Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stepping out and dialing things in

I played my first solo gig in Asheville this past Friday at The Altamont Brewing Co. It was a lot of fun for me and lots of my friends came out to support me and that was really nice. Nothing is worse for a musician than to play for an empty room. This was my third gig with the whole variety show concept. My current solo gig is something I have been specifically cultivating for about a year and a half. Its is pretty amazing to see it start to come together but I'm realizing how much more ambitious it is than I first realized.

During the show I mix up my instrumentation between guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Just trying to get the sound right on all 3 of these instruments is enough of a challenge by itself but to make things even more difficult I also shuffle rhythm on a piece of plywood AND I change tunings on every instrument at least once during the set. Its a lot to manage for one person during a performance. I'm even more in awe of John Hartford (my inspiration for the solo thing) who pulled off his one man show with such style and effortlessness I can only wonder how he did. Of course, sadly, he's not around to ask.

None of this even touches on practicing all this material. I've got about 1 set that I feel I've got at about 90% right now, maybe more depending on the sound. I've still got some work to do to get it closer to 95% or better. How do I get my material dialed in even better? Its a great question and one I'm not quite sure how to answer myself. I've never done anything like this before. So I reckon this blog post is me trying to tell myself how to practice. I mean I'm always going on about how YOU should practice I guess I should take my own advice, huh? So here's my checklist to help me get more dialed in with this crazy solo show I'm putting together.

  • Continue to dial in the sound. Managing all the cables and mics and amps is a bitch.  Things need to be simpler if possible.
  • Practice at home with live sound as much as possible.
  • Eliminate as many tuning changes as possible.
  • Play live as much as possible. It just ain't the same unless you're in front of a crowd.
Hope it helps. (yes I do!)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Learning where the fingers go Part 2.

Here's a companion video to Learning where the fingers go.

Give it a watch and let me know what you think. I plan on putting more videos together about how you practice music. If you have any topics you'd like to see let me know.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"On Practicing" by Ricardo Iznaola

At this point I've researched close to 20 books on music and about 6 specifically on how to practice. All of these books have been helpful in some way but one book I go to more than any other for advice is "On Practicing" by Ricardo Iznaola. This humble little manual is a mere 24 pages.  It's about the size of a christmas card and could easily fit in about any music case.

Small the book may be but the advice inside is the most concise and well thought out of any of my practice books. The book is described as a "manual for students of guitar performance" but there is nothing in the book that is specific to guitar and the information could be applied to any instrument. There is a section that deals with sight reading which is something not every musicians would necessarily need but the info is still useful. I thought I would post a few choice passages from the book. I promise you'll find these bits of wisdom invaluable in your practice. Good practicing.

Inner poise:
"Emotional detachment from the material being practiced. We are dispassionate and therefore, emotionally unaffected by the natural ups and downs which happen in the course of practicing. We do not condemn ourselves for the mistakes, although we realistically take notice of them. We behave, and feel, like scientists in a lab. We observe, dispassionately, the results of our experiments."

Negative practice factors:
"Difficulty level-the tendency to tackle material that is too difficult for our present level of development. The difficulty may be technical, musical, or a combination of both."

"-If one is practicing one does not continue playing the piece until one has achieved the pre-set goals for that particular fragment. Practicing is , fundamentally, a goal oriented, detail oriented focused process of correction and experimentation to improve what has been done before. Although one practices performing, this is the culminating stage of practicing and can never substitute for the preliminary, detailed work which is the true core of good practice."

I especially like this little bit of wisdom.

"Inner motivation: Discipline
No practice approach can be effective if one doesn't work regularly and consistently. One must want to practice on a regular and consistent basis. Discipline is the consequence of a desire to act in a goal oriented way, prompted by internal circumstances (non material, or spiritual, needs.) Those needs have to do with important values, like love, ambition, self respect, etc."


Thursday, August 1, 2013

How much should I practice?

A question I get asked a lot is how much should one practice to get better? This is an excellent question and is something anyone who hopes to improve at music should be thinking about. Unfortunately it is not an easy question to answer. Everybody is different and has different goals for their music and needs to approach practice with those goals specifically in mind. If you want to play guitar or banjo around the campfire with friends you don't need to practice as much as a classical pianist who's preparing to play the Metropolitan Opera House. Or do you? Surprisingly our beginner campfire picker will need to work equally as hard and in some ways even harder.

Time and again I've found several common threads in my research of books on how to practice as well as my interviews with great musicians and one fact about improvement is clear. You've got to practice if you want to get better. I've read (as well as conducted my own)  interviews  with professional musicians and a pattern emerges for nearly all touring musicians. They start young and practice everyday for at least 2 hours a day on average. And they do that for several years just to get over the beginner hump. THEN, they really start studying music more deeply and start the education necessary to become professionals. So what's the difference between our campfire guitarist and our professional? The campfire guitarist doesn't go any deeper once they can play some songs, but they still need to put in that time to get over the hump.

In fact, its my opinion that beginners have it the roughest. Everything is hard when you're a beginner. You're hands don't work well, your ears need to develop, and it just seems like your goals are far off. And maybe they are! That's a legitimate feeling to have. When I started playing music I think I knew how far off my goals were but somehow I didn't let it stop me. Actually I think I might have been in denial about it. I mean I started performing right off the bat and I can't imagine how bad I must have been. Well, I can imagine. I would write a song and take it down to the open mic and play it the next week. Sometimes I did OK and sometimes I made dogs howl. I played bluegrass gigs when I barely knew the songs and often couldn't keep up with the speed. In other words I was faking it. I wouldn't recommend going about developing like I did but I wouldn't discourage it either. Looking back it seems maybe I thought I could get there faster if I tried hard. I couldn't. It takes a long time.

So you see even for our modest campfire guitar picker, they need to put in the time to get to that point. Just like a concert pianist did. The difference is that our amateur guitar player doesn't go any farther. They just coast along after they get to where they can play. OK,  I digress. So how much do you have to practice? Well let's see. Maybe try this, you'll improve guaranteed or your money back!

  • Strive to practice 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day. AT LEAST! I would say this is the minimum you need to practice to get better. 
  • After years of practicing for hours and hours a day I think that you can't really do to much more after 3-4 hours a day. This is if you are PRACTICING. Practicing is slow, and its often tedious. If you are really practicing you'll be to tired to do more after this much practice.
  • A better goal to shoot for would be 1.5-2 hours a day.
  • Playing for fun should be a big part of your development but don't confuse it with practice.
           A big part of getting better with a musical instrument is just getting your body adjusted and strong enough to play. Focused practice can certainly help and is necessary but just getting your instrument out and having fun can help too. Especially for the beginner. If you're a beginner guitar player, get your guitar out and goof off while you watch TV. Leave it out so you can just pick it up and make some noise. When I was a kid I loved to pick up the guitar and just make sound with it. I wasn't practicing but I was learning and figuring out how my hands connected to the guitar. I'm sure that helped me later on.

  • Finally don't underestimate the benefit of going through a really focused "hardcore" period of learning your instrument. Almost everyone I know has done this.  You get serious for 5-6 months (or more) at time and really buckle down and practice everyday. Work on your weak spots. Struggle. Get Frustrated. Overcome. This is how getting over the beginner hump works. You just can't really avoid it. Get serious for a while and your playing will really improve and stay with you for a long time to come.