This week we’re going to look into some tips on how to improve your technical agility. One of the main abilities a musician must have is to have command of the technical aspects of his/her instrument.
Tip #1: Play everything slowly
“Slow is the same as fast”. Maybe you’ve heard of that phrase. I’d like to interpret it as understanding that all movements that you make while playing rapid passages must have the same relaxed feeling as though you were playing slowly. What better way to do that than practicing slowly?
You’ll have to practice slowly and do NOT increase the tempo at any time! Breathe relaxed, concentrate but don’t let your muscles stressed or tight in any way. Practicing slowly give you a chance to hear the music exactly, listen intensively and therefore make your brain learn it “inside-out”.
Tip #2: Concentrate on problem areas
Learn to isolate difficult passages. Listen into them. Figure them out harmonically, mechanically and rhythmically. After your practiced the difficult passage, connect it back to the music a few measure before and after. This way you are “de-isolating” the passage back into the music.
Tip #3: Remember, it’s about making music
Once a new student came to me for lessons and played a few things for me that he’d been practicing up to that point. He commenced to play an exercise in a very technical, non-emotional fashion. I stopped him and asked why he has played like that. He answered, “Well, it’s just a technical exercise. It has nothing to do with music.”
So, I said, “OK, so throw it in the trash!” The point here is that we have to understand something. We play a musical instrument. We do it to play/perform music with it. In order to get the best performances out of ourselves on a consistent basis, we have to “practice performing”. So it is imperative that every time we practice, we should make music.
If something has NOTHING to do with music, we shouldn’t practice it. Think about it. When you practice your major scales, why do you do it? Possible answer are “To better my technique”, “To gain mastery of my instrument”, “to learn to hear the major key”, “to improve my intonation” , etc.
Such answer as “because it’s my homework” or “because my teacher said so” are weak answers and they are NOT going to inspire us to make good music. We need better answers. If an exercise is boring you, ask yourself “Why am I practicing this?”
Look for an answer that is going to motivate you! If you don’t come up with one, LOOK for one! Call a friend, ask your teacher, send ME an email! Do something! Give yourself good reasons and the HOW will take care of itself.
Tip #4: Practice with rhythmic variations
If you’re practicing even scale material, instead of repeating an exercise over and over again the same way (and possibly boring yourself), try playing it with different rhythms.
For example, I’m playing:
- C – D – E – F – G – F – E – D – C. All eights. Play it 3 times.
- Then play it as a dotted eighth and sixteenth rhythm. (Or swing eighths) 3 times
- Then play it as a sixteenth and a dotted eight rhythm (reverse swing) 3 times
- Then play one group of eight note triplets and a quarter note. 3 times
- Then the opposite – a quarter note then a group of eighth-note triplets. 3 times
- Then mix this set – 1 group eighth-note triplet, quarter, quarter, eighth-note triplets. 3 times
- Then the opposite mix – quarter, eighth-note triplets, eighth-note triplets, quarter. 3 times
- Then play the original rhythm from the beginning. 3 times.
What does this do? You’ve played the same exercise 24 times without it getting boring. You’ve learned to hear this combination of notes in different rhythms, which aids you to hear deeper into the notes. The speed of the fingers between the notes has varied, eventually strengthening your technique.
I guarantee that if you practice your technical exercises with this method, you’ll reach desired results faster than you have had in the past. You’ll accomplish a lot more in less time.
Tip #5: Learn how to take a break
Practicing 6 hours a day, 7 days a week can be great if you have time to afford yourself this luxury. If you do, my advice is DON’T DO IT! After spending so much time to learn new techniques, new repertoire, new whatever, you can destroy it all by practicing too much!
The brain can only take in some much information at a time and it does it best “piece by piece”, in small relaxed dosages. Even then, the brain needs a rest. Saxophonist Phil Woods has been said the he always plans a day NOT to practice. This day for him is Sunday. He goes fishing. He even stays away from music on this day.
It’s good advice to follow. Plan a day right now that you will NOT practice. Learn to relax. Do something else on that day.
Evan Tate is a Faculty member at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, a Julius Keilwerth saxophones endorser, podcaster and author of the book “250 Jazz Patterns” and more. You can contact Mr. Tate at EvanTateMusic.com.
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