Admit it, I caught you looking. Even though some part of your musician’s mind probably was screaming, “There are no ‘shortcuts’ to becoming a virtuoso!” And your musician’s mind was right, at least to the extent that there are no shortcuts. But if you find yourself “stuck in a rut” as a teacher friend of mine used to say, you might need to revisit the basics of your practice routine and make some adjustments. The old cliché “practice makes perfect” leaves a lot to be desired in the real world, because no matter how many times you learn something wrong, it will still be wrong. Worse yet, you might actually be teaching your hands to ‘master’ bad technique. One real ‘trick’ to practicing and mastering your instrument is teaching your hands to perform complex movements without requiring you to monitor every detail, so you can relax and play without your technique suffering. This is why we practice in the first place. But whether you practice good technique or bad technique that is what your hands will learn. In the same way, if you make a habit of inefficient practice routines, the time you invest in learning will fail to produce the results you want. So what can we do to make sure the time we invest into mastering our skills and techniques will actually lead us to virtuosity (or at least help us conquer the next level of our development)?
Planning - You can tell right away when a sports team has a great coach. Why? Because planning matters. It is easier to succeed when you know what to do to get there. But practicing is a very focused activity, and sometimes we can lose sight of the overall objective. Take a half hour once a month to create a new practice plan for the next 30 days. Some teachers suggest keeping a detailed log book where each routine is recorded along with the time spent practicing and the metronome settings you have reached. If this works for you, great- it can be motivating to see your progress on paper. In my first experience with this technique, the numbers didn’t seem to be getting higher very quickly and I started feeling pressured by my own unrealistic expectations. Keep it simple to start. Make a short list of 3 or 4 overall objectives. For example: a brand-new and challenging technique, something to improve your conditioning, a section of music you can play but it needs perfecting, and perhaps a practical application for a new bit of theory to make second-nature. When you evaluate your progress the next month, just subjectively weigh how much improvement you feel you’ve made overall in each category. If you got a little better at each you have succeeded. Your plan should include:
Vocabulary – keep introducing new scales, chords, licks etc. Get an old Arlen Roth book at the used bookstore and learn your clichés. Try them all and adopt the ones you really love.
Music Theory – Blues cats cover your ears… we all need to learn to read music! Tablature makes this a lot easier than it used to be, because it tells you where to play each note on the neck. But don’t stop there. Learn to count out the rhythm figures, so you can really play the phrase as it is written. Accurately executing difficult rhythm figures is the secret to building a fantastic picking/plucking hand. Plus how else can you learn an entire song note-for-note in 15 minutes? And in case you didn’t know it, the ultimate shortcut to learning an infinite number of chord forms is knowing enough theory to build your own.
Ear training – Pick a song and listen carefully. Can you tell exactly which scale or chord the player is using and where it is on the neck? Can you hear the difference between major and minor chords, sevenths and ninths? When you bend up to a note can you hit the perfect pitch every time? Bass players- can you play a fretless?
In Part 2, we’ll look at more ideas you can incorporate into your practice regimen. What helps you in your practice routine? Tell us in the comments.