You may have heard the advice before that playing your instrument is not the same as practicing. But we have a bit of a different approach. Here, Panorama City guitar teacher Henrik Y. explains how to blend the two for truly effective practicing:
The way to make music – and the optimal way to practice – are one and the same: Play music in every moment of practice!
How do we do that – what does that mean? To answer that, let’s be philosophical for one moment. What is music, how do we perceive music, and what are our tools? The simple answer: we hear music, so consequently, we also play music by incorporating listening into the process.
When you hear a car alarm, it’s not music – sure, there’s rhythm, but it’s stiff and mechanical. There may be tone, but it’s ugly, flat and all of the same volume. We hear music as not just sound, but intelligently organized and varied sound. When we practice music we are focused on the notes, scales, melodies and rhythms. But the only way to do that, of course, is by listening.
The Dynamics of Quality Practice
As you progress from beginner tactics like reading music and memorizing your guitar strings, you’ll move on to more advanced practicing (and listening) techniques. The 3 most important things to focus on here are rhythm, tone and volume.
You determine rhythm by the time intervals between your notes. Initially your tempos will probably be slow, and your scales/melodies will be be rhythmically simple.
To practice rhythm, here’s a great guitar exercise to try: Hold your pick as follows: rest it on your index and middle fingers and ‘lock’ it in with your thumb – now pick/strike your 5th string in the 7th fret, alternating between down- and up strokes in eight note rhythm – in 4/4 meter at tempo 60 – initially counting: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and – in sync with your picking – accenting (hitting a bit harder) on the first eight note (the “1”) of each bar.
Once you establish your rhythm & first beat accent, drop counting and focus on your tone quality. You determine tone by where and how you strike your string – on a guitar, for example, striking near the saddle makes a harder sound than over the sound hole.
For a great tone exercise, try this: Compare playing four bars with your pick at a 90-degree angle to the string with 4 bars of a 45-degree angle to the string. You will notice changes in both tone and technique, i.e. you will have to slightly adapt your right hand position, and you may discover that one angle likely is easier for you than the other.
Lastly, you determine volume by how hard you strike your string, with your pick or finger – initially your notes should all be low volume and gentle. To practice controlling your volume, first play eight bars of eighth notes all very softly, accenting only the first beat in every bar. Next, accent the 1st and 3rd beats in the measure, while keeping the other notes soft. Now accent all the downbeats, while playing the offbeats softly. Finally, play all of the downbeats softly, but accent all of the offbeats. This exercise will prepare you for playing styles like reggae and jazz, where downbeats are systematically accented to achieve certain types of grooves and swings.
Remember: The quality of your practice = the power of your music. That power is not determined by its complexity, but by the musician’s attention to every detail of every note played. When you practice with the quality I have indicated here, you are naturally the best musician you can be in that moment. Most importantly you will enjoy every note you play! That’s the key ‘secret’ to playing music: Joy via respect for and attention to shaping every note you play, practice or perform.
Happy Practicing – Happy Listening – Happy Playing.
Henrik Y. teaches guitar lessons to students of all ages in Panorama City, CA. His specialties include blues, rock, jazz, Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms, pop, folk, ethnic, contemporary instrumental and classical styles. Henrik joined the TakeLessons team in November 2012. Learn more about Henrik, or search for a teacher near you!
Photo by tuppus