Practice Better (Vol. 2): Music is a result of movement

This is the second post in my short series of articles on how to PRACTICE BETTER.  I will be going through the 7 Big Ideas from Tom Heany's book First, Learn To Practice, and sharing my thoughts.  I highly recommend everyone pick up a copy of this book.  As of right now, Kindle download versions of the book are just under $5.  It's a quick read and has great wisdom within its pages on how to approach and design your practice routines to get the most out of them.  Without further ado, I give you Heany's second big idea:

 

"Practice movement - music will follow"

One of the important ideas to understand about an instrument is that the instrument by itself does not make music.  Set your guitar down and wait for it to play you a song--it's not going to happen no matter how fancy or well-crafted an instrument it is.  Music comes from our physical interaction with an instrument.  We need to move in a certain way when interacting with our instrument so that together, as partners with our guitars, pianos, trumpets (or whichever instruments you happen to play) we can realize the sounds we hear in our heads.

When thinking about proper musical movement, it helps to think of playing your instrument as dancing.  Your fingers and hands are doing the dance, taking well-practiced (hopefully) steps over the fretboard (in the case of a guitar).  If your fingers are dancing in an erratic manner, never knowing if your steps are right or wrong, the sound that will be produced will be erratic and confused.  If your fingers are fluid, always leading from one movement to the next, the sound you produce will flow easily and pleasantly into your listeners' ears.

Practice your movements so they feel well rehearsed and comfortable.  The music you produce will sound more natural, less forced, and overall more enjoyable to play and listen to.

Here are some tips to make sure your movements are helping you create the music you hear in your head:

  • Take it slow. Practice at a very slow metronome bpm (beats per minute) setting.  When you practice a musical passage at a slow speed, you can focus on proper form and getting your fingers moving in the proper way, and once you've got the proper movement down and ingrained in your muscle memory, start to speed up the metronome bit by bit and work your way up to the actual tempo of the piece you're trying to play.

 

  • Focus on feel.  For now, don't worry about how what you're playing sounds.  Keep you mind focused on how it feels to play the passage you are practicing.  Does it feel like your fingers are in unfamiliar territory and thus are constantly falling behind on one note only to rush to the next one, causing your playing to feel uneven and disordered?  Or maybe your fingers feel very comfortable almost like they're gliding through an entire passage or even an entire song in one fluid movement.  As your fingers begin to recognize and feel more comfortable with a passage you will notice that the music you are producing begins to sound better too!

 

  • Work in a different area of the fretboard.  Guitar is one of the few instruments where you can play the same note in more than one location on the instrument.  Take for example the E you hear when you pluck the high E string.  You can play that same note on the 5th fret of the B string, the 9th fret of the G string, the 14th fret of the D string, or the 19th fret of the A string. THAT'S FIVE DIFFERENT PLACES TO PLAY THE SAME NOTE!!! This availability of notes makes guitar difficult to master, but also gives you many options to choose from when learning how to articulate a musical phrase.  If the phrase you're working on doesn't feel right when you play it in one area of the neck, try practicing it in a different area.  Think of it like dancing in a big hall--there is so much space to dance through, but if you are practicing your dancing in one corner of the hall and keep knocking into the walls, throwing off your groove, maybe you should move to a different, more open part of the hall. Changing the area of the fretboard that you're playing in (whether it it means moving up/down frets or across strings) may help you simplify your movements and allow the muscles in your fingers to work as efficiently as possible.

 

  • Focus on your entire body.  Even though your fingers are the only things fretting and plucking the strings, the movement of your entire body affects how you play your instrument.  Take notice of how different parts of your body move with the music and try to align your body's movement with the feel of the music.  Is your body stiff, or is it nice and loose--lending itself to a fluid performance?  Is your elbow pressed into your torso, limiting the mobility of your forearm, your hand, and your fingers?  Make sure your entire body is aiding movement to effectively perform your music.

 

Remember, music is the result of movement.  The way you move has a direct impact on the way your music sounds when you perform.  So to get  better at music, "Practice movement - music will follow."

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