joe Pass described improvisation as “like a language.  You have a whole collection of musical ideas that you’ve accumulated through your musical history.”  (The Genius of Joe Pass.  Video)  Music is not unlike words you know in your vocabulary.  How well you know those “words” is based on how well you’ve practiced.