Having just downsized my amp and upgraded my guitar effects rig, I sure am enjoying the new vocabulary of tones I can produce with my axe. I'm aware of how much further down this rabbit hole I could go… shopping for more and more effects pedals, reading endless reviews and getting into online debates about which amp or pedal is better.
But my latest purchases revealed something else – the importance of spending time on practicing, expanding the vocabulary of what you play, not just what effects you can add to what you play. I could have all the latest and greatest gear, but if I'm stumped at the moment my solo comes up in a song, what good is all that “stuff?”
How to Practice
I've had many teachers along the way - on piano, guitar, voice , alto sax and trumpet. I've also had long stretches of being self-taught. But it's only recently that I've really developed a solid idea of how to practice my instruments. Here are some keys to how I make my practice time count:
Slow the Whole Thing Down!
How many times have you sped through the parts of a song that you know well and slowed down when the going gets tough? Then you go back and do the familiar parts fast again — because blazing through the easier parts feels so good!
You can smooth out those trouble spots and make the whole song more consistent by playing the whole song slowly. Use a metronome on a slow tempo to hold you back from rushing the easier parts and give you time to motorically plan for those trickier passages.
You can gradually increase the tempo as you get the tougher parts under your fingers.
Be a Looper!
When learning to play a tougher passage, take a small chunk of that and play it repeatedly, as if you were a looper pedal. When you combine this with the metronome and slow tempo, you will train your hands (and/or feet, voice, etc.) to do what you want them to do.
Start with repeating a very short passage - even just a run of 2, 3 or 4 notes. You're building muscle memory here.
Loop through two short passages separately, then put them together when you can play them in time at the selected tempo (even if it's really slow).
Keep it Interesting!
There are lots of psychological and physiological benefits to practicing an instrument. This is something I certainly did not notice when I was a kid resisting my teachers' urging me to spend more time practicing (aside from the panicked 30 minutes before a lesson). When you're engaged in musical practice, you're not ruminating over your troubles; you're concentrating on creating art.
If you can get “in the zone” practicing scales, that's great. I've gotten there that way. But you probably wouldn't want all your entire practices to consist of only scales. You need enough variety to keep things interesting for you.
You can divide your practice into scales, learning and practicing cover songs, and creating your own riffs and licks. And when you do create your own music in practice, use the voice memo recorder app in your phone to capture what you came up with so you can remember it and develop it further.
The more sophisticated the parts are that you come up with or that you're learning, the more the principles apply where you slow it down, use a metronome and loop short passages until you can play them proficiently.
Improvise at Your Level…and a Little Above It
Even if you're a beginner, you can start to improvise on your instrument. When I was in the Summer Performance Program (for high school students) at Berklee College of Music in Boston, we had a brilliant teacher who limited us to three notes: C, D, and E. We improvised vocally on the corresponding syllables, do, re and mi. We had a great time and learned a lot about the myriad possibilities contained in just three notes! Improvising within tight limits cuts through the paralysis of too many choices and gives you focus and direction to get started.
So, try the three-note improvisation first. Keep it locked in to the beat; I suggest using a metronome. Fewer notes lets you emphasize the rhythmic aspect more.
Record your improvisations; you may find licks that can be further developed.
Gradually expand your limitations. Add a 4th note. Then a 5th.
Practice Emotional Expressiveness
Your instrument contains many possibilities to express emotion. On a piano you can play aggressive slides and vary your touch on the keys from whisper soft to uproariously loud. On a guitar you can bend notes, add vibrato, use a whammy bar (or whammy pedal) or use a wah-wah pedal.
Learning to play the correct notes is great. But do not forego the time it takes to make your playing more expressive. Practice bending notes, varying your touch and adding those nuances that express genuine emotion. This is the thing that will make an audience care about what you're doing on that stage or on a record. It will also make your own experience of practicing and playing more cathartic.
About All that Fancy Gear…
Now that you're taking the time to enhance your ability to play, if you have the budget and the time to shop for gear that further improves your sound, go for it!
Talk to me in the comments below about your practice time, what it does for you emotionally and how it translates to the studio and stage for you.