I realize that I’ve been talking a lot about how to practice and have only touched upon what to practice in a very limited sense. If you have missed my other posts on practicing you can find them here: part 1 , part 2 , part 3 and part 4.
What to practice
Without being too obvious, you should practice what you’re going to play.
If I was a shred metal player – I’d learn a ton of shred metal tunes. I’d work on scales and arpeggios a lot and investigate all sorts of lead techniques (tapping, pinch harmonics etc.). I’d work on learning the solos to those tunes and then start trying to work on my own solos. I might watch a bunch of instructional videos to try to get ideas as well.
If I was into Jazz, I’d be practicing specific standards. I’d work on coming up with a bunch of ways to comp chords and practice soloing over the changes. I’d listen to other renditions of the tunes and borrow (read: steal) any ideas I liked.
If your goal is to play exactly like Stevie Ray Vaughan – learning your melodic minor modes won’t help you directly with your goal, and being motivated to work on them will be difficult if you can’t tie it into your goals.
The #1 thing you should be practicing
Now, I’m going to advise you on the #1 thing you should be integrating into your practice regimen that you probably aren’t actively doing now – more than scales, chords or anything else I can think of for the moment. And it’s a commonality with all of the examples above.
You should practice listening.
Not just hearing – really listening.
You should practice listening with the purpose of ultimately working on developing your musical vocabulary.
Listening, interacting and speaking are three pillars of any conversation and they should be important for you to consider in your playing as well. If you can’t hear what’s going on – you’re not going to be able to say anything that’s poignant.
Without going into religion, I believe fundamentally that silence is a sacred thing. I believe that if you are interrupting silence with sound – you’d better have something to say.
So how do you practice listening?
Transcribe – or learn things aurally
There are a lot of internet sites that break down transcription methods better than I can do in the context of this post – but it’s important to note initially that you will probably not be that accurate. Don’t worry about perfection. Spend your energy learning phrases and understanding the context that they exist in (i.e. what chords to play them over).
When I first started playing guitar in bands and I had to learn songs for the bands I was playing in, the first thing I learned was the bass line – as it was easy for me to hear and gave me an idea of which “power chords” I’d have to play as well. If you find a tune you like you should try to learn all the parts on guitar. The bass lines, the vocal lines, the keyboard or other instrumental parts… You’ll start coming up with things that you might now have ever stumbled across on your own. If you want to try to notate it – you will get even more out of it – but the important thing is to see how it all works together.
Sing it if you want to own it
Sing what you play. Play a phrase and sing it back.
Play what you sing. Sing a phrase and play it back.
When you sing something you internalize it. Internalized things become a part of you. When you play a melody try to sing it as well. Listen to other people sing it and try to match the inflections.
(ah if only I thought of the above 2 myself – but they were taken from W.A. Mathieu’s excellent, The Listening Book. If you don’t know this book – I highly recommend it!)
Play with musicians that are better than you.
If you play with really good musicians – they’re listening. We tend to copy other people’s behavior. So if a room full of people are listening, we might be more inclined to listen as well.
Really listen to the world around you.
Try this for a moment. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. When you’re done exhaling – focus for a couple of seconds on what you hear. Doing this now I just heard – My refrigerator running. The cat lightly snoring. Cars passing in the distance. Several neighbors mumbling down the hall. The bathroom sink dripping. The ac unit for the building turn off. My heartbeat. A car pulling into the garage. When I imagine my heart beat as a bass drum being hit I can fall into a groove. The fridge acts as a drone. Now I hear a bird -it sounds like horn stabs. The cars rumble like bass pitches. My typing accelerates to accompany the sounds going on. For an instant it’s a cool piece. Then it vanishes as my perception goes back to what I’m doing. Before I thought about it – all I was aware of was the fridge. Once I really listened I could hear a number of cool things going on.
When you really listen as a musician – you can start to get past the point of focusing on, “wait is that an A major or an A minor chord?” – and get into how what everyone is doing fits together. You can start to get past the technique of performance and work towards making music.
Making music is a noble goal and it’s a goal that’s rooted in listening. If you’re really listening all of those other things (scales, chords, etc) are going to come into play anyway and as you develop your vocabulary – you develop your voice.
If you are known as someone who listens well and has something to say – there will always be people who seek you out. In music. In life.
Until next time.
If you like this post you may also like:
PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I
PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II
TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III
DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V
TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI
POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII
Some Useful Online Practice Tools
FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON
MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2
INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION
What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?