Practicing With Intent Or You Play What You Know

Hi Everyone!

I’ve been doing a lot of research for the book on practicing I’ve been threatening to release.  As part of that process, I’ve been examining various routines, rituals and regrets in my own regimen (and non-regimens) that I’ve adopted over the years and come back to the following conclusions.

  • People listen to music because they like it, but they go to see music or seek out music because they want to experience something and they want to feel something.
  • As musicians our job then is to communicate something.  The easiest way to do that is to do so with intent.  The easiest way to communicate with intent is to do so with authority and conviction.  Conviction comes from conveying what we know.
  • Practicing then is the process of transforming material from exposure to conception and then from conception to knowledge.

The (Please get me out of this) Blues Jam Example

For example, let’s say you’re sitting in with some musicians that you’ve never played with before.  What’s the first thing that you all try to do?  Find some common ground to play on.  For most rock player’s this will involve a rock standard (like a Led Zeppelin track) or a blues.  For the purposes of this argument, let’s say it’s a blues.

You learn a lot about people from how they play a blues.  How they comp and solo, how they utilize the form, how they support and drive other players.

Now, in this situation – how many times has the following happened to you?

It comes for your time to comp and all the hip voicings and cool comping ideas you have have gone out the window and you play the same chord voicings you always play.

It comes time to solo and all those cool things you’ve been shedding make a single (or no) appearance and you play the same licks you always do.

And you reflect on it later and think what happened there?

What happened was, you generally play what you know.

Let’s say you go to a job interview and you’re meeting with a prospective employer.

  • Are you going to launch into a free form association of how the color of the walls remind you of  when you would lay on your back in the fields on a warm summer’s day and gaze at the sky from your early days growing up on the farm or
  • are you going to talk about your skill sets and how they fit the position, answer the answers you’ve practiced for the questions that you know they’re going to ask and use all of your language skills to answer any questions you weren’t prepared for in a way that didn’t blow your chances at getting the position out of the water?

In stressful positions, we look for the familiar to help guide us through the unfamiliar.  In a performance situation, it’s very difficult to really be in the moment (i.e. setting the stage for an emotional connection with the audience) and have the presence of mind to think, “Hey maybe that symmetrical diminished thing would fit here.”

Practicing With Intent

What got me thinking about all of this was a lesson with a student where his playing was always quiet and reserved – even when he was trying to play aggressively.  It turned out that he practiced quietly at home and never practiced playing aggressively.  Where I end up seeing a lot of students is in making the distinction that playing loudly does not have to mean playing with excessive hand tension.

If you don’t practice being able to play at various degrees of emotional intensity, then you probably won’t be able to summon it on the stage.  There are scads of metal players who play a lot of notes, and there’s nothing behind them.  In contrast, I go back to this video:

of a 21 year old Yngwie Malmsteen just killing it with a live set of Alcatrazz.  The interesting change in perception for me came after reading his memoir and discovering just how deliberate his practicing was.  He practiced everything with the intent of playing it live.  It was all played with maximum intent, and that came across in every solo that he did.

There’s so much to experience, so much to learn and so little we will ever comparatively know.  Try to be mindful of both how and why you are practicing everything and make sure you bring it to the stage when you’re playing.  If you practice with intent, you’re more likely to play that way as well.

As always, thanks for reading!