See a more updated version of this theory: Goal Oriented Guitar Practice (revisited)
I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not a huge fan of practice schedules. A lot of folks out there think they need absolute structure to their practice time:
10 minutes arpeggios
20 minutes scales
30 minutes etudes
5 minutes checking cell phone
20 minutes repertoire
There’s only question to ask yourself: are you improving? If yes, continue with current practice routine. If no, why? Lack of improvement could be any number of things, but that’s another blog entirely.
I believe that musicians should have a time only schedule. That is, “practice X hours/day.” This leaves a lot up in the air. Some time should certainly allocated to technique. I like to do that right away in the morning, for about a half hour–this is more to prepare my hands for the rest of the day than anything. After that I have a series of small goals to accomplish throughout my practice.
We often have the difficult sections of a given piece marked, or the parts that give us trouble blocked off in our minds. So work on them! Make it a goal for a unit of practice to perfect a small portion and reinsert it back into the context of the piece. I tried writing these goals down in a sort of practice journal, but I work better with the mental list instead. However, a practice journal can be a useful tool.
This allows a lot more flexibility than a strict schedule, and keeps practice interesting. And it works!
What’s your practice routine look like?
I read an article about criticism early last week. As students of music we often have incredible opportunities to perform for and get advice from great musicians. With any luck, your studio teacher is a great musician with a list of impressive accomplishments and experience (this is not always the case). Criticism can come from anyplace. Put a video on youtube and watch how many, “u suck.” comments you receive. Masterclasses and studio classes offer other opportunities to receive criticism. Lessons every week are the first and foremost way to get advice.
How do we take that criticism? The article suggests several things:
- Consider the source
- Shut Up and listen
- Don’t take it personally
- Stay calm
- Ask Questions
- Take ownership of the mistake
- Change your perspective
- Thank the critic
While this article is not specific to music, it is very applicable. Consider who’s criticism you give weight to. Anyone can give valid advice. Evaluate the advice given, then choose where to go from there. Does it make musical sense? Does this way sound better? Are these people commenting on youtube worth worrying about ? (hint: no) These are questions to ask. Being criticized is a time to shut up, take some notes and stay calm. Understand that it’s you who’s given the performance, take ownership of your choices and ask questions about things the critic suggests.
Should we go to lessons each week terrified that we’ve screwed something up that we’ll be busted on? No. That’s no way to learn an instrument. Embrace getting advice. Make use of it. It’s not anything personal; most times the person advising only wants to encourage your improvement. Take advantage of it.
How do you deal with criticism?
I thought of something today that I haven’t thought of for a while.
Sometimes just starting something–anything, really–is the hardest part. I’m an avid weight-lifter and fitness participant, and many times this statement holds true there. For instance, some days I am not motivated to go to the gym at all. I love lifting, and I love bettering myself in the gym, but some days it’s not there from the beginning. However, once I’m there, it can be one of my best training sessions of the week.
Similarly, practicing consistently is hard. Especially to put in the kind of time each day to prepare for various performances. Often times, the passion is not there; sometimes the passion is merely hiding behind a mask of laziness or aversion. But as soon as the guitar is the hands, the passion returns, and the practice session takes off.
The real place this “just starting” idea comes into play, though, is on stage. Recitals or performances in general are intimidating and sometimes terrifying experience. I’ve written about Performance Anxiety before, and will again. One of the best tips I ever received about performing was to start with a piece that’s very comfortable. The first notes are often the hardest: they’re the culmination of nervousness that might have started weeks ago and they are the first sounds that have to played through the adrenaline rush that is performance. After those first few minutes, however, a performer settles in and it begins to feel comfortable. Just starting is the hardest part.
So what do we do about this?! I have a pretty simple solution for myself: I don’t think about it. I just start. I don’t think about how long it’s going to take; I don’t think about how I dread it. I just start the path. Some days I’ll use the, “let’s get this out of the way” trick and look at it as a step to something else. To use an oft quoted phrase:
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Have a few pieces in your bag. These should be pieces that can be played well with minimal practice time and sound good.
I keep a binder of “gig” music that’s all very easy, sounds good and is easy to get under my fingers (45+ minutes of music that can be brought back in a few hours of practicing).
In addition, when asked to play “anything!” you can have a few pieces memorized to whip out whenever. It eliminates that awkward, “Well…I’m working on some things right now…”
A lot of people play guitar. Generally speaking, people start with rock and pop and keep doing the same thing or move on to more of an “art music” type activity (including jazz). With the rise of programs that cater to popular/commercial music training, it’s becoming easier for those pop/rock players to get higher degrees in music.
I happened to have “moved on” (ha! I still play metallica. Sometimes. Don’t tell anyone.) to classical guitar. The school where I did my undergrad was very much “art music” oriented. However, the jazz program was very strong there and I managed to do jazz combo, big band, lessons and jazz theory.
Here are some things that those considering being a music major should know:
- Music Theory Sucks. Between this and music history, a music major has a tough course load. To give some perspective, a little over half of my theory class failed at some point along the two year journey–theory I started with about 45 people and by 20th century theory (theory V) there were less than 20 of us.
- Practicing is not an option. Most amateur guitarists have no clue how dedicated music majors have to be. Progress has to be made, and that means spending at least a few hours/day locked in a small room with nothing but the instrument and some music.
- Expect to take a piano class. That’s right. Piano. Almost all music majors are required to take a group piano class. If an incoming student has had previous piano experience, they may be required to take private piano lessons.
- Gen Ed classes get in the way of being a music major. To put it another, less-kind way Gen Ed classes suck. And they take up practice time.
- 15-18 credit hours/semester is the norm. Sounds fun huh? Essentially this means that the normal music student is a full time student like any other major…but they have 2-6 credit hours of lessons which they are required to practice for. Also, the average music major will participate in one “large” ensemble. For the wind players this means Band or Orchestra. For guitarists, this might mean jazz band or guitar ensemble. These are 1 credit hour courses that might take up 3-4 hours of time during the week.
- Changing majors? Coming to a music major a year or two late? Expect to add another year to the time spent on undergrad. Most music programs are highly sequenced and require people to take classes in a very specific order. Combined with a massive amount of credit hours required for the average major, it’s a recipe for the five-year plan.
These things are not meant to scare people away. With these in mind, here’s some stuff that can help:
- Be sure that music is for you from day one. Music majors don’t have time to question and add years to their degree.
- Be strong on the rudiments of music from day one.
This includes, but is not limited to: strong reading ability in all clefs (treble, bass, the C clefs–alto and tenor), thorough knowledge of scales/modes and how they are constructed. Be FAST at interval recognition on the staff or aurally, and have basic knowledge of the type of chords (major, minor, augmented, diminished, dominant 7th) and how they are constructed.
- Get in the habit now of practicing 3-4 hours/day…or more.
- Take a few piano lessons.
- Learn the entire guitar fretboard…really well…to the point where it can be visualized mentally. Also learn what various intervals and chords look like on the fretboard.
- Practice music reading everyday. This might be sight reading or just figuring out notes on the various clefs.
I’m taking a day off from practicing today. I came on this six day practice week a while ago, but it was not my own idea.
Notably, Ricardo Iznaola mentions it in his book, On Practicing: A Manual for Students of Guitar Performance, mentions the following:
“The week should consist of six days only, with a seventh day of rest from practice (although you may play all you want on that day!).”
Obviously, I agree. However, most people strictly schedule every aspect of their practice, I do not. Nor do I like the idea of doing that. “Well, I spend 20 minutes on scales and 10 minutes on etudes and 5 minutes checking my phone to make sure I have missed anything while I was practicing,” sounds dumb to me. I am a fan of goal oriented practice. I’m not a fan of scheduling a day off. Let it happen organically.
If you don’t feel like playing one day, don’t. This is especially true for aspiring professionals or people in school for guitar. We get so focused and burnt out, that it can be detrimental to push ourselves too far. Taking a day off when those feelings begin to set in can be a great refresher.
From a “real life” standpoint, some days just suck. Being extremely busy or having a few other things to do can take up all the practice time available very quickly. Most times these days aren’t planned, they just happen. Well, that’s a great day to take off from playing! It’s one less thing to stress about.
The only thing to be worried about is to keep that to one day a week and be sure to pick up the instrument the other six days. Usually, after a day off, I miss the instrument and I’m more excited to get back to it; the taking more than one day off rarely is a problem.
…sucks. In fact, let’s not even give it the dignity of calling it anxiety. Let’s call it what it is: stage fright. We go to play in front of a crowd and we get terrified. Hands shake – the confidence we had in the practice room disappears, and our hands go on autopilot while our brain observer and laughs at us making mistakes we’ve never made before.
Performance anxiety sucks.
Where I’m at school we have a performance class every Monday afternoon. This gives all of the guitarists (about 15 of us) an opportunity to perform in front of people every week. It’s really an outstanding resource, but it certainly doesn’t make performing any easier. In fact, a room full of guitarists is one of the most intimidating situations we can play in!
Here’s my trick: acknowledge the nervousness. Accept it. Move on. And as mistakes happen acknowledge them and let them pass by. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Then be extremely gracious and say, “thanks!” enthusiastically to everyone who says the performance was awesome (even though you disagree with them). This might be the hardest part.
When I was but a young, freshmen guitarist doing my undergrad work, I had the opportunity to play in a masterclass for the Assads. Naturally, I was terrified – I just started classical a few months ago. While my own playing went…mediocre at best, I learned a lot from listening to other play and hearing the Assad’s advice. I had the privilege of working Odair.
One thing he said stuck with me. It was to play the lines of music separately. Generally speaking, in tonal music the two most important voices are the melody and the bass. Many times the melody is the top note in guitar music, but not always. Arpeggio textures are a bit more involved as the melody can be almost wherever. With “modern” music there’s no real syntax, so the melody can be anywhere! For instance, in Brouwer Etude No. 1 the melody is in the lowest register.
But back to Odair. The student in question was performing Segovia/Sor Etude No. 6. After he finished, Odair asked him to play on the melody. Then only the bass. Then the student put it back together, and it sounded like a different piece!
Most of us did not start on classical guitar–I certainly didn’t. So we get very used to hearing these vertical chord sounds. When playing classical/art music it easy to get caught up in the vertical sound and we forget all the horizontal lines! My own teacher busts me on this all the time.
- Identify the melody in a given piece
- Play that voice alone
- Sing/hum the melody
- Playing only the melody, try to get it sounding as musical as possible, practice it that way more than a few times
- Stick the voice back into the context of the piece (play everything again). Listen carefully for the voice (humming/singing it works well to bring it out) and try to get it to sound exactly as it did when it was played on its own. This step is harder than it seems!
This is a really handy practice technique, and can be done with any voice in a piece. Sometimes those inner voices have some great stuff waiting to be revealed!
How do you make pieces more musical?
- Start the day with the guitar
- Have a basic technical routine that essentially walks through the first lessons (basic RH and LH stuff)
- We, as musicians, want to preserve our enthusiasm for the instrument
- Keep a few beautiful, well played pieces in your head and under your fingers
- Whenever you start to loose that sense of fun, or get bogged down in playing difficult works, go back and play through those beautiful pieces
Personal Note: I hate practicing at night. I’d rather it get it done during the day. So each morning when I walk up, I grab some breakfast and start practicing. It takes about a half hour to go through the “first lesson” things pertaining to the right and left hands and run through all the basic arpeggio patterns. The bottom line is that starting each day with the guitar is awesome, and very effective. So wake up a few minutes earlier, make some great coffee and enjoy playing!
What do you do to get ready to play each day?