Music Practice Sessions: Are They Doing You Any Good?

Practicing is a good habit. It’s similar to training a particular skill to achieve on a musical instrument, but what is a good practice session?

This can range from your own skills, to the people you will be playing music with, or the people you will be working with.

Age, or specifically, points of time in life is a huge factor. Think about it – if you’re still in school and if you don’t have the need to pay off bills, worry about income tax, the need to find a job to get past the daily grind, and many more, you’ll have a lot of time.

But what if you’re already a working adult? Does that mean that you won’t have time to practice a section of a song that has captured your ears’ attention?

If you dedicate to block out a time for a planned practice session, you’ll have time to learn what you feel like practicing. However, be aware of what you want to practice so you make the best out of the planned sessions.

There’s a few things to consider in making a practice session worthwhile and fruitful.


 

1.     Time Management.

time mangement

This is a common factor in how the world operates. What makes a company function successfully is to have efficient employees and leaders. Working hard is usually half of the equation, but time management is one of the many tools for this success.

Enough of the grown-up stuff – let’s talk about time management for music!

There were instances where I would leave the house at 8:30AM, and get home at about 11PM. I end up cringing because I’m not able to get a hold on the guitar and crank up the amp. I’m not sure if it’s a great idea to force others to dream of KISS/Rush concerts when they’re sleeping either.. Especially when they don’t listen to Rock music!

So what’s the problem here? You can either cut down on your sleep, but that’s going to affect productivity, and it’s not highly recommended as sleep is an important process in a daily lifestyle.

The issue here is time.

So, let’s have a look on what I can share in a standard daily lifestyle:

Time Description Priority
7:30AM – 8:30AM Preparation for work (including breakfast) High
8:30AM – 9AM Travel to work High
9AM – 5PM Work High
5PM – 5:30PM Travel to home High
5:30PM – 6:30PM Preparation for dinner (and possibly lunch for the next day?) High
6:30PM – 10PM Own time ?

 

The last section varies, and especially travel time to and from work. Some people take about an hour or so, and if there’s traffic, this eats up your free time in a single day.

Then again, if you like to socialise a lot with friends and family, the above schedule is very unrealistic. Let’s assume the above is a good-case scenario.

Based on the above, you could also spend 6:30PM to 10PM practicing your instrument.

But are you really practicing your instrument, or are you just playing what hits your mind first?

There’s a fine line between both playing an instrument, or practicing areas and parts you want to improve, and both are completely fine depending on what you feel like doing!

Just make sure that if you have your mind set in practicing certain sections of a song, you really need to devote some time and make it happen.

If you’ve been playing for about 2-3 years, and have got the basics covered, you should be in a position where you might need an extra push to approach complex areas in a song.

What’s more effective is a solid focus on, let’s say, a 5 second section of a song that has a quick passage of notes. If you lack of speed, then spend about half an hour looping through this section – and only focusing on the 5 seconds that you’ve nominated.

If you can play the rest of the song, that’s great. But the focus should be on areas that you think you can do better.

Half an hour sounds like it’s a lot, but trust me, it’s good enough. It’s not an hour, nor is it 5 minutes. Half an hour is just good enough for you to get yourself comfortable with the passage (or getting used to any “odd” playing styles in this area), and it’s just enough to not wear you out from wanting to play the instrument for fun!

And if the parts you’re practicing is complex, you might end up wearing yourself out before the half an hour session.

Remember that you have to be disciplined in practicing the section you’ve nominated. It’s the only time of the day that you can dedicate a small fragment of your time to look into an area of a piece of music.

You can never purchase or recreate time, so make good use of it when you’re in time!

How would I do it?

If you know what your schedule is like, jot it down on a piece of paper.

If you’re not sure, record a sample – give about 2 weeks to 3 weeks for this process, and see where do your spare time go. If you need to have that conversation with the people around you with what you want to achieve, I’m sure they’d support you in most cases.

2. Never Fight Against Nature.

As I was growing up, I was surrounded post-1980s guitarists, where everybody wanted to be like Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai. They’re really fast players, but they practiced for many years to achieve what they’re capable of.

During that era, big hair, smoking hot licks, and plenty of finger acrobats on the fretboard was the image of the rock industry around the world… and Joe Satriani got ahead of everybody by going bald at a very young age.

As some of you might know, Yngwie Malmsteen spends about 16 hours in a single day practicing, 8 hours to sleep for a long period of time. Sometimes he wakes up with the guitar in his hand.

Talk about dedication!

There were slight pushes every now and then with great performers, but they have invested a huge amount of time in getting the basics right, and getting up to speed.

Let’s talk about speed.

Everybody loves the flashy stuff, and from the era I grew up in, everybody wants to play fast.

I’m not a fast guitarist, but I have moderate speed over certain sections or playing styles that I’m comfortable with.

But I never put myself in a position where I would say to achieve playing a series of notes at XXX BPM. It’s doable, but I never made that a goal.

All you need to do is to give yourself some time, going through a fixed series of notes, but you play it right. Make sure the notes are never muffled, cut off, or expressed the wrong way (e.g. implementing a short series of vibrato to it?). And you play that in a loop, over and over again. It could be a 3 to 5 minute practice session where you nail this with a metronome, but if the speed is feeling unnatural (or uncomfortable), stick with whatever you have, and build it up slowly.

Not like, pushing yourself from 70bpm to 120bpm, but start in small increments. Like to 71bpm, then 72.. etc. If you think you need a good push, then increase it by 10bpm.

But to a point where can tell yourself (on the guitar), “Alright, this feels good. I don’t feel any tension in my forearm muscles in my left hand.”

Maybe you were feeling like that at about 80bpm, and you tried 85bpm. And 85 is when you feel like you have slight tension in your forearm muscle. Jump back to 80, and practice with that tempo until you feel comfortable at that speed.

The beauty about nature is that, let’s say you’re doing 80bpm for about 3-4 days in a row. I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to nail the part on the 5th day at a faster tempo.

There are advice in the world that thinks otherwise – where you go as fast as possible, and then you increase the BPM by a few more, and then you jump back to the original BPM you’ve set. That’s also another method of approaching speed, but it depends if you’re comfortable with it.

Remember that for each time you go against nature, the muscles in your body may degrade over time without the right practice.

Like athletes warming up prior to any events, they have to introduce what’s natural for the body.

With speed, all you need is to invest time in a series of fixed notes. I remember it took me to play an Am scale in the 5th position on the guitar neck after a month’s worth of practice. My aim wasn’t to be quick on the guitar, but to learn the finger positioning on the scale correctly – just that I spent a little bit of too much time going through the same exercise until my fingers were natural with it.

Muscle memory helped me run around the fret board subconsciously, and I caught up with speed naturally!

Going against nature may damage the muscles in your body as you age. Just keep that in mind!

How I would do it?

If I notice any part of my body begins to ache, I’ll pay attention to what’s causing it. Take a step back, and I might practice whatever areas slightly better. It might be sitting posture, finger position, holding the guitar/pick wrongly, and many more.

3. Start Slow.

go-slow-audio-mentor

It was never a goal for me to be a fast player. It didn’t take long for me to be bitten by what I didn’t focus on. Most of the the guitar pieces/riffs involve a reasonable amount of speed.

Fortunately, it’s not the end of the world.

Speed can be trained. For some people, it comes naturally. For most of us, we really need to push ourselves to play at a certain level.

One of the most effective methods is to slow a track down. What works for me is usually 70% – 80% of the actual speed of the song. This threshold is dependent on the speed of the song.

Once you slow the piece down, it should be at a rate where you’re able to play note-by-note accurately based on the reference track (where I would assume) you have on loop.

It’s a time consuming process, but it’s a great place to practice consistent playing/phrasing. When you push this up to 100%, then you’ll really hear yourself on par with the reference track.. Which is usually a great feeling of achievement!

Several DAWs have the functionality to adjust the speed of the song (Time Stretch), but there are standalone applications as well. The Amazing Slow Downer is a good one to consider if you’re heading that direction.

How would I do it?

Listen to a lot of music from Monday to Friday based on my schedule. Find a piece of music that makes me go, “Right, that sounded pretty cool.”, and allocate a time over the weekends learning the section. Depending on the complexity of the sections, I might take up the entire weekend!

4. Use Your Ears!

Never had formal ear training?

But you know what sounds great, and what might not. Chances are, you might have the most vital tool to identify music.

Listening carefully is key!

Listening carefully is key!

You’ll be surprised that you might be surrounded by people who lacks the ability to be a “visionary” in music, where you can hear things to push the potential in any song to the next level – or the next big hit.

However, you can kill two birds with one stone. If you’re really keen on ear training, this painful, yet rewarding, process will help you out!

Supporting the 3rd point of this article, you can slow things down to 70% – 80% and learn from there. Given technology these days, you can purchase sheet music, or download guitar tabs off the internet, or better still, watch video tutorials on YouTube for free, as long as you are connected to the Internet.

There isn’t really a right or wrong method of training yourself, really. It depends on what challenges you set for yourself. However, if you’re rushing to learn 50 brand new songs for a gig, then getting your hands on whatever materials would be a smarter strategy to learn things.

But if you want a challenge, try to figure out chords or melody lines with your ears. This prepares you for all sorts of improvisations that the band may put you on, so if you need to accompany the entire band in chords, or a jam session, you pretty much know how to adjust, and guess what possibly be the next chord, or key change lined up.

If you use your ears to analyse what you want to learn, you won’t only pay attention to the notes, but you might end up picking up small details on how a melody is being expressed by the artist.

Let’s say if you’re a guitarist, you might pick up the following besides the melody:

  • Vibrato style
  • Which string to play the note.
    • For example, playing a G – it can be the 3rd fret of the 1st string, 8th fret of the 2nd string, 12 fret of the 3rd string, 17th fret of the 4th string.. And all of these are the same octave, but due to the nature of the guitar, these notes will sound different due to different string gauges, and therefore, can be easily expressed differently. The thicker the string, the “rounder” and “warmer” it’ll sound, and it sounds the opposite if played on thinner strings.
      • Eric Johnson is a great reference for this. He comes up with a solo, and then he plays it in all sorts of positions, figuring which one sounds best to him.
  • Legato techniques
    • If the artist is playing hammer ons, or is he actually picking the strings?
  • Angle of the pick attacking the strings
    • First thing that comes to my mind would be Paul Gilbert around this playing style. The pick is parallel to the string if he’s playing rhythm guitars, and it may be angled whenever he is playing solos. The result of this causes a “scratchy” sound. This is half of the “raspy” sound you can hear on his albums – “Vibrato” and “Stone Uphill Pushing Man”. Half of this is caused by the guitar amp he’s using, and the other half lies in his picking method.
  • Strings being played by a guitar pick, or fingers?
  • Pickup position (for electric guitars)
  • Using a lighter overdriven tone, or rolling off the volume knob on your guitar on an distorted amp channel with full distortion?
  • .. And the list goes on!

These sort of information is not present in a guitar tab, or sheet music. Sometimes they are (with pickup positions), but most of the time, it’s the player who expresses them.

You never know if a vibrato or a playing style may be suitable when you were practicing at home. But once you play live, you’ll notice that half of whatever you’ve prepared for at home is not applicable, and you’re, well, back to using your ears to guide you to adjust your equipment to suit the situation at that point of time.

Don’t underestimate your ears. Get them to guide you on where you need to get on a sonic level!

How would I do it?

  • Make it a habit that you should refrain from searching for any form of reference materials.
  • Play guessing games with yourself. Challenge yourself to guess the chord/key of the music you’re surrounded by at different points of time.
  • Sing a harmony, and transcribe that to your musical instrument.

5. Have Fun!

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To me, the most important part of playing or performing music, is to have fun.

Remember that if you’re playing live one day, you will be playing for an audience. If you’re lucky, it’ll consist of musicians that knows and appreciates all of the hard effort you have put in your playing or compositions to be presented live. But you’ll also have a section of the crowd who are non-musicians, and can be people who can be potential fans to your music style!

What do you do?

Get their attention. You can also learn to practice on how you might want to perform just to have retain a bit of showmanship. Using the guitar as an example, you can start by not looking at the neck. If you’re feeling confidence, try playing easier solo passages behind your neck (!). Slide across from one side of the room to the other on your knees (get knee caps if required!), and all sorts of stuff that you thought was kind of cool while watching a KISS concert.

Once this becomes second nature, you’ll have all of the required skill sets to show that you’re actually having fun while performing a piece of music!

That’s on a showmanship level, though.

In terms of finding the right melodies to play, get to the point where you feel like as if the notes you play across a chord progression gives you goosebumps, and it may not be a million notes in a single measure, but it could be a simple melody line. And you know what? The lesser the notes are, the easier it is to play.

So if it’s easier, that means you can probably end up playing the guitar behind your neck!

After all, the non-musicians will be able to relate to you if you can show you’re having fun with the stuff you’re playing. You can have a cool guitar face on, smile as you’re playing (this sends out a positive vibe to the crowd), or.. any one of the facial expressions of the poster shots of guitarists.

Wrap up the practice session with points 1 to 4, and meddle around with it without being too strict to ease up some of the tension of your practice session.

How would I do it?

  • Watch a lot of live performances and see what you can pick up that makes it great.
  • Practice – especially if you’re planning to play the guitar behind your neck.
  • See if you can catch yourself smiling to the fruits of your own labour.

Once you’ve worn yourself out for the day, take a break for the day if you think you’ve worn yourself out. Review the piece again on the next day.

You’ll be surprised that a combination of rest and solid focus will make you sound like you’ve been playing the newly learnt piece like you’ve been playing that section it for a few years!

  • Never go against nature! I agree we cannot learn everything in single day. That’s not how our brain works. Thanks for the great write up.