I was discussing practice a little while back with Elliott Randall (Steely Dan, Reelin in the Years fame amongst many others) in the Global Guitar Bar. I met Elliott quite a few years ago playing with him in the ResRocket band. A number of interesting ideas came out of our discussion and got me thinking about the whole area of practice, in particular what key things facilitate and increase control over the fingers and and ultimately the strings.
So I decided to draw together all the ideas I’ve learned and discovered over the years to help students move forward in ways that fulfill their potential. Many of them need demonstrating so I won’t explain them here, however I can outline some of the concepts that underly them. Grasping these concepts alone can greatly raise your chances of success in this area.
So I’ll start with the first one here and plan to add more as time goes on.
Its important to consider the fact that the key to all good technique, whether its playing very fast scale passages or slow blues, is developing and maintaining detailed control. In fact reaching an accomplished level of technique in any style can be defined in this way. There are specific ways to facilitate this.
Its first important to establish in your mind, what areas of technique you actually need, to express what you have to say on the instrument. If you try to practice every possible area of technique, not only will you spread your time too thinly, but organizing it in a useful way would be virtually impossible. If you want to actualize your playing potential, you need to direct the time you can give to practice, efficiently into the appropriate areas. If you get this wrong you’ll waste a lot of time and effort without seeing the results you could be seeing.
Below are some things to consider when determining what kinds of areas you need to practice.
If you are primarily an improvisor some of the skills your fingers need are quite specific. You have to be ready to do a big range of different things at any moment. You never know what’s going to happen next, so you can’t rely on set patterns or things you’ve worked out in advance. You have to be able to play whatever comes into your head and that will react to the music, which will be different every time. This takes a certain kind of technique and practice.
Some types of improvised expression need a lot of speed some don’t. Some types needs a lot of detailed articulation, some less so. Some need harmonic agility but not others. All need an able ear.
If improvising is not such a big part of your playing, or not part of your playing at all, then you will need to concentrate on other areas. Some of the things you play might be quite different from anything anyone would or could improvise. What you are concerned with is being able to play sets of ideas, which you have worked out or learned, as naturally as possible with as much feel as possible, while keeping the execution as close to the intended idea as possible. This takes a certain kind of technique and practice.
Some of these styles require a lot of fast playing, others almost none. Some of these styles are primarily about detailed articulation, others not so much. Some players combine several different styles, some only one.
I’m stating the obvious here, but for a reason.
You need to examine very carefully what you do play, or what you want to be able to play. This is the starting point for establishing exactly which areas, out of the incomprehensibly vast areas that actually exist, you need to focus on in practice.
I can’t emphasize how important this process is if you want to reach your potential. A lot of young players make this mistake of thinking they can cover everything, that its indeed important to cover everything. Or that they don’t know what they might need to play in the future so they’d better cover everything. This is the wrong way of looking at things.
Its easy to prove this to yourself, buy just comparing the best players of different styles you know of – try some famous ones. You’ll see that part of what makes them so good, is that they sound different from each other – they don’t sound like anyone else. They have found their own road and travelled so far down that road that no one else can follow them. That, by definition, means they have concentrated on some areas more than others. They have found the areas that are important to what they want to say and put their time into those.
The term “Jack of all trades and master of none” really does apply here. Some young players are so star struck by their favourite players that they believe they are capable of playing anything. The myth is that these god like players can play anything brilliantly, but they just choose out of all that, to play what they want. Its important to realise that however good these people are, they are human beings with human limitations. This is a myth. No rock player for example, however good, can play jazz as well as a great jazz player. No jazz player, however good, can play rock as well as a great rock player.
The reason is that these two disciplines are fundamentally different, they consist of different skills, different musical languages, different sensibilities and different mind sets.
You might be a rock player or jazz player who plays classical as well. Its a mistake to think you can be equally brilliant at both. Choose one and use the other only if it will in some way help your primary focus.
Once you have your focus you can look at some of the other important factors in how to spend your practice time. As I said above, the specifics of these need to be demonstrated, but the underlying concepts can be explained. I plan to cover these in turn in future posts.