About Me

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Atlanta, GA, United States
When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to Practice

I don't have an immense amount of natural musical talent. This is a realistic self assessment, not false modesty. Of course I have musical gifts, but there are plenty of other musicians who have way more talent than I have. We are all born with varying degrees of potential, but what's really important is that we learn to develop whatever gifts we have been given.

One thing that's helped me make it this far (and hopefully further!) is my approach to practicing. Talent alone will only take you so far. I know a few musicians who have an incredible amount of native talent, but their skill level has stalled out because they're relying on talent alone. They sound fine, but they don't seem willing to take their playing to the next level. If they would develop a consistent approach to practicing, they would sound incredible.

Here are some strategies that I use in my own practice sessions. Maybe they'll help you out, too.

  • Set aside a certain amount of time each day for practicing. Whether it's 30 minutes or 3 hours, dedicate that time period to the guitar (or whatever instrument) – no distractions. A little bit of time every day is better than a lot of time one day.
  • Always warm up. I start every practice session with some guitar exercises that stretch the fingers, and then I start to work on scales, arpeggios, and other patterns. Once I've finished working on my warm-up and technique exercises, I feel more ready to tackle new guitar arrangements or difficult music from a show book.
  • Focus. Start each practice session with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. Maybe you want to learn a new scale pattern or get better at playing the new chords you just learned. If you have goals, you can keep your practice sessions more focused.
  • The pencil is your friend. Write reminders in your music. Even if you play your repertoire from memory, it's nice to have those reminders if you're practicing and you run into a memory block.
  • The metronome is your friend. Playing to a metronome is the best way to train yourself to keep a steady tempo. I probably spend 50% or more of my time practicing with a metronome.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. To master a new technique or lick, you need to play it over and over. If you play something wrong 5 times in a row but get it right on the 6th, don't stop there. Practice a lick until you can play it perfectly at least three times in a row.
  • Decide on some stopping points instead of running straight through a song. Try breaking a song up into 4 or 8 bar chunks. Stop after each phrase and evaluate. Did you miss a note? Could you have phrased something differently? Go back and practice that phrase again before moving on to the next phrase.
  • Practice backwards. We all naturally tend to practice a song from beginning to end. Sometimes the second half of the song gets less attention than the first half because of mental or physical fatigue. Try practicing the last four bars first and then work your way from back to front.
  • Practice the hard parts! It's more fun to practice the parts of the music that we're good at, and sometimes we neglect the tricky parts. Isolate the difficult spots and drill them over and over until they're easy.
  • Add a tricky part to your warm-up. If you have a difficult lick to play in a song, turn it into a pattern and play it in all keys during your warm-up. After a few days, this tricky spot won't feel difficult at all.
  • Practice slowly! (This is the practice technique that I use the most.) Use a metronome, and practice a difficult passage at a tempo at which it's almost impossible to make a mistake. After you can play it three times in a row with accuracy, speed up your metronome by 5 BMP (beats per minute), and practice the passage until you can play it accurately three times in a row. Eventually you'll reach a breaking point. Do this over the course of a week, and you'll be surprised at how much faster you can accurately play the same music. Accuracy is the key. Accuracy precedes speed. You improve your accuracy by developing muscle memory. Your speed will develop as your motor skills improve.
  • Practice your weaknesses until they become your strengths. Figure out what you're worst at, and practice it!
  • Record yourself. This can be a painful experience, especially the first time you hear yourself, but this is the absolute best way to evaluate yourself.
Knowing how to get the most out of your practice session is important, but don't forget to have fun! There is practicing music, and there is playing music. Don't forget to play. It's important to listen to yourself critically so that you can improve your skills, but it's also important to shut off that critical voice and just play for the joy making music, which is what got us musicians hooked on music in the first place.

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