Monday, April 18, 2011

Are you ready?

I've been slacking off with writing trying to get ready for our gig last week.  I'm going to try to get back to writing a bit more.  Here's an excerpt from my practice book.   It's about getting a song ready for performance.
The success a musician will have when making music is directly proportional to the amount of work they put in before they play.  How well do they know their fingerings?  How many times have they rehearsed those fingerings?  Have they focused extra attention on their trouble spots?
         Sure there are a few musical savants out there who may be able to play flawlessly through some kind of different mental wiring than most folks.  But there aren’t many.   It is also a misconception that musical savants don’t practice.  They do practice, often with fervent dedication.  “All savants spend years honing their skills, sometimes obsessively…”(Musicophilia, Sacks.  Page 159)    
         The question of whether you’re ready to start practicing a piece or song with the intent of becoming musical is an important one to ask yourself.  So often the wanna-be musician goes right to this stage and bypasses the work of learning/improving fingerings and training muscle memory in a thoughtful way.  It’s understandable.  This is the fun stuff.  Playing a song is the whole point.  Believe me, nobody is more guilty of this than me.
         This used to be the only way I practiced.  I was hasty in learning fingerings and paid little or no attention to training muscle memory properly.  It should have been no surprise that I couldn’t play anything with a real solid musicality. 
         I imagine there many people that fall into this category.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  If someone is perfectly happy with how they play and how they sound, then why should they worry about doing anything any differently?  They shouldn’t.  I spent years and years in this category.  I dabbled in music.  I knew  a hundred or more songs that I couldn’t play start to finish, and I was fine with that.  Eventually though I decided I wanted to improve.  I wanted to play well.
         The point at which a musician begins to practice a song as a whole piece of music (with the hope of playing well) is when a musician should ask themselves how well they’ve done their homework.  Otherwise they’ll just keep running up against the wall the same way every time they play.
         If you’re ready for your music to begin taking shape this chapter will help to serve to put on the final touches.  If not, take a few steps back and work through the stages a little bit more. 
         The process of building technique without muscle tension, learning fingerings, and developing good muscle memory is very much the “basic” foundation of playing music.  Just as a house needs a solid foundation, and the walls and roof are the skeleton that supports everything else.  These “basics” support how well your efforts at playing music will be.  If your foundation is shaky it’s quite possible (and most likely) that everything will fall apart.
         Is your foundation strong?  Are you ready?
Record yourself

         If you want to know what needs fixing (or doesn’t) with your music there is no other way but to record yourself.  Feedback from friends might seem like a good way to know how you sound and I wouldn’t rule that out as a great performance practice tool.  However, you won’t know how you sound until you hear it played back to you own ears.  The recording won’t lie.  Your friends might.
         Ultimately you need to be satisfied with how you sound, not with how others think you sound.  That’s all that really matters anyway.  If you think you sound good others will too.  If you don’t like what you hear I doubt anyone else will either. 
         My first attempts at recording myself playing music were both exhilarating and terrifying.  It was so cool to listen back to what I had just played.  It felt so good to have some kind of record of what I had played but there were (and still are) so many cringe worthy moments of embarrassing music it’s enough to make you want to hide.  I’ve been recording myself for so long now though I realize that sounding bad is all part of the process.  I’m still surprised to hear how things DON’T sound the way I think they sound.    Both good and bad.
         I’m quite sure I never would have improved if I didn’t insist on recording myself.  Here’s what 5-string banjo master Pat Cloud had to say about using a recording to practice.  “The use of a recording is not only wise, it is mandatory…You can never go wrong with sound.  When you get down to it, that’s all there really is.”  (Key to 5-string banjo, Cloud, pg. 12)
         These days recording software is incredibly inexpensive and easy to use.  Everything from our phones, computers, and small hand held digital recorders are available.  After your initial terror of hearing yourself play wears off you’ll have a tremendous practice tool. 

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