Friday, May 31, 2013

Head Games

 
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Head games. (Practice for the mind)

         For a short time I used to enter guitar and banjo competitions.  The idea of a music competition is a bit ridiculous from the start.  How could music be judged in a  competition? The answer of course is that it can’t. Music is expression. At best, it’s human emotions transmitted through organized sound, it’s a feeling man, it’s cosmic, or something like that. How could expression be judged? Mostly competitions judge technical ability. How well one’s fingers work while playing a difficult piece of music. Perhaps most tellingly they judge how calm one’s mind can stay in the face of anxiety and pressure. Those competitions were some of the most stressful performances I’ve ever given. I mean you’re being judged after all. The ego is on the line and it doesn’t bow out easily.
         I don’t regret entering competitions even though I’d steer clear of them now. The competitions pushed me to develop my technique and knowledge of the instruments to higher levels. It also pushed me to perform in high pressure situations. My very first competition was pretty much an outright disaster. I had planned on performing three guitar instrumentals with the aid of a 2nd guitarist providing rhythmic accompaniment. Unfortunately my backup guitarist failed to show and I was struck with terror at the thought of performing alone.  
         My heart rate sped up as my hands nervously twitched from the anxiety that built as I waited impatiently for the competition to start. Maybe the contest officials sensed that I needed to get put out of my misery and I was chosen first. I would have to literally face the music I had hoped to play and impress everyone with. As you might imagine my performance was painful to hear.
         My self-consciousness had crippled my confidence. Music I had gone over smoothly so many times at home was quickly buried under a mountain of fear and anxiety. I had expected the performance to go a certain way and when it didn’t my mind froze. I wasn’t prepared to adapt. I wasn’t ready to change. Most importantly, I wasn’t really focused on music. I was just plain scared. I needed to learn to adapt to unexpected musical situations and get control of my anxiety.
         A year later I found myself on a solo camping trip in Leavenworth, Washington about 30 minutes from the same bluegrass festival that hosted the guitar competition I had entered and bombed in. I realized that the bluegrass festival was happening that particular weekend and they would be having the competition again. I had my guitar with me, maybe I should go enter just for fun? I hadn’t prepared for it in any way but I thought it might be fun to go play. In the year since the last competition I had spent some time working up solo guitar versions of old traditional tunes like Reuben’s Train and Black Mountain Rag. These versions weren’t especially flashy and not the type of thing that would do well at a guitar competition but they were fun to play.
         I thought “Why not” and drove over to the festival grounds and entered the competition. When it was my turn to take the stage I had some butterflies but nothing like the year before. I didn’t really care that much if I did well in the competition or not. Mostly I wanted to see friends and play these arrangements for a live audience. I hadn’t been rehearsing the songs intensely so they were still a bit rough around the edges but I ended up playing them pretty well. This time I around I actually got into the music and was able to forget myself.
         To my surprise after my performance the crowd cheered really loud. Louder than for any other competitors up to that point. I was amazed. Several people came up to me afterward and told me they thought I had done really well.  Despite all that I didn’t really imagine myself doing well in the standings. The thought of placing hadn’t really crossed my mind and besides I felt satisfied with how I had played because it was such an improvement from the previous year.


         Right after my performance a guitarist took the stage whose technical ability clearly surpassed mine and everybody else’s. This guitarist got the crowd’s attention with his hot licks and classy playing. Well, here was the best guitarist in the competition. I knew it, the crowd knew it, and I’m sure this awesome guitarist knew it. All that was left was 2nd and 3rd place and honestly I even considered leaving before the “winners” were announced.
         As cheesy as it sounds I felt like I had already won. I played infinitely better than I had the year before. Anything I had to prove at that point had been proved but I was really shocked when they called my name to come accept 2nd place! Wow, I mean I thought maybe 3rd place but 2nd place just seemed crazy. 
         I hadn’t even prepared for this competition and entered it unexpectedly and I somehow got 2nd place. I was thrilled, but the biggest compliment I got about my playing wasn’t the 2nd place from the judges it came from the winner himself. After the winners were announced he came up to me and told me he really like my playing and arrangements and praised them for being “really musical.” Wow. Placing in the competition was a really nice feeling, not because I felt that I was that much of a better guitarist than the other competitors but because the judges and audience seemed to say, "Nice job! We enjoyed that."
         I got 2nd place by just doing my thing and not worrying about winning. It didn’t matter that my arrangements were nothing at all like what the other competitors were playing. In fact that might have helped my chances since they were so different. I might as well have won I felt so sky high.
         Would I have done so well if I had worried and practiced, and over practiced before the competition? Maybe, but maybe not. I might have been all worked up and nervous and worried about not playing well. I think the lesson to be learned from my surprising success at this particular competition is that a musician’s mental state is incredibly important. Indeed, it’s the most important element of a musicianship. Getting control over ones mental state is an often difficult and mysterious element of being a musician. Fortunately improving one’s mind for music is possible and easily done if a musician asks him/herself the right questions.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What Practice Is. What Playing Is.


What Practice Is.  What Playing Is.

         Let’s get a few things clear right from the start. Practicing and playing are not the same thing. I think both are important in a musicians development but a distinction needs to be made. Practice is making the decision to improve something specific in your playing. Playing can be anything from jamming your favorite song of the moment, noodling a few notes from a scale, lick, or song, or it could be making noise with no focus whatsoever. Practice is narrowing your focus to a specific goal or set of goals and maintaining a focus only on that goal. Playing doesn’t need to have a goal other than getting your instrument in your hands and getting it to make sounds.
         To put it another way, practice is playing with the intent of improving an element of ones musicianship. This is where many people go astray. 
         Here’s a typical scenario. A music student goes to take a lesson. The teacher says, “Here’s some music to go home and practice.” The student goes home and tries to play the assigned music. Since the student doesn’t really know how to practice they never quite get it just right. They go back to the teacher and the teacher says “OK, well you need to practice some more. Here’s another song to work on.” The student works on another song that they don’t quite get. Now the student can sort of play two songs.  By this point they are no longer practicing when they play these songs. They’re just playing, and perhaps what they play doesn’t sound so hot.
         Perhaps the student starts to feel like they’re not really good at music. They feel like they’re missing some ingredient in their DNA that prevents them from playing well. An unfortunate and pervasive notion in society today. At this point the student may not strive to go much further with their music. Maybe they keep learning songs but they never understand the method to improve their skills. Maybe they give up altogether. 
         I took several lessons with guitarists that I admired and not one of them told me how to get better. I even had one tell me that my left hand technique needed work but made no mention of what was wrong and how I should fix it. In fact, my first few banjo lessons were exactly like how I described in the above scenario. I learned all the material as best I could but I had no idea how to practice it “properly.”
         How did the folks I went to for lessons learn to play so well?  Perhaps these teachers simply didn’t know how to practice either.  It is possible they had been taught so well they never got into any of the “bad habits” you so often hear about. Good practice was elementary to them and how to practice seemed obvious and not worth mentioning. Perhaps they just weren’t good communicators. Or maybe they just flat out didn’t care whether their music students learned how to play well or not.
         The thing about music is that getting better at playing music means you have to get better at practicing music. They are the same thing. If you don’t learn how to practice better you won’t play better. It’s very simple really. A devotion to improving your playing should start with a decision to understanding what practice is and what the best way to approach it is. 
         It is absolutely possible to get better at music every time you practice. Every time. You start your practice at point A and when you get to point B you have somehow improved your playing. It’s that “somehow” stuff I hope to shed some light on. I know I was frustrated for years. I worked harder and harder but somehow my playing just kind of stayed the same. 
         Practicing should place a great deal of focus on elements of your music that are not good. Things that are in need of improvement. It can be great fun to sit down and play a song you’ve played a hundred times before but it’s not practice. Practice goes after weak points, reinforcing what you already play well won’t improve you as a musician.
         Practicing is a constantly evolving process. It should not be the same each time. To grow you need to keep tweaking and adjusting your routine. In fact practice should never be considered routine. It’s about evaluating where you are musically and making an honest assessment of what you need to do to get where you want to go. Then move in that direction.
         To make continued improvements in one’s playing one needs to make continued improvements in one’s practicing. But how?  The next 6 chapters will lay out what I consider to be key elements of practicing.  They are:

1.   Playing with ease.
2.   Goal setting
3.   Knowing where your fingers go.
4.   Developing muscle memory.
5.   Polishing things up

These are not presented in order of importance as they are all equally important. However, I feel that in learning how to practice this is an appropriate progression.  Feel free to jump around as you need to while learning about these concepts but remember that to practice well  (and ultimately play well) you’ll need to pull all these concepts together into a cohesive whole.
         For now let’s sum up.


          
·   Your practice habits need to equal your goals. 
·     Become of aware of when you’re practicing and when you’re playing. These two things are different.  They’re both important but a distinction should be made.
·     Improving at music every time you practice is possible with a thoughtful approach.
·     Practicing spotlights elements of playing that are weak and in need of improvement.
·     The rules for practicing are the same for the virtuoso and the amateur. There is a right way to do things and a wrong way. Make a choice to practice the right way and you’ll always improve.