“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
(wait for it) Practice, Practice Practice!”
It’s an old joke but it’s true. There’s so much to practice. Where does one start? We all have a finite amount of time to practice, and it’s important to get the most out of the time you spend at the instrument. In an effort to help both efficiency and proficiency and in the spirit of Christmas, I’m going to share a few tips I’ve found helpful in honing my musical skills. I’ll share more in upcoming posts so if you like what you read here, sign up for more by pressing the follow button at the bottom of the page.
1. Always practice with a metronome. A lot of people resist this concept for whatever reason. Perhaps they feel it ‘limits their freedom” or that it’s “too restricting” or something of that ilk. Please, do yourself a favor and forget those statements. They are not true. Having ‘good time’ is an essential (and perhaps overlooked) element of being a good musician. The best way to develop and strengthen your internal pulse is to practice with a constant, steady and unchanging beat. I can almost hear some of you say you can’t stand sound the ‘tick tick tick’ of your grandmother’s metronome, or the annoying chirp of an electric model. I hear you, and I feel your pain. If the sound of the metronome drives you nuts I’ve got some solutions. There are many metronomes and metronome applications for smart phones (I use Frozen Ape’s Tap Tempo for the iPhone) that allow you to change the sound of the pulse. Or try practicing along with a drum machine, software synth or a loop. It can be more inspiring than just a steady quarter note pulse. There are lots of cool loops in different styles in programs like Garageband and there are plenty of free loops on the web. I’ve also found band-in-the-box to be a lot of fun for practicing. I like using a drum machine because it’s easy to change the tempo and you can’t often mute out a distracting or annoying sounds right from the controls. Or you can create your own patterns. Something to keep in mind when using electronic beat makers; make sure that the beats are simple enough that they don’t get in the way of the material that you’re practicing.
1a. Start playing the material you’re trying to learn a little slower than you want to play it at first. Yes, SLOWER. S-L-O-W-E-R. SLOW IT DOWN!!! Your ego will get in the way and say “I can play this fast right now, I don’t wanna play slow” and I admire your enthusiasm and your confidence! But all too often I hear rushed tempos, notes and passages that reveal that the performer has not spent the proper amount of time with the material. Learning a lick or pattern slowly and then gradually increasing the tempo by a few B.P.M (beats per minute) at a time after you’re able to play the material solidly, confidently and with assurance is the best way to get a difficult passage under your fingers. To the impatient mind this can be a maddeningly slow process but it truly is the best way I’ve found to improve one’s playing. I’m certainly not advocating robotic, metronomic playing on the stage but it’s a essential tool to work with during your practice time. As your sense and awareness of time as a constant becomes stronger you will be able to push or pull against the beat and that’s when the fun really begins. Why is it that you can play a transcription of a great solo and still not sound like the artist who played it? Part of what makes the greats great is there “time” and “feel” and the way that they played the notes made you feel something.
One compliment I’ve gotten from other players over my career is about my “time” or “feel.” I’ve made a point of practicing with a metronome when I first started to get into playing jazz. Before that I didn’t really like to use it. I thought it was a restriction. I was wrong. It’s been an essential part of developing my feel for walking bass lines with my left hand and being able to comp or solo with my right while playing Hammond organ. I think having “good time” is a truly important element that is often overlooked in the “I can play everything faster and better than you” mindset. (I also think that having a “good time” while playing is often undervalued as well…but that’s a topic for another post.) If you’re not using a metronome in your practice regime I suggest you give it a chance and watch what happens. (Yes, you can turn the metronome off during rubato passages you’re playing, but if you’re playing music with a pulse, use a metronome so you can be in the groove!)
I hope this helps your playing and I’d love to hear your comments or answer any questions you might have, so leave a comment if you like. (A note to young musicians with minimal time commitments. Practice as much as you can right now. I’m here to tell you it get’s harder to find the time to practice as much as you once could as life hands you more responsibilities.)