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Practice

Article from Making Music, March 1987

How to get the very best from what you do in the privacy of your own home


Adrian Legg gets you past those embarrassing moments of forgetfulness.

THERE YOU ARE, nice gig, good sound, blasting along, punters under your thumb, pickin' like a demon with a braincell scanning ahead, when that sickening feeling strikes — four bars ahead there's a blank. Maybe the fingers'll do it on auto-pilot — three bars — maybe there's a bluff available — two bars — surely it wasn't a minor — one bar — Hail Mary, full of Grace — rats, they noticed.

Fled is that music; Do I wake or sleep? John Keats

Distractions can cause blanks. A bum note (pardon me) is forgiveable when backing a stripper who wasn't on the contract and a missed position understandable when ducking a flying bottle, but most blanks are caused by lateral association. An old established piece can be upset by a newly written piece which has a section with a similar technical structure. The cure is to relearn the blank and analyse it afresh, then search the rest of the repertoire for similar bits. Pull them out and practise them side by side, noting the subtle differences in feel that will be the only clues you have time for in performance.

Example: I wrote a piece which used a thumb-index-middle-index-thumb etc. right hand pattern. Immediately, a couple of other pieces which used a thumb-index-middle-thumb right hand style fell apart, as did the entire stock of spare banjo licks and fills. The feel clue was in the difference between the new, very square fours structure and the older triplets.

Genius is one per cent inspiration, and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. Thomas Edison.

There was not one simple clue for the banjo licks, the ones I needed back urgently had to be sweated individually and slowly every day.

I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before. John Donne.


Good practice is planned. If you use a set list on stage because your brain is fully occupied in giving a performance, then you need a set list for practice because your brain is fully occupied sorting out what went wrong with the performance. Plan at least an hour's work before you break for any reason, and work to a clock.

My practice is never very absorbing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Once you've flogged yourself to do the first ten or 20 minutes, you'll find yourself settling in and really getting to grips with problems. Once in, it can be hard to get out. Don't let a coffee-break be long enough to lose that concentration

Genius is nothing but a great aptitude for patience. George Louis Button (1707-1788, French naturalist).

Do things slowly. A good technique is built, like anything else, from the ground up. Rush the footings and later work will fall down. You are here, in private, to expose to yourself your own weaknesses and sort them out. For example, a weak or bluffed alternate up and down pick stroke won't go away if you ignore it, but return to wreck every speedy lick you develop later on.

...a thing may look evil in theory, and yet be in practice excellent. Edmund Burke (Impeachment of Warren Hastings, 15th Feb 1788.)

Something new, in its entirety may look impossible. I bet you could do two bars though? Two bars a day for a fortnight = 28 bars; for a month = 60 bars. After that my maths breaks down, but you see the point.

Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can. Owen Meredith, Earl of Lytton.

Do the horrendously difficult in bite size pieces.

Give me a laundry list and I'll set it to music. Gioacchino Rossini.

Try something new. Anything. A bit of easy Bach or a half-remembered Irish jig; something totally outside your normal repertoire that will stretch you in an unexpected way, and show you your instrument in a different light.

You may never use the novelty piece for anything, but I guarantee that at least one technical bit will turn out very useful somewhere you didn't expect.

Genius is formed in quiet. Goethe.

You need to concentrate. Take the phone off the hook, lock your door or insist that you be not disturbed. Distractions can cause you to lose a tenuous grip on a vital thread, and someone bursting in suddenly can give you a horrible shock when you are concentrating deeply.

There are reasons other than the adverse effect on your relationship with your family and neighbours for not using your normal onstage sound for practice all the time. If you get used to working with a good sound at home, then the damage to your sound done by a gig with duff acoustics or a poky stage will make you feel uncomfortable and short of confidence; consequently you won't play as well as you can. Once you have established that your sound in the auditorium is consistently good even when you can't hear it properly, then it is far better to practise with a sound that is not as good so that any onstage surprises are nice ones. Besides, echo and & should be stripped away to expose bluffs and fumbles for treatment.

The rest may reason and welcome; 'tis we musicians know. Robert Browning.

When you look clearly at your own abilities, you can see all the dodgy bits, the bluffs, and the long sweaty road behind your current performance. When punters look at your abilities, they see (hopefully) a nice shiny performance, not the dodgy bits, bluffs or sweat.

When you look at another musician you see a performance and a conclusion. Maybe you can see an occasional bluff if you look carefully, or spot a bum note, but basically, you see where he or she is at now. If you fail to realise that that musician struggles in private with his or her own inadequacies just as much as you do, you may become discouraged.

Genius (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all) Thomas Carlyle (Fredk. the Great book 41865).

You know as well as I do that no musician got to blinder level without hitting a lot of bum notes en route (except maybe Itzhak Perleman), and there will be plenty more to come (except maybe from Itzhak Perleman). If you take the trouble to correct the bum notes, you are on the same road as the blinder and will arrive at the same place sooner or later.

Most peoples' practice problems start with lack of motivation. This comes back to how you see yourself and other musicians — if you think they're all wonderful and you're useless, then it's not surprising. Look back a few paragraphs. You will be as good as your work and as bad as your bullshit. If you can't find any other reason to practise on one day, at least do it so you don't let colleagues and mates down.

I wish sir, that you would practise this without me. I can't stand dying here all night. R. B. Sheridan (play The Critic, 1779).

Practice is a daily routine. Sometimes a delight, sometimes a bloody drag, but always daily. Even if the sun is blazing and the fish are frantically grabbing empty maggot skins, there must be a couple of hours to keep in touch with your instrument.

My wife once said to my father: "I don't mind him practising, it's him playing things over and over again I can't stand." My father, a musician, and now rather puzzled, said to me: "doesn't she understand what practice is?"

Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad;
The rule of three doth puzzle me,
And practice drives me mad. (Anon. Elizabethan MS, 1570).


And Preparation

- Check your tuning as carefully as for a gig: a guitar a semitone down bends easier and feels softer.

- If you have the speaker's high frequency unit pointing at your head, cover it with tissue to diffuse treble and delay the onset of deafness — the studio engineer's NS 10 trick.

- If you stand to play a gig, you should stand to practise. But, if this means you quit work early because your legs get tired, sit. Hard kitchen chairs and back-achey stools will not help, but a typists' chair is ideal. A rotating, adjustable height job with castors costs about fifty quid new, so you should be able to find something reasonable second-hand for under a tenner. Back support is the key criterion.

- Scales. So they're boring. They also work. Do major and harmonic/melodic minors in every key. If you really don't know what that means, get the Associated Board Rudiments of Music — a smattering of basic musical literacy will not damage your free artistic spirit. Arpeggiated or broken scales are great exercises. Slowly at first, every note clean, check every finger is doing its fair share on the left hand, and keep to alternate up and down pick strokes. No bluffs, hammers, pulls or other sneakies.

- Work with a metronome when you are putting solos and fills together. Some people recommend drum machines but personally I prefer a clean clear click, even for overdubbing. Metronomes are also cheaper. Buy a suitable mains supply so you don't worry about battery bills.


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Tama Swingstar 8000 Drum Kit

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Drum Hum


Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Mar 1987

Feature by Adrian Legg

Previous article in this issue:

> Tama Swingstar 8000 Drum Kit...

Next article in this issue:

> Drum Hum


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