As we sit with our instrument and work on our various pieces, we have choices. We can simply "play-through" the works, but there is limit to how much can be accomplished by doing this. We often need to employ special devices and strategies for overcoming obstacles. This post will look at some in the hopes that enumerating them in one place will be of some value.
Sing The Melodic Lines
It has always been the starting point as a music student: sing the line. But like so many other well-understood, universally lauded learning methods, it is woefully underused. You don't need a good singing voice or even good pitch for this to work. Singing the lines helps make more vivid where phrases begin and end and helps you to feel more intuitively how to shape them. It can't be overstated how valuable this is.
Change The Rhythm
A quick fix and tempo boost for a work with a steady, motoric rhythm, is to play it in alternate rhythms. If written in steady 16th notes, for instance, play it first long-short (dotted eighth-sixteenth) then short-long (sixteenth-dotted eighth), then play it a third time, with the original rhythm. Doing so has the effect of practicing each pair of notes in the piece fast, but alternated with the repose offered by playing a slow note. If written in triplets or steady three's, like many gigues, play it in four discrete ways, divisible by four: long-short-short, short-long-short, and short-short-long, then finally, play it as written. As in the first example, this method enables the rehearsal of each pair of notes fast, with a built-in moment of repose inbetween. The effect is to catapult your tempo in a very short time.
Use a Metronome
Metronomes are both invaluable and dangerous. It is critical to master the skill of playing EXACTLY with the metronome, not allowing yourself to slide behind or in front of the beat. It is an excellent aid when you need to drill material at a controlled, steady, slow tempo, and gradually elevate the tempo, step-by-step. (It is also great for doing the opposite, as in my i-m velocity study, starting fast and gradually slowing down). It helps us to keep track of our progress as we gradually improve our control, while all the while, training ourselves to play perfectly in time. I say they are dangerous because they can be misused. Some students keep the metronome too long at too small a note-value, say on eighth-notes instead of quarter-notes, and have trouble segueing into a larger beat feel. Also, in pieces which require some rhythmical flexibility, it can train true musicianship right out of the student, as they struggle to play every note precisely in time. Most music requires some rubato, or at least, gentle ritards at cadences, and spending too long with the metronome can inhibit this type of more responsive playing.
No bit of general advice has more currency than this one. And yet it is remarkable how few people do it, or do it consistently. It might be asserted that playing slowly is the single most important way to improve control over the music. Difficult passages yield readily to a slow enough tempo; we need only come to grips with how slow a tempo we actually need. Often it is very very slow. Only when we play extremely slowly are we able to successfully unravel the problems we face in our scores. Perhaps obviously, it is not necessary to play entire pieces like this (this would waste time), but rather, reserve it for problem spots. A good measure for how slow to go is to narrate out loud the actions required for both hands as you do them--the time it takes to say it will slow you down sufficiently. Once problems are solved, move the music gradually back to tempo.
Isolate The Hands
When, as a student, I first encountered the notion of playing "right-hand-alone," I was dubious. It seemed counterintuitive to spend time doing something that didn't actually sound like the music. But when I tried it I was flabbergasted. It was an immediate fix to the problem I'd been having. I've been a dedicatee of this technique ever since. I reserve this activity for especially confusing passages. For me, it's much easier to actually write out the passage on manuscript paper, using open string notes only, and being careful to account for slurs in the rhythm. Write in the right-hand fingering and practice it like that, open strings only. Use the metronome and be sure your movements are precise and uniform. Re-introduce the left hand, and, like magic, your accuracy is much improved. I usually have, on separate sheets of paper, all the complex passagework of my current repertoire written out in this way. This is an excellent use of time. Use the same technique in working on left-hand problems. For these, there is no need to re-write out music. Simply make the movements slowly and with tremendous attention to how the hand moves, realizing needed corrections as you go, without the distraction of the right hand's participation. When the hands are reunited, the playing goes much more smoothly.
Play Parts Separately
Another obvious bit of practice-room advice, but again seldom actually put into practice. Think of how assiduously most instrumentalists work on their material, comprised entirely of single lines--all vocal, woodwind and brass music and most string music is written in single lines. But they still work at making those lines perfectly shaped, rhythmically compelling and dynamically sound. In our world, though, we just start right off playing counterpoint or melody-with-accompaniment as if the individual lines will be easy to shape in spite of our many other simultaneous tasks. But they're not. It takes time and special attention to get the sound of each line just right. Playing them by themselves is the only way. And it doesn't necessarily take long. Once really heard by itself, the ear can refer easily to that memory and the entire picture will more easily come together, and sound more musical as it does.
Alternating different types of activities is a highly effective practice method. Especially when doing repetitive things like technical exercises, frequently switching gears helps keep the mind focussed. Ten minutes of arpeggio work is followed by ten minutes of work on phrasing a passage in a concert work, then 5 minutes on a study, then 10 minutes on memorizing a few measures of another work, then scales, etc. Our attention begins to lag soon after beginning any repetitive activity. Keep yourself fully alert and focussed by this type of alternation of activity, throughout your practice sessions.
Visualizing is another much talked-about but under-utilized practice technique. Unlike the others, though, this one can take place away from the guitar. It consists of playing through the music in your "mind's eye." Generally done with eyes closed, try to "play" your music (while the guitar sits in the case). It is an excellent test of how well the piece has been memorized. If you go blank, go back to the score and study it for a bit then try again. It is useful to visualize the music unfolding as you picture your exact fingerings unfolding in real time. If you can't picture, say, whether the phrase begins with i or with m, then go back to the score to verify it and try again. Once you can visualize playing a piece successfully, it is great to add to your visualization feelings of calm confidence in the presence of an audience. You can train yourself in this way to both play well and remain poised while doing so. Visualization is huge in the athletic world-there is a mountain of data proving its effectiveness. It takes time to learn to concentrate like this, but the results are well worth the effort.
Play Rhythmic Pieces with a Drummer
There are lots of websites where you can hear drum tracks looping continuously, giving you an opportunity to play rhythmic pieces with real groove, in addition to being in time. So much of what we do depends on a good sense of rhythm. It can take a few minutes to find the right groove for your piece--you can often program tempo, meter and style to get you close. Once you've found it, though, the sensation is delicious. You may find you play with much better musicianship when there's a drummer there!
In at least some measure, the crux of our time in the practice room is problem-solving. As I've improved at practicing, the primary thing that has changed is my ability to recognize a problem combined with my willingness to solve it, right then and there. Too often the resolution of difficult spots is procrastinated, while in the meantime, one gets better and better at playing the passage in question badly. Analyze what is going wrong and work to find a solution. It could be re-fingering, re-interpreting, some subtle way the body is being used, some stylistic nuance of expression--there is normally a solution to even the most intractable problems of execution. Find it, now!
Use a Mute
There are few devices that, for so little effort produce so great a result than a mute. It is easy to shove a rolled sock-end under the strings, close enough to the bridge to allow pitches to be easily discerned, but leaning hard enough against the strings to create a pizzicato-effect. The resultant muffling of the strings' ringing allows an unobscured aural picture of the true rhythm of the right hand. Think your tremolo is great? Try it with a mute. Same advice for arpeggios. Same advice for counterpoint. Not only is the rhythm suddenly fully revealed, but as the strings are now slightly stiffer and more resistant, it is easy to cultivate a firmer and more secure touch. Of course you don't need to use a sock: there are inexpensive "tremolo mutes" on the market. Practicing this way always improves your right hand control and has the added benefit of enabling quiet practice, a boon to those around you.
It is so obvious and universally accessible now, and yet still so few students do it. I understood more readily when students failed to do this back in the day when one needed fancy, expensive mikes and dedicated digital equipment, but with the capabilities of current smart phones, few now have the money-excuse. One of the things you pay a teacher for is their position as objective listeners to your playing. You may be surprised at how good YOU are at assessing what in your playing needs work, by simply allowing yourself to listen objectively, that is, by listening to a recording of yourself. The quality does not need to be good; it is enough to simply hear your rhythmic pacing, often, to realize what can be improved. A common reluctance is the feeling that in order to record, the whole piece needs to be perfectly concert-ready, as if you were making a CD. The opposite is in fact true: it is better to record during the learning process. It is better to record small sections or single phrases, then listen back immediately. Make recording part of your daily routine and you'll be amazed at how much more quickly your playing improves.
Just as in the case of audio-recording, this can be done more or less universally and easily thanks to the ubiquitous smart phone. We learn lots of useful things about our playing when watching ourselves. Do we sit with a good, centered, relaxed posture, or is one shoulder two inches higher than the other? Do we bob our head up and down with every-beat, making it impossible for the audience to perceive musical phrasing, or does our body language communicate the musical intent? Do we make unfortunate faces
when we play or do we keep that angelic, placid expression in spite of how hard we are working? In this age of the dominance of video, it matters how we look. Video-record yourself so you know how you
I elaborated on the need to write-in phrasing into our scores in a prior post (On Phrasing), but here I just want to encourage the actual practicing of each phrase. Think like an actor: standing in front of a mirror and trying their lines in a myriad of ways, looking for the perfect balance of expression and meaning. We need to do the same. It is through the deft and sensitive handling of phrasing that we end up actually sounding expressive. I give a number of suggestions on this mode of practicing in the post Emotional Content In Your Music.
Play Every Note Loudly
The slightly strange act of playing every note loud has an immediate positive effect on memory. Our music has so many multi-level passages that there are almost always notes "in the background." These notes can seem a bit blurry in your memory. Playing literally every note with emphasis guarantees you'll be clear just which notes those are. In addition, the actual movements required for playing become more vividly rehearsed when playing loudly. To be clear, though, this method needs to be used in conjunction with normal-level playing and soft-playing for the full benefits to emerge.
Play Really Softly
Like playing really loudly, playing every note softly offers special advantages and opportunities. The extremely light touch possible when playing every note softly encourages fully relaxing while playing. It is easier to find that ultra-calm state of mind when we play like this. We can make beautiful, velvety tone more consistently, offering an excellent model we can keep in mind when we play at normal levels. When material is vigorous and fast, it is challenging to play softly, but is a great exercise. This method is highly effective when used in combination with the method noted above: playing every note loudly.
Thud and Buzz
When we find ourselves pressing too hard with the left hand, it is important to retrain a lighter touch before over-pressing becomes a habit. One great method for such retraining is to play every note so very lightly that it creates a solid "thud" sound, with a just-barely perceptible pitch. It works best when the right hand plays loudly; you are training the ability to use one hand vigorously while simultaneously playing lightly with the
other. An extreme version of this exercise is to "buzz" every note. The buzz is created by pressing gently, not by mis-fretting. Doing so requires a highly specific amount of pressure--just barely more than the amount required to "thud" but less that that required for a normal-sounding note. Playing an entire piece like this is a fantastic exercise. (More on this technique here)
When we are close to a performance, we need to practice the art of performing. This means running through our pieces without interruption, at concert tempo and volume. I find it is helpful, for this part of practicing, to move my location. I have a customary place where I work on the guitar; it is where I study and analyze, assemble and drill, play technical exercises and consider fingerings. But performing is different. It is truly helpful to do as little as turn your chair in the opposite direction. You will have new visual reference points, the acoustical response will be subtly different. It will no longer be your "practice chair" but instead has now become your "performance chair." More change is better. If possible, use a different room. It is important to imagine it is a performance, complete with audience, to put yourself in the proper mindset. The change of location is a simple but terrific trigger to help switch gears and be a "performer."
These devices are only practice-room tips for getting the most out of our time. They are to be added to the many other things we do in the
practice room and in the service of our playing, including score analysis,
comparative listening, body warm-ups, and so on. Our time in the practice room is extremely important--it is where we become the musicians we imagine ourselves to be. We need to learn to enjoy the challenges playing offers us, and remember that improvement can be very gradual and so sometimes hard to discern on a day-to-day basis. As we review our
practice log and note how much we've accomplished in recent months, or review older recordings and compare to current ones, we can see readily that progress is indeed being made. We need to be consistent in our efforts and attentive to our bodies and to our ears. If, in addition, we are thoughtful about using all the devices at our disposal for getting the most out of our time practicing, our progress will accelerate noticeably. And when we get better faster, practicing is more pleasurable; the payoff for our hard work becomes more obvious both to you and to your audiences.
See also Practicing I: What To Do In the Practice Room
and Practicing II: Time Management