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Practicing I: What To Do in the Practice Room

Serious students of the guitar generally regard themselves as performers, or at least, future-performers. However, we spend the lion's share of our time with the guitar not on stage, but in the practice room. We have to. It's the only way to get there (remember the Carnegie Hall joke). But practicing is a difficult and complicated subject, fraught with opportunities for failure. I often think that what I teach isn't guitar, but practicing. If I am a really good instructor of this activity, then the students will get better, consistently. If I fail to convey to them what to do in the practice room, then they won't. We are all students of practicing.

Back when computers were new and seemed remarkable, a common adage, said in reference to programming, was "garbage in, garbage out." It meant, if the programming was done poorly, sloppily, or incorrectly, the functions then wouldn't operate as expected, or even at all. The phrase entered the mainstream, and I've used it many times as a teacher (less now, as no one seems to know what I'm talking about). If you play badly in the practice room, it isn't likely you'll play better in performance. If you make errors repeatedly while practicing, you will get really good at your errors and that's what we'll hear when you perform. Garbage in, garbage out.

But practicing is more than that. It is the time during which we form our bond with the instrument. It is when we develop our touch, our sound. It is when we build our technical capabilities, flexibility and stamina with exercises and studies. It is when we get acquainted with our concert repertoire, and bring it from sight-reading, little by little, to mastery. We have to learn to love practicing. If we don't, we will be unhappy and frustrated people. After all, we spend most of our time doing it. In order to make practicing work, we need to be sensitive to our own personalities and proclivities. Some of us are morning-people, others aren't. Some of us need lots of social interaction, others less. Some of us can sit, productively for hours without a break, but many of us need breaks and so practice interspersed with physical activity to help keep our focus. I'll post a series of three articles on this most important part of our lives. This one will address what we do when we practice. The second installment will address time-management issues. The final installment will bring up some special topics and hints to help make practice more effective.

So, what do we do when we practice?

The range of activities will have a phase-in, phase-out effect over time, with different things coming to the fore as our circumstances evolve. But the list of basic activities is pretty universal. It includes the following:
1) technical exercises
2) studies
3) solo repertoire 
4) chamber music/ensemble repertoire
5) sight-reading

Technical exercises are the backbone of the formative period of becoming a musician. They allow the gradual establishment of the physical facility we need to play. Technical exercises build strength, flexibility, stamina, coordination, speed and precision. They introduce countless hand-shapes and physical activities that will be found in the repertoire and allow proper time to master them as pure physical movements, apart from the demands of musical interpretation. Most teachers recommend a list of technical activities for their students to practice. The list I like looks like this (links go to prior posts in which I have described the activity in detail):
A) Right Hand
   1) Tone
   2) Block Chords
   3) Arpeggio (Giuliani)
   4) Arpeggio (Carlevaro)
   5) Rasgueado
   6) Cross-String Trills
   7) Tremolo
   8) i-m Alternation (Velocity)
B) Left Hand
   1) Ascending Slurs
   2) Descending Slurs
   3) Independence
   4) Shift/Squeak
   5) Reach
C) Hands Combined
   1) Scales w/Rhythms
   2) Scales, All Keys

Now, there are other things to do as well that fall under this rubric. Some people spend a lot of time on chromatic scales, chromatic octaves, parallel thirds and sixths, barre chords, etc. The possibilities are numerous. But the ones listed above are the ones I focus on as a teacher. They will get the student pretty far if done properly and consistently.

Each activity is a specific routine. The routines are executed with a metronome, ensuring a steady pace, rhythmic accuracy, and offering, in some cases, a way to measure progress. Each activity is played with numerous repetitions, often migrating up and down the neck, both for sonic variety and as a way to codify the number of repetitions. (If you play the cross-neck slur study on each fret, up to the 9th position and back down, that's a terrific workout; if you have less time, you can go up to the third or fourth fret and back down for a more compact version of the activity).

I recommend activities for the left hand are alternated with right hand-focussed activities both to keep it fresh and to minimize fatigue. If there is very little time, I'd still endeavor to fit in some of this activity, as it is your signal investment in skill growth.

Studies are the exploration of technical challenges in a musical setting. They take the activity, much practiced in one of the exercises noted above, say, slurs, and offer it in a piece of music which is aesthetically appealing. I am a big fan of studies. Good ones tend to be fairly repetitive, offering lots of opportunities to practice the given technique, but are beautiful enough to make it feel worthwhile playing them. It is one thing to play slurs to a metronome. It is quite another doing so while making a convincing phrase with carefully shaped dynamics that are sensitive to harmonic motion. Learning to control technical elements in a musical context is a critical component of the learning process and is vital bridge activity to playing concert pieces. I recommend students always have at least two they are working on in earnest. As they are mastered, others are introduced. Depending on the student's level and the interest of the study, they may or may not get performed. (For players with less experience, the study may double as a primary piece of repertoire). At Oberlin Conservatory, I have the entire studio prepare studies by a specific composer each semester, and perform them at semester's end. In this way, they are introduced to the major concert study literature. I have a rotating list that includes, but is not limited to, the studies of Villa-Lobos, Brouwer, Gilardino, Kleynjans, Tarréga and Barrios.

This of course, is the primary activity we practice. We learn and prepare our pieces in anticipation of upcoming performances. How we do so matters. As noted above, we need to strive to avoid doing things incorrectly. But we can't become so worried about it that we are afraid to play! It is simply part of the process that we work toward better and better preparation. If the score is new, take special care to understand the rhythm. Be wary of basing execution on favorite recordings (see my post on The Pleasures and Dangers of Reference Recordings). Other's performances may feature a type of rhythmic interpretation that is easily misunderstood, or may simply be wrong. Learn the music from the score. Be attentive to fingering passages carefully. Every move should be accounted for. If something seems difficult or awkward, verify that you understand it fully first, and if so, and it is still difficult, look for alternate fingerings. Most music on the guitar can be played in a variety of fingerings and many published fingerings need to be changed.

Once the music is perfectly clear rhythmically and fully fingered (for both hands), it can be played slowly. Your single most effective tool for getting things right is the slow tempo. Much talked-about and criminally under-utilized, playing slowly is truly the path to success. It may help to use the metronome for this. Setting it on a smaller note value, say the 8th note instead of the quarter-note, may help facilitate playing (and staying) slow. The idea is to give yourself time to fully process everything that's happening. You think to yourself "as I shift my left hand to the 4th position, rotating my forearm inward, and reach my 3rd finger towards the 6th string, I prepare p to play the 6th string while getting poised to play strings 1 and 2 with m and a... (or whatever). Making these movements extremely slowly, and being clear about the fingers that will be used and the positions the arms and hands, guarantees a certain measure of success. Only when movements are accurate and fluid should the tempo be elevated.

Using a metronome is helpful for gauging tempo progress and verifying rhythmic precision, but can be harmful to musical impulses. Set it aside once you are sure the music is being played correctly and look for phrases. If phrases aren't marked in the score, mark them in (see my post on Phrasing). Practicing small units of material is essential; it is much more likely to produce a musically satisfying result if those small units are phrases, rather than measures. Work each phrase until it flows naturally and freely, and has the musical hallmarks of a phrase--an identifiable beginning, middle and end. Move on from there to sections, with the same considerations. Endeavor always to shape the music so that the composer's story is unambiguous. Look for emotional content in the music and allow it to be part of your experience in the practice room (see my post on Emotional Content in Your Music). In this way, as your proficiency, accuracy and consistency (and tempo) increases, the music will also be taking shape as art, not just a mechanical or athletic activity.

There will be difficult spots. There almost always are. Some passage, some hand movement that vexes you more than the other passages and movements. It is necessary to sort these out early-on. Triple-check that you fully understand the musical idea. Reevaluate your fingerings. Reconsider the interpretation. Often there is a series of notes which seem impossibly fast for the given tempo but which, if given more time, that is, if the passage slows down at that spot, is perfectly natural and playable. Such moments in scores can be important clues to style and interpretation. (This is common in 19th c. music).

Sometimes our technique is simply not up to the demands of a particular piece. We might need more experience first, before tackling it. There is so much good repertoire, from every style-period, that there is no excuse for playing music that is truly out of reach. It is far better to play pieces that offer fewer challenges, allowing your technique and capabilities to grow gradually, in synch with your growing musical awareness and understanding of style. The most common error students make in preparing for auditions is to play pieces that are patently too hard. They may feel it will be more impressive to do so, but in fact the opposite is the case. I help my students select repertoire for each year of their studies with me. They do bring me pieces from time-to-time that I may not have thought of (or didn't know), but generally speaking, this is an area where either I simply make assignments or the decisions are the result of mutual agreement. It is critical to avoid the selection of works they are not ready for. Making the wrong decision about repertoire can lead to frustration, increased tension, poor musicianship, and, in extreme cases, even quitting. It's ok to concede defeat if a piece, after a serious attempt, is determined to be too hard. We are better off spending our time on music that we can manage.

I am always playing a certain amount of chamber music, and so are my students. I feel it is an indispensable part of their education and musical lives (see my post on Chamber Music). It is sometimes the case that the guitar part of an ensemble or chamber work is regarded as a secondary consideration, and left for sight-reading in rehearsal or coaching. This is always a mistake. Not only are the parts sometimes deceptively tricky, but how well you play them has a direct impact on someone else's assessment of you both as a musician and as a person. Are you unprepared and so wasting their time (disrespectful and irresponsible), or fully prepared (responsible and professional)? It is important to set aside time in the practice room to prepare your parts. I wrote at length on this subject in the post referenced immediately above, so won't use space here for it, but the preparation might include score set-up, the transfer of information from the other part into your part, etc., in addition to simply fingering and practicing the music.

As a rule, guitarists are less adept at sight-reading than many other musicians. There are many reasons for this, but I accept none of them. It is our responsibility to become good sight-readers. Only by cultivating this skill can we profitably assess the repertoire and so make our own judgements about music. I wrote an article on sight reading here, so won't repeat myself in this post. I'll just add that, with a simple dedicated 10 minutes/day on it, you'd be amazed at what can be accomplished (see my post on sight reading).

Practicing regularly is our only proven method of learning the instrument. Practicing well guarantees better results, and in less time. We need always to strive to practice better: more efficiently and more purposefully. We need to be clear about our goals and aim our activities to achieve those goals, both the short-term ones and the long-term ones. We need to remember that we do it in the service of music, of art, and not be distracted by the pleasures of a narrow type of technical proficiency, for its own sake. But most of all, we need to be patient. Mastery comes to those who keep at it, working long, working smart and working well. My old friend Nicholas Goluses used to say that being a guitarist was a "blue-collar" job--that we need to work hard and sweat a bit in pursuit of our dreams of mastery. It's the old Edison adage that "genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." With steady and thoughtful practice, we can all find the genius within.

Practicing II: Time Management

Grammy Winner Jason Vieaux with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis at Oberlin.

Grammy Winner Jason Vieaux with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis at Oberlin.