What to Practice

What to Practice- Road Dog- Winter ’01 (This followed Part I above)

My wife and I just got a dog- a seven-month old Lab mix from a local animal sanctuary, a dog with way too much energy and way too little sense. Our first task was to find out what motivated him. I thought was that whatever he liked and wanted to do on his own without coaxing would be great motivators to train him to do what we wanted him to do, things that may not have come as naturally. We got lucky- he loves to play, and specifically to retrieve balls, sticks, and flying discs. Armed with that knowledge, it’s a whole lot easier to make him sit, stay, get off the couch, and quit chewing up the new Chris Proctor Signature Model guitar, because he’s willing to learn the hard stuff when the reward is getting back to the pleasures of playing the games he loves.

Guitarists are lucky too, in much the same way. We can use our love of playing to help us practice. Our individual repertoires represent that pleasure at its zenith- the songs we choose to learn and practice must be significant motivators for us, with lots of good feelings attached, or we wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of learning them in the first place. That’s why I try to base a sensible practice regimen on the repertoire, and use it as the foundation for the weekly workout.

The “How to Practice” article from the last issue, where we discussed the nature of practice and how to prepare for it. laid out two basic steps for preparing to practice. Our third practice step will be to recognize where your primary efforts should go. If you can’t identify the phrases or parts of your repertoire that are lame, and then admit to yourself that they need work, you’re going to have a tough time making practice progress, and in fact you’ll be setting yourself up to fail. So, prepare to review all of the material in your existing repertoire.

I suspect that you’ll find that it’s quite hard to play through your pieces and critique them objectively at the same time. The playing itself can be so satisfying and challenging that you just don’t have the ability to sit back, arms folded, and listen as a critic or teacher might. Here are some suggestions to help you decide where to spend your practice time. One or more of these should do the trick:

Make a cassette recording of each song, and listen to it at high volume in the car five or six times over. Try recording two or more takes, and listen to mistakes that occur in the same spot on each pass through. If you’re feeling more serious, book an hour in an inexpensive studio, and put some good audio gear into the listening equation. The repetitive mistakes you’ll soon hear are red flags which beg for your patience and practice attention. Bring your friends and family into the front room when you think you’re ready, and play your two new songs for them. In which section(s) do you get weak or flame out under the pressure of performance? Mistakes which you may not have heard while you played the piece will suddenly leap out at you using one or more of these evaluation tools. Try the same thing at the local open mic, try it again with your teacher, and try it by yourself with your eyes closed. Sure, you may miss a position change or play a funky harmonic with eyes closed, but that’s of no concern to me- rather I’m looking for your ability to make the piece flow from beginning to end without your visual corrective program running.

Each time you prepare to finish a piece you’re currently learning and adding to your repertoire, run it through this same mill, and note the mistakes that crop up repeatedly, the rough parts which need work, and the passages which don’t seem as musical as the rest of the piece. These need to be mastered before you declare any piece of music “finished” and add it to the repertoire.

The next step is to make a usable master list of all of these snippets of tunes that need extra attention. This list is a tremendous practice resource. I group mine by tunings, so that if my guitar is in EBEGAD tuning, and I have only ten minutes, I can grab my list and look for something to practice that won’t require retuning. An entry on my list might look something like this: “Middle four bars of ‘B’ section of ‘Tap Room’.” It’s enough to remind me where the problem lies in that piece, and I’m off and running, or rather off and walking slowly and patiently, stalking the physical and mental errors which make this a problem point for me. My list never shrinks, and don’t be depressed if yours doesn’t either. Mine contains about 120 entries, there are items on it which have been there for twenty years, and many will likely be there twenty years from now, because they represent physical challenges that never diminish. Part of what we’re doing when we practice is athletic and gymnastic, and requires staying in good physical shape, and part of it is the neurological programming that I described above. In any given week I try to make it entirely through the list at least once, giving special repetition time to newer or more challenging segments, pieces that I’m trying to finish or record, and anything which has let me down during a performance.

Now that you’ve found the patience zone, and you’ve got the list of sections of songs that appear to need work, you can proceed to do the work. If I have hours to do this, my routine will be longer and more involved, but if time or patience is limited, pick a number of repetitions that works for you, from 5-10 or so, and say the following under your breath, as a promise to yourself: “I will play this section 6 times through, (or whatever number you choose), no faster than I can play it perfectly, or I will slow down and repeat it 6 times more until it is mistake-free.” This is the essence of the practice approach that I seek to use myself and to teach others,. At this point I hope you’ll appreciate the first portion of this two-part series, about finding a good comfortable spot, and being patient with yourself. Too much speed is your enemy here. Remember- if listening to your practice is fun for the person in the next room, you’re not doing it right. Good practice should make the folks within hearing range cry for mercy. Now there’s a goal we can all get behind. Fifteen minutes of this good hard work, four times per week, or an hour on Saturday afternoons, will pay dividends that you will soon notice when your turn at the coffeehouse comes around again.

Try putting a little bit more pressure on yourself- Set up a regimen in which you go back and play a whole passage or whole song, at normal speed, after practicing the difficult sections first, and see if you do better on the hard parts after the practice, when you’re back in “playing ” mode. This will be a reward for your work, and still put a little bit of pressure on your as you approach the difficult spots.

Notice that you haven’t heard a thing about scales, arpeggios, 5 pound chord books, or hair-styling tips? Hey, I have to have something to write about for the next issue.