Every musician has to do it and while some dread it many others do it "religiously". That's right... I'm talking about Practicing.
No matter if you're a violinist, guitarist, or flutist, you have to practice to get better at your craft. The majority of us just practice whenever we feel like it and normally don't have a strict "practicing plan" in place. While this usually keeps our interest high, the results are usually quite low. Then of course there are the people who create daily practicing schedules and achieve great results, but often end up thinking of their practicing time as "work". I think we can all agree that we didn't get into music to "work" (at least not in the traditional sense).
So, we can obviously see the potential benefits and downsides of each "method," but how do we both stay interested in practicing and achieve great results quickly!? Simple... we get creative and challenge ourselves in uncommon ways as often as possible. These 3 Uncommon Practicing Ideas are but a few that I use whenever I want to get great at something quickly without becoming fatigued by "normal" or stereotypical practicing methods.
Have you ever practiced one lick or musical passage so much that your fingers start to cramp and your eyes begin to roll into the back of your head from boredom? I know I have. So, if I absolutely have to get this one lick or passage down quickly, I sing along with the line.
Not only will this help you better memorize the line (and how it sounds!), but you'll be training your ear as well. There is a reason that great guitarists like George Benson sing with their guitar while they solo. It's because he is such a master of the guitar that he's able to hear the lines in his head and knows exactly where the notes fall on the guitar neck. Being able to do this is immensely beneficial, because that's when your own unique "voice" comes to light as a guitarist.
Beyond this, it's also beneficial to sing harmonies above and below the notes you're playing. This will of course help train your ear, but also may give you great ideas for a new song.
Now, for those of you who play a woodwind or brass instrument you may be saying, "Well this Tip obviously doesn't apply to me." However, I beg to differ. Singing the line while you play (or harmonies of that line *multiphonics) into your instrument is still valid and often used by composers. So practicing this will not only help you memorize the line better and train your ear, but potentially increase your chance for getting work because you developed a unique skill!
For those instrumentalists who can't sing while they play, I recommend singing the line/passage before and after you play it on your instrument. I also recommend Singers do the opposite and play their melody on an instrument of some kind before, during, and after.
**Additional Tip: Recording yourself while doing this can help you improve tremendously!
The words practicing and playing are clearly separated from one another by many music instructors, but I don't necessarily think that means one is "work" and the other is "fun". While we are practicing to improve, this doesn't necessarily mean we can't make our practice time fun and intriguing. What I recommend doing, is creating a game or challenge of some sort for your self.
This idea can be expanded upon and the available games/challenges you can create are only limited by your creativity. So, lets examine a few simple games and challenges that I use in my practice sessions.
1. Half-Time/Double Time. In this game, you challenge yourself to take a single line (usually a melody or lick) and play along to a metronome. At random you will then adjust your lick (and your perception of the clicks from the metronome) to either Half or Double Time. If you mess up, then you have to start back at the beginning.
2. Transpose It. Lets say you're a fairly decent player and learning a new chord progression... maybe even a Jazz standard. In this game, you will challenge yourself to transpose the chord progression in multiple keys. How/when you do this is completely up to you and (for the advanced players) try doing it to a click. If your instrument is unable to play harmonies, then I recommend doing the same with a Melody or an improvised solo (try to outline the harmonies).
3. Bend it. Ever play a lick that everyone else does (because it sounds cool), but it never feels unique? Try bending into certain notes or maybe even sliding. Alter it slightly (or immensely) with all the different articulations available in your arsenal. Who knows, if you're a guitarist and maybe one of your other strengths is tapping; a blues lick with a tap on a bend could be your signature lick!
Like many of you reading this, I'm a creative guy and thus love to Compose music. However, for some reason there exists an idea in many beginning Composer's minds that Composition is sacred and once the note hits the paper it's final. Professional and experienced Composers understand that's actually when the real work begins. So, why don't we knock that perception of Composition off of its pedestal and integrate it into our regular practice sessions? I recommend the following...
Integrate notating and hearing/transposing new musical ideas from your mind as a part of your everyday practice routine. This will not only increase your creativity, but your ear-training, communication (through notation) skills, and help you better understand what looks and sounds best on the instrument you're writing for. I always recommend that my Composition students carry a composition book of some kind with them (and a reliable pen) at all times. You never know when you'll have a few extra minutes between classes/errands to practice or when inspiration for a new song idea will strike.
Beyond this, I recommend creating a song that focuses on a new musical technique you want to learn. So, if you happened to be practicing sweep picking and not only want to increase your technical ability, but your interest in learning the technique, than you'd compose a song using this technique. (Example: Find a chord progression you like and sweep it in unique ways instead of normal strumming.) I've found this to be very useful when I was learning certain "slap acoustic" techniques on guitar. Specifically, I created a song so I would practice the technique more often as I easily become bored with repeating "exercises".
I've found these 3 Uncommon Practicing Techniques to be immensely beneficial for my students. However, if you'd like to read about more beneficial Uncommon Practicing Ideas, then you can read Part 2 of the article here. It's absolutely free; I just need to know where to send it. Furthermore, if you'd like to take a huge leap forward in your Guitar or Composing skills, I'm now offering Custom Online Lessons via webcam. To find out more and take the next step in achieving your musical goals, visit this link.
Best of luck to all of you and I hope these 3 Uncommon Practicing Ideas benefit you greatly!
Kole is currently studying music composition and classical guitar at Indiana University; and will be transferring to GIT, in the fall of 2007. He also is completing his debut album "Exile" through Empire Records and teaches many students for guitar and songwriting.
He has also just finished co-authoring a great new instructional e-book for guitar titled "The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist," which can be found and purchased at thenextstepguitar.com.