Most of us have limited time for practice. Whatever time that we have, has to be used effectively. So how do you get the most from the practice time that you have? In this blog post, I’ll explore some methods I’ve found to improve practice effectiveness. This is admittedly from a guitarists point of view, I am a guitarist after all. Ask your IMA Mentor how to apply these techniques to your instrument.
Listen To What You’re Doing
I know that sounds like a strange thing to say, but it’s a problem we see everyday when mentoring our clients. Getting too caught up in the mechanics of what you’re doing is a problem. It prevents you from hearing what you’re actually doing.
Just playing, without listening intently to what you’re doing doesn’t help you improve. To change your focus to be more audio based, try listening to just one part of the sounds you’re making.
- How does the note I’m playing now start?
- How does it end?
Stay focussed on the sound of what you’re doing exactly when you’re doing it. This skill can take a little while to learn. Like all things, with practice you will build up those ‘listening muscles’.
There are a few things that you can do to help this process along:
Play everything slowly enough so that you can hear and understand what you’re doing. When practicing with a metronome, I would ‘penalise’ myself 5 beats per minute for every mistake that I made. This ensured that I was going slowly enough to play whatever I was working on perfectly. Once I could achieve that then I could speed it up.
Play In Front Of A Mirror
Humans are visually focused animals. When we hear a sound, it’s a cue for us to look to see where it came from so that we can identify it. We always turn to look at what we’re listening to. When you practice in front of a mirror, it can be like looking at another performer. This can help us listen a little more intently.
“Listening in the 3rd” person as I like to call it means that you’re listening as if it’s not you making the sound. This can help you to detach yourself from the act of making the music and be more aware of the sound. It also allows you to “sit back and enjoy the music”. We play music because we love it, so this has got to be the best outcome of all.
It can also help you be aware of your technique. As a guitarist I look for things like:
- Are your fingers up against the frets
- Are your fingers on their tips
- Are you pulling weird facial expressions
- Are you pulling the strings to one side?
Be aware of these things, don’t worry about them. Awareness is the first step. Sometimes being aware is enough and you’ll start to correct the problem without too much thought.
Developing Better Awareness Of Your Body
While you’re in front of the mirror you can also:
- Keep an eye on your breathing
- Watch for shoulder tension
- Watch for jaw tension
Being aware of tension in the body and working on relaxing that tension can improve your playing significantly in a short space of time. Try breathing slowly while you practice. The breath out is the most important. Try relaxing your shoulders as you breathe out. Not only will this relax you, but it will make learning faster and playing easier.
Use An Echo / Delay Effect
Got an electric or an acoustic with a pickup? Do you own an echo or delay pedal? Try:
- Setting the effect unit to 100% mix with 800ms of delay time.You can then listen back to each phrase after you play it.
- Setting the effects unit to 50% mix and play along with yourself. Try playing one note over and over again in a regular rhythm like straight crotchets (1/4 notes) or quavers (1/8 notes). This can help you with playing along with other musicians, keeping a steady tempo and learning to listen to what you’re doing and correcting it on the fly. For a more sophisticated version of this exercise, have a listen to Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” and “Another Brick In The Wall Pt I”.
Using A Looper Pedal
If you’re lucky enough to own a looper pedal, you can ‘record’ yourself playing some chords or some sort of rhythm part. Then you can layer another part over the top. This can be hours of fun and really good practice for your rhythm playing.
Recording What You Practice
Simply recording what you’re working on can provide some great feedback. Don’t be too harsh with yourself though. Keep what you’ve done for at least a couple of days and then listen back again. You may find yourself much more forgiving after you have some perspective.
Try laying down a backing track or chord progression, then improvise over the top. This can be a great way to practice your soloing (as well as your rhythm playing).
Archiving What You Record
Don’t throw out those old recordings. They’re great to go back to hear how much you’ve improved. I really recommend going back every three months or so and having a listen to some old recordings. You’ll be surprised at how much better your playing has become.
Working In Headphones
The human brain has a preference for reflected sound over direct sound. That means that if you’re listening to a sound source in a room (like someone talking to you), you’ll be focused on the sound reflecting off the walls in preference to the sound coming out of the person’s mouth. To a small extent, we use sound to echolocate. Working in headphones eliminates the reflected sound, and helps you focus on what’s really coming out of your instrument.
Silencing Internal Dialogue
Concentrating on breathing and relaxation are a great way to eliminate that internal dialogue. You know the voice inside your head that says, “Here comes the hard bit” or “I’m going to stuff this part up again”. You can’t tell this part of your brain to be quiet, that’s just giving it focus. Instead, focus on other things like breathing, relaxing and listening and that voice will fade into the distance.
Don’t Forget To Enjoy Yourself!
To sum up, probably the most important thing is to enjoy yourself. That’s why we love playing an instrument or singing after all!
If you’ve got questions, feel free to share them in the comments.
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