November 26, 2010

Why every musician should compose

Composing is a discovery process. When you compose even a bit, you learn about what goes through composers heads when they compose, and you will learn to interpret their music better. You will learn what makes music work (or not work).

I periodically go through phases where I am obsessed with the idea of composing. Usually, no more than a few sketches come out of it and few pieces get finished. It was frustrating until I considered that maybe I wasn't really trying to write the greatest guitar sonata ever, but instead I was examining my understanding of and relationship with music.

It's just like writing

You don't have to write a whole novel when you sit down at the word processor. You can start by jotting down an idea or two, maybe just vague notions in your head, and do your best to put them into words. As you do that, you may notice connections and ways that those ideas can fit together, or ways that they don't fit together.

Sometimes you need to write the same idea a few different ways before the right one appears. As the ball gets rolling, new ideas will appear on their own.

It's also like drawing

Don't tell me you can't draw. When you've got a blank piece of paper, you don't have to fill every sheet of paper with some painstakingly detailed landscape. You can sketch things out, or doodle. Sometimes just a stick man will do.

The hardest part is getting started.

Ever have a little fragment of a melody go through your head? Sing it. Find it on the instrument. Figure out some chords for it. If you can only find part of it, make up the rest. It doesn't have to be good, and if it's not, you don't have to play it someone else or even think about it ever again.

You don't even have to write it down, just play with it. What kind of accompaniment would Carulli give this melody? What about Villa-Lobos? How might Debussy have written it differently?

Note: Christopher Davis recently did a great interview with GFA winner Johannes Möller. In the second video, Johannes talks about composing. I wrote this post before I saw the video, so I'm happy to see some of the same sentiments but also some other great points of view. Check it out.

November 19, 2010

How to divide up practice time

Dividing up practice time

Teachers usually recommend dividing up your practice time between technique, studies, and repertoire. Since there are a variety of techniques musicians master, so if you have only half hour to devote to technique, how should you divide that up?

Whether you have half an hour or three hours for your technique practice, I think you should pick the highest priority thing and just focus on that until you master it.

Move on when it is obvious you are ready to move on.

I am feeling the pressure of upcoming performances, but I am still spending most of my practice time on one scale, over and over again, for hours.

What about everything else?

What about arpeggios, tremolo, slurs, and all the other elements of technique? Aren't I ignoring those?

You could look at it that way, but there are and will probably always be aspects of my technique I'm not happy with. Right now, my playing will benefit the most from mastering my scales.

I would rather make a big improvement in one area of playing rather than making incremental improvements in several.


This might seem really boring, but the truth is, two hours of scales a day was too boring for me when I was trying to concentrate on them as hard as I can.

Now I just do them while I read blogs/facebook/twitter/whatever.

When I'm ready to move on to music, I put the laptop away, get out my music, and get to work with a fresh mind. I'm tired mentally or physically from the scales.

In fact, I'll hardly feel like I've done them. That's pretty much the point. When you're playing music, you don't want to think, "here's that hard scale." You want to just do it. That is why I practice this way. In the past, I would have thought this was an awful idea, but as far as I'm concerned, the progress speaks for itself.

I'm not saying that I never listen to what I'm doing to check my progress. I'm always listening to it.


PS: And now for something completely different. I recently completed an ambient/electronic/space music album under the name Glissant. Check it out!

November 12, 2010

What is efficient?

"When working on the exercises, the guitarist must keep in mind the fact that mechanical repetition is worthless. Every time an exercise is repeated one must consciously correct and/or improve upon the previous playing."
- Ricardo Iznaola, Kitharalogus

"Practicing without thinking about what we’re doing prepares us for real world performance conditions, where we often have to work on automatic pilot mode, especially at the technical level.
I thought I was the only one doing this until a guitarist (and a famous one too, who will remain anonymous) came to visit Corpus Christi. When I went to the hotel to pick him up for the concert, I was surprised to hear, behind the door, intense practicing with the TV at full blast."
- Philip Hii, Art of Virtuosity for Guitar book
Both of these seemingly opposite schools of thought have their adamant supporters, and both have produced stellar musicians. How can that happen?

People are all different and some learn differently, but let's face it, not much about playing any instrument is particularly natural. Sure, some people take to it easier than others and we can use principles of nature to guide our efforts, but when it comes right down to it, everything we do is a learned adaptation to the requirements of the instrument. It will take time to develop.

Some will argue that 'mindless repetition' may not be taking the quickest path, and you are also perhaps running the risk of developing bad habits. But by letting your muscles figure things out on their own and leaving your mind out of it, you are cultivating the ability to play instinctively rather than calculatedly.

Iznaola's recommendation, on the other hand, can easily lead to end-gaining, which is often difficult to see until you're already mired in it. That doesn't mean the approach doesn't work, but I know that I tend to get obsessive about things and am prone to end-gaining, and I think that's why I have had mixed success with it.

Given the examples of success, I conclude that both approaches are valid and have their place, but perhaps aren't equally suited to everyone.

Efficiency IS Important

I'm not advocating wasting your time, and there are clearly times when efficiency is key. For example, the faster and more completely you understand a piece of music, the quicker and easier it should be to learn correctly. Having a secure and well-rounded technique will allow you to focus on the musical aspects of it without getting distracted by the technical side. That is efficient.

All the individual elements of your technique should be as efficient as possible, too. No wasted motion, no stumbling, and no delay as you prepare. While a thorough understanding of the ins and outs of technique is a great start, it offers little advantage until you put in the time imprinting the motions into your muscle memory so they become absolutely instinctive.

How long does it really take?

When I was working as a software engineer, the only times I could get a two-hour task done in two hours was when I had no interruptions. A ten minute interruption didn't make that task take two hours and ten minutes, it made it more like three hours, because of the distraction, the context-switching, and getting back into the groove.

So if a technique on the guitar is going to take 10 ideal-world hours to learn, the more time you can focus on it at a time, the sooner you'll get there. Every interruption will incur some penalty, so maybe doing it an hour a day will make it take 11-12 days, but doing it 10 minutes a day will probably take 70-80 days.

That is, if you can stay motivated and interested enough in working on that same thing 10 minutes a day for 70-80 days. If you're like most people, you'll probably get bored with it, or decide it's good enough for now, and move on to something else before you've really got it nailed down.

Mindless Repetition
One of the things I believe in is practicing in a state of no-mind. You practice without thinking too much about what you’re doing.
- Philip Hii, Art of Virtuosity for Guitar book
There's no real shortcut to developing technique. The closest thing to a shortcut is to have a clear sound-picture in your head of what you are trying to achieve, to have a sense of the right way, and guidance from a teacher.

Then you need to set your metronome for a speed where you are able to play the exercise/technique comfortably, no matter how slowly that is. Set a timer (I use for 20-30 minutes, or an hour if you can, or even two, and just have at it. Work on one thing at a time and build the muscle memory until you get to the point where your hands just do it for you. You will know recognize that feels like when it happens. And if it doesn't sound right yet, keep at it.

November 5, 2010

Electric guitar, part 2

It's quite a different experience, beginning again but with so many years of music experience behind me. It's not quite as fun as being a kid making loud noise for the first time but it's a lot more satisfying. Back then, I started off trying to learn Classical Gas on my mom's nylon string guitar to convince my parents they should buy me an electric guitar (which they did, even though my Classical Gas was unrecognizable), then a pile of guitar magazines and a vague sense of music carried me on from there.

The first order of business is learning to use a pick again. Why the death-grip on the pick and the tension in my forearm? Even if I lighten up the grip the tension remains. Is it just unfamiliar muscle work now and something that will go away on its own, or should I focus on this aspect right away since I'm aware of it?

The Guitar Mastery Blog covers a lot of picking-related issues with a good (and realistic) attitude.