Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Slow Practice is the best practice

I've come across some excellent research regarding how slow practice is the best.  Through the The Bullet Proof Musician website I read some interesting information on slow practice.  The first bit of info comes from Dr. Frank Wilson, a hand specialist who has studied the connection of how our brain and hands work together.  An article of his was uploaded the Bulletproof site and this little article had some really interesting points.  I'll try to sum it up.

  • The Cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls fine motor skill.  This part of the brain works best when left alone.  Remember this post of mine? It's about playing through the subconscious.
  • So it turns out that the part of the brain that controls the playing of music sort of runs the hands on an auto-pilot when everything is up and running.  Of course it will only work as well as you have practiced. 

So, we want to practice enough to where we can get to a point to where we can let our hands take over and not "think."  How do we do that?


The Bulletproof website mentioned golfer Ben Hogan, someone I had actually never heard of since I'm not into golf, who is one of the great legends of the game.  Can you guess how he honed his swing to perfection?  That's right, SLOW MOTION practice.  Hogan perfected his swing through years of carefully analyzing his movements at a snail's pace. 

These links are excellent insights into how slow, observant, and mindful practice yield the best and fastest results. 

Check them out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gaining more precision

For the longest time the Bach piece I've been working on has caused a touch of nervous anxiety.  Just the thought of picking up the guitar and starting to work on it would get me feeling a bit jittery.  It's such an undertaking.  And of course I really want to play it well.  No actually, that's not true.  I want to play it beautifully.

You see this is all very simple really.  My ego wants what my intuition instinctively knows to be truly false.  In other words: I'm not ready, I know it, but I wish I was, but I don't know if I'll ever get there.  So, I worry.  It's so hard to not make mistakes with this piece.  There's so many dang notes.  There's so many difficult moves to make.

In my desire to regain some sense of control over this entropy I decided to take several steps backward and my results have been encouraging.  I came across this video of Glenn Gould.  In the video an old childhood friend and fellow pianist talks of a unique technique they both learned from the same teacher.  With this technique the piano student taps the fingers of a relaxed hand to help train it to play. Using the opposite hand the student would literally tap the fingers of the other hand.  This to me seems like an excellent way to develop precise moves for piano playing.  You're not even moving the muscles of the hand actively, you're moving them from the "outside".  The reason to do this , to me anyway, seems that you're training the movements with absolutely no tension.  As soon as you start "trying" to play you're tensing your muscles potentially slowing them down and making mistakes.

In a way you're telling the hand what moves to make without the hand actually "thinking" about it.   There are several articles that go into more detail about why this technique works.  To me it seems obvious.   No tension is allowed into the hands while they play.

This reminded me of a technique I've used quite a bit of but have neglected lately.  The "touch" technique.  It's simple.  With your right hand you touch the string very lightly before you play a note.  The benefits of this technique I find to be invaluable.

Think of it.  You never play a wrong note with this technique.  You have to go slow enough that you touch the string first.  This trains precision, accuracy, and you have to absolutely know you're playing the right note before you play it.  Over time you've trained the movements much more accurately and with a minimum of muscle tension.

Try this:

  • No matter what style/instrument you play practice by simply touching your finger/pick (right hand for guitars, banjo's, mandolin's, etc.)  to the string BEFORE you sound a note. 
  • At first this technique forces you to go slow (a good thing) and allows you more time to get everything in place before you sound a note.
  • Over time increase your speed and you'll find that your picking accuracy will be much better.

Good luck

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Playing through the subconscious

I've been playing the Bach piece more and more in front of people.  I'm pretty much forcing myself to perform it in front of people.  I figure if I perform it enough in low pressure situations I'll have less nervous energy when I perform it in front of a larger audience.  I even performed it out at an actual gig about a month ago.   My nerves were pretty wound up and I hit a few duds and got a bit lost for a second but overall I was happy with the performance.  A classical guitarist told me that it would be 2 years before I would be ready to take this out of the oven.  I'm not quite to the 2 year mark so that performance was a bit ahead of schedule.  I'm figuring that by next spring it should be on lockdown and I'll have full confidence to perform it.   It's pretty close to that now.  But how do I break through to next level?  How do I get this thing where I hardly make a mistake or make none at all?  Most importantly though, how do I make this piece the most musical?

I've been noticing that when I'm playing the piece my mind will wander in and out of consciousness.  At some moments I'm having an inner dialogue that is not really helpful.  In fact it is distracting.  Maybe I'm thinking about my hands or feeling nervous.  Then a moment later I'm focusing only on the sound I'm hearing come from the guitar and suddenly I'm not really there at all.  There is only the sound and the music.  I'm controlling it but not actively.  It's just happening all on its own.  This is an amazing place to be.  This is where music happens.

 I've read about this musical state in a couple of books on the subject.  One notable book is "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry Green.  This book is an excellent introduction to playing through the subconscious.  It highlights lots of exercises designed with the goal of getting to that place I mentioned earlier.

I've also read some quotes from John Hartford where he mentions that he really tried to play through the subconscious.  He didn't want to be thinking much about the music at all.  In one quote he said that when he's playing his best he's just a set of eyes floating above his hands, detached.  He's no longer thinking.  Charlie Parker also said something to this effect.  He practiced until he could just forget everything.  Here's a quote I found.  I've seen it a few places.

"You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

Clearly something is going on here we can learn to use in our music making but how do you get there?  Here are a few suggestions to help you play through the subconscious.

  • You've got to know your fingerings.  If you hope to play subconsciously you can't be thinking about what finger goes where.  Know that stuff cold.  Learn it then forget it so to speak.  Or at least learn it, then stop thinking about it.
  • When practicing focus only on the sound of your instrument.  Don't think about anything else.  You'll find that sound is telling you all you need to know
  • Hopefully music lifts us out of everyday existence.  It's transportive.   Liberating.  Strive for that feeling of detaching from day to day complacency.  Try to go somewhere else with your music making.  
  • If you hit technical problems go back and work on those problems when you find them.  Maybe you need to revisit some fingerings or improve your muscle memory over certain passages.  Playing through the subconscious means that mistakes should be few and far between.  They should be so small that they won't upset the music.  Everyone makes mistakes but not everyone makes music.  
  • Don't worry about making mistakes when playing through the subconscious.  Worry about making music.

I hope that helps.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Observations from a beginning

I've always toyed with the idea of learning to play the fiddle.  Since my wife plays fiddle I've always had one around the house that I could pick up and mess around with.  It usually never got much further than some horrendous screeching and the quick realization that learning fiddle has some serious hurdles that would take a long time to overcome.  And that is just to get it to NOT sound like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Actually making music on the thing takes much longer.

Of course all instruments take time to improve at.  Each one has something that makes it difficult to work out.  The guitar is easier than a fiddle to make sound good right away but that fretboard.  Learning the fretboard of a guitar is something one could spend their whole life working on.  Just learning the major scale in one or two keys could take years to really get a handle on.  Then there's arpeggio's and chords (lots of complicated chords).  The guitar fretboard is a vast wilderness to explore and map out.  The fiddle is more like a wild beast you have to learn to tame and coax into trusting you.  Over time it will befriend you but how long that takes is up to the fiddler.  You've got to show it lots of love to get it to sing for you.

My decision to dig in and start working on the fiddle was made the moment I heard a John Hartford bootleg where he not only plays fiddle but dances rhythm AND!! AND! (no understatement here) calls the square dance at the same time.  AT THE SAME TIME.  I'll repeat that in case you don't get it.  He does all 3 AT THE SAME TIME.  Now, if you've never square danced before that's to bad.  It's good fun and is a great way to feel like a kid again.  Go try it.  Then you can appreciate what Hartford is doing.  I mean just playing a good fiddle is hard enough.  Calling the dance is a full time job by itself.  And dancing too!  I was inspired.  I had to at least start working on the fiddle.

Here's a link to an audio clip of Hartford calling and dancing at the same time.  

I started practicing with fervor in January.  It's late July now.  So 6.5 months later I finally got out and jammed a bit with a buddy of mine.  I basically only know one tune and can only play it slow and in tune about 1/2 the time.  But I think it's a good start.

Here's what I've learned.

  • The first 3 months felt like I wouldn't get anywhere.  Intonation seemed almost impossible at first.  About 4-5months later I started to see some improvement with it.  Almost magically one day it felt easier and started to sound better.  
  • I never tried to play fast or learn more than I was ready to learn.  I think this is important.  So many beginners I see get hung up on playing faster than they are capable of.  I've not even tried to play fast and I've enjoyed playing fiddle greatly.  I think my technique is improving faster as a result.  Don't worry about speed.  I only know about 3-4 songs and I'm just really working on making those songs sound as good as they can.
  • I practice fiddle about 4 days a week.  Usually for about 30-45 minutes at a time.  Lately I've been practicing more.  Maybe 2 hours a day.  I can tell the extra time is helping.  This isn't a tremendous amount of time.  But now I can play some tunes and I've started to see real improvement.  
  • So let's see.  About 25 weeks.  3 hours a week or so.  That's 75 hours of fiddle so far.  I doubt I've actually practiced that much.  But it's a fair estimate.   Only 9,925 hours to go to mastery.  At this rate that's going to take more than 10 years.  I better practice more. 
  • I love just getting the fiddle out, tuning up, and sawing on the strings.  It's such a cool instrument.  I don't think I would have kept at it if I didn't like it so much.  It's so damn hard to play.  Love what you do. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Interview with Laura Veirs

In a region filled with singer/songwriters Laura Veirs has become one of the Northwest's most distinctive and accomplished tune-smiths.  Her 2010 release July Flame was critically regarded as one of the best releases of that year and was my favorite CD that year of any genre.  July Flame is the type of record that any musician would strive to make.  Distinctive and diverse both musically and lyrically, July Flame has no weak spots.   Digging back through Veirs' catalog I was pleased to find several other records of intelligent and warm folk/pop music.

Veirs' latest record Tumblebee, is a children's record.  But this is no ordinary children's CD.  Every song is cleverly arranged and features and excellent cast of backing musicians including banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. 

Chatting with Veirs was refreshing.  She's very open and revealing about her songwriting process.   It was great to hear such an outstanding songwriter and musician expresses the same frustrations and insecurities that I've experienced.  It's clear she's an extremely hard worker and is as interested in the process as she is with the end results.

Check out her website here:


BC: How did you get started with music?

LV: My brother had a guitar lying around in high school, but I didn't take to it until college.  He showed me a few chords and I got a few songs under my belt.  I grew up in Colorado Springs, which is a strange town for music.  There's almost no live music scene - unlike kids who grow up in the Northwest who can go see tons of all ages shows.  In my case there were no mentors and no women who were doing music.  There were boys in high school bands, but I just didn't have any exposure to it.  

BC:  Was it in college when you got going with music?

LV:  I met a bunch of girls who were in the punk rock scene.  The showed me Bikini Kill and all the DIY bands from Kill Rock Stars.  I was like, wow there's a whole world of people doing this.  Ani DiFranco was an inspiration at that time too.  So I started playing electric guitar and writing songs.  Writing a lot of joke-ish kind of story songs.  And after I graduated from school I moved to Seattle and started doing my own songwriting more seriously and kept going from there.

BC:  When you were writing your own songs in the beginning were you learning guitar?  Did you take any lessons?

LV:  I didn't take lessons seriously until I met John Miller.  He's a great teacher, he got me started learning country blues and that was a huge thing for me.  That had a massive influence on my playing style.  I started writing songs in that style with the alternating bass line.  Then I would harmonize the melody and it opened up this whole world of songwriting that I didn't even know was possible.  That was huge for me.

BC: Did you practice that technique intensely for a while?

LV:  Yes I did.  I worked very hard at it.

BC:  Working at it slowly?

LV:  Yes.  Slow.  I was frustrated.  It was like, "I can't do this at all.  I'm really going to have to work on this."  I did and I was amazed by the fact that I could do it, but it took the kind of diligent slow practice that is hard for people.  I've taught music for many years and getting into the nitty gritty of working out the trouble spots and making sure that it is smooth and not something you're anxious about.  It took a lot of hard work.

BC: Did John Miller teach you that or did you figure it out on your own?

LV:  His approach was great.  The thing that really worked with his lessons was that he had everything all tabbed out.  It was visual and musical.  Then we would sit and listen to the LP's.  Old blues records and talk about the musicians.  He'd put it in this really cool context.  I would learn songs by ear.  I've always had a good ear.  I'm not very visual with my music but to have the combination of him playing the music slowly and I would record it.  Then we would go through it note by note.  Then I would work on it all week.

BC:  Sounds like he was a great teacher.

LV: He was, and I've taken a few skype lessons with him still.  He was very patient and you got a deep sense of music from him.  I thought this guy was a like gold mine.

BC:  That was fortunate that you found a great teacher.  How about vocally?  Did you take vocal lessons?

LV:  I did at one point.  I learned about diaphragm breathing.  Learning that when you breath in to sing your stomach goes out.  The breathing was a really big thing because I was always a very insecure singer.  My voice was very thin and reedy.  I felt like I had the songwriting and musical skills but the performance and singing was always hard.  Now after those lessons I learned about singing and supporting my voice and that helped.  I think so much of singing really is trial and error and getting up in front of people.  So much of it is confidence.  You can't really teach confidence.  You just have to do it over and over and over.

BC:  Did you really work at your voice?

LV:  No, just doing hundreds of shows and writing and hundreds of songs and going over and over.  I started to feel like I enjoyed singing and had less anxiety about it.  I had less fear of performance and more interest and curiosity about how you get a good tone.  I think for so long it was a place of fear.  I can't do this.  I'm trying and struggling.  But now it's more a place of interest.  Like, "how can I change my voice to do what I want?  How do I sing in different ranges?"  Like singing from a soulful place or a high ethereal place.  I think also recording with Tucker was helpful because when you record it's like a microscope and you get a clear idea of like, WOW, I didn't hit those notes.  I wasn't even aware.  I think recording is important to becoming a better singer.

BC:  I love your CD July Flame.  There's not a song I don't enjoy and I think that's really hard to do.  Even from some of my favorite artists that I've listened to forever, there's usually a song or two that I'll just skip.  But, I can listen song to every single song on that record and that really turned me on to going back through your catalog.  As a songwriter, I know it's so hard to write a good song.  I'm curious how you approach your songwriting.

LV:  You know, I'll usually be noodling around a guitar part.  But, by the way, I've always been disciplined about setting hours aside every day to do it.  It's my job.  I think of it as my job.  I don't know if I did a few years ago.  Using the word job makes it sound not fun, and sometimes it's really not fun but most of the time I'm in a place of, "wow, this is so cool."  A place of interest.  Then I feel like this isn't that hard.

When I'm writing I get into a cool inward space.  An interior place of what's going on.  That usually comes from the guitar.  Then I'll start.  Maybe I'll have a title.  Maybe I have a few words I can start to string together.

BC:  Do you have a list of ideas you go through?   Like oh, here's an old idea.  I'll work on that.

LV:  Sometimes I'll find a line in a book.  Funny words or phrases from a terms dictionary.  Like the phrase, "up the river."  You know that's a term for going to jail.  I just had a friend who went to jail.  That turned into a cool song.  It's sometimes like I'm trying to keep my eyes open.  For July Flame, when I saw the name of that peach at the farmers market, I thought what a cool song title.

Recently I saw a sign that said, "Love over Gold"  What does that mean?  To me that means choosing relationships over money.  I thought what a cool song title so I wrote it down.  I put it in my email inbox.  I might look at it later and think, I should work that out.  I'm trying to keep my eyes open a lot for random stuff then I'll write it down.

BC:  One thing I think you do really well is lyrics.  Your lyrics are so unique and vivid.  Do you set out to kind of write lyrics that are sort of poetic and paint a unique picture?

LV:  Definitely.  I try to go with the general songwriting theme of detailed verses and a more universal chorus.  My choruses are usually very simple.  Like, "Can I call you mine?  Can I call you mine?"  That must be in a lot of songs.  That notion, of "you're mine."  But my individuality comes out more in the verses.  I work very hard on that.  I feel like lyrics are my weakness actually.  As a lyricist I feel it is so hard to find the words to describe something without sounding cliche.  Now, with my songwriting it's hard not to repeat myself.  I don't want to write the same lyrics again.

BC:  I think lyrics are the hardest.

LV:  So hard.

BC:  I think you're on the right track.  Do you rewrite your songs over and over?

LV:   I'll write a song, then put it down.   But, sometimes I'll write three or four songs in a sitting and then I'll come back to them the next day.  Then maybe I'll use the same words with different music and maybe the third or fourth is the version I'll keep.  Maybe I'll discard the whole set of songs and maybe steal that one line that works and put it in the next song.  I do a lot of lyric recycling.

I wrote 80 or 90 songs for July Flame.  And now I've written that many for this new record I'm writing.  It's so hard to come up with a good song.  It's so mysterious.

BC:  Have you had the experience of writing a song that just sort of appears fully formed?

LV:  I love that.  They're not always the good ones.  But, sometimes they are.  It's like a gift, it's like I don't know how that happened but it did.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Article on practicing

I came across an excellent article on practicing in Time Magazine.  It might sound an awful lot like what you've read on this here blog.