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Practice Methods and When to Use Them pt.1 practicing without an instrument.

Something I regularly encourage in my lessons is awareness of how to approach guitar practise. New players are often so concerned with what they learn that thinking about how they learn it doesn’t really occur to them. Learning any instrument requires the engagement of both the brain and the body, and different practise methods can bring out the best of one or both of these areas.

Non instrumental practise is an odd and counter intuitive idea. But there are several ways in which you can still improve on your musical ability when you can’t get to an instrument. These are particularly useful if you’re away from home for a long period of time and worried about being rusty when you come back, or simply if you have a lot to do and no time to sit down and play on a particular day.

Mental Practicing.

This Journal article describes how mental practice is an important part of learning music. In fact fMRI scans have shown that imagining playing a piece of music engages many of the same areas of the brain as actually performing it. Try this exercise as an experiment.

Imagine playing your way through a piece you are working on at the moment. Imagine playing each passage at the speed you would normally play it from beginning to end. The more you are able to visualise the fretboard and the movements your fingers would make to play the piece the better this will work. You will probably find that you even make mistakes in your mental practice in the same way that you would when actually playing. Go back over the passages you get wrong more slowly in your mind and think carefully about the movements each finger would have to make to achieve the required sound before attempting them again at full speed.

Active Listening.

Something else you can do to improve your overall musical ability when you’re unable to play is changing the way you listen to music. Most people listen to a song and hear only the most prominent thing on the track. Whether that be the vocal melody or the guitar solo. But as a musician you need to be able to listen more closely, hearing and understanding each individual instrument and how your part relates to the rest. A song I like to use as an example is Hooked On A Feeling by Blue Swede. Grab a decent set of headphones for this exercise if you can. The song opens with an entirely Acapella intro, over this part of the song see if you can find the pulse and tap along to the beat with no drums or instruments to give it away. You’ll know if you got it right when the song gets to 35 seconds and the two instrumental hits mark the tempo for you. On your first listen to the song try picking out a simple instrument like the cowbell. This is the high pitched clicking noise you can hear in the chorus. During this section of the song it plays on every beat in the bar, but if you listen to it in the verse you’ll hear that it changes to only playing on the 2nd and 4th beat of the bar. This is one of a number of small subtle changes to the instrumentation that cause the choruses to sound more driven and exciting than the verses, even though they’re both at the same tempo.

When you have listened to the entire song focusing solely on the cowbell, go back to the beginning and pick out another instrument and follow it through the song, tapping out the rhythms it plays as you go. Listen to how it relates to the cowbell and notice how in some sections it plays a more prominent role than in others. Developing your ear in this way can make life much simpler when you come to learn the guitar part to a song. To my mind it also makes music much more enjoyable to listen to. Try listening to songs you know well and practicing this in the same way. You may be surprised to hear parts you’ve never noticed in songs you’ve heard many times before.

There will be more practice methods to come next week, but try these ones in the meantime. If you’re interested in learning a little more about how learning processes occur in the brain I highly recommend reading ‘Your Brain on Music’ By Daniel Levitin and ‘Musicking’ By Christopher Small.

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