As Blood Runs Black Guitarist Dan Sugarman on Optimizing Your Practice Time, Part 2
Yoo! What's good? How did your week of practicing go? Did you get a chance to apply some of the concepts I talked about in Optimizing your Practice Time, Part I?
I know there was a lot of good brain food in there for you to digest, but the last thing I want for you is to develop mental indigestion from overwhelming you with information. My hopes are that you've learned something new from Part I that will help you bridge the gap from to mindless meandering to an efficient and effective practice routine, as well as opening up your mind to new approaches to practicing.
In my last column, we discussed the ideas of practicing with a "Focused Awareness" by using your mind and ears, how to "Divide & Conquer" anything thrown your way, how to use "Separation & Isolation" to further extract the pieces apart from a section of a song or an exercise, as well as other general yet very important practice tips. I'd like to continue where we left off and start by introducing several more concepts to you so that you can add them to the melting pot.
Today I'm going to be talking about Integrating the things you've learned into your playing and morphing them into your own creations, Visual & Aural Feedback, The Un-Comfort Zone, and Finding Balance in your growth as a guitarist and musician. Let's begin.
As you know, the purpose of an exercise is to get better at the technique that specific exercise is focusing on. But is a technique really mastered if you can't use it musically? This concept is about creating within the limits of those specific techniques that the exercise is focused on.
I now want you to take whatever it is that you learned from the exercise you have been working on and kind of summarize what the purpose of the exercise was. Legato, Hybrid Picking & String Skipping, you say? Okay - cool.
Now within those restrictions try to create your own phrase or riff using those techniques. Oh, so you worked on all of the chromatic permutations to develop better finger dexterity and a higher finger IQ, you say? Right on - now go write some interesting chromatic lead lines to help you integrate what you've learned into your musical vocabulary.
The idea of creating with an idea in mind as well as guidelines and requirements to follow (the techniques used) can be a very useful tool when it comes to writing or improvising. Now would be a good time to start experimenting with this concept. BE SURE TO DOCUMENT ANYTHING YOU COME UP WITH! Because guess what? You just created yourself some home-made exercises and quite possibly some great material for a new song! Nice work. Keep it up.
Visual and Aural Feedback
The best way to see how far you've come and how you're progressing is to take a step back and watch yourself in action. How do you do that? Record a video of yourself practicing! This will allow you to not only document your progress, but it will also help you analyze your playing from the perspective of the audience so that you can easily see where you still need the most work.
Use the Divide & Conquer method to fix any problems that you see or hear in the video. Another benefit of documenting your progress in this way is that it will give you something to look back on to show you how far you've really come. Be proud of yourself. Remember what it felt like to play your first chord? Hold on to that excitement and harness it. I know it sounds stupid, but playing the guitar can be extremely disheartening at times.
Especially when you've reached a dead-end in your playing, or when you're constantly comparing yourself to other musicians. Music is hard, and the guitar is one of the more complex and challenging instruments out there - there's no denying that. But acknowledging your achievements and giving yourself a pat on the back once in a while is a great way to keep fueling the fire. How far will a car get without any fuel? Nowhere. Keep that in mind. Stay inspired.
The Un-Comfort Zone
My idea behind this concept is to remove yourself from the things you are most comfortable with. For instance, many players feel more comfortable when playing in the middle of the guitar neck (somewhere between fret 5 & fret 15). For some reason, guitarists tend to avoid the more extreme areas of the neck such as frets 1 through fret 4, or anything above fret 15. I want you to work these areas of the guitar neck as much as you would work on the middle area of the neck, if not more.
You can play the same exercises that you would in the middle of the neck, just move it either up above the 15th fret, or down to the 1st fret. Try playing scalar passages and arpeggios in these extreme parts of the neck as well. This idea will actually expand the possibilities of what you can do on your guitar, as well as show you how to take full advantage of the entire guitar neck while soloing or riffing.
By playing on the lower frets, you will be expanding the reach and flexibility of your fingers, which will in turn make the other areas of the neck seem much easier to play in. By playing on the higher frets, you will be challenging your fretting hand technique as well as the precision and coordination that the higher notes require.
- You can also take an exercise and shift the entire thing to different strings. Changing up what strings you're used to playing the exercise on will force you to pay attention to new details and remaster it all over again. By changing strings you are also changing the positioning of your right hand, or as I call it - your "home position." What I mean by that is the right hand needs to be positioned in a way that is most beneficial to your picking angle (the angle of the pick in relation to the string - which effects the overall tone of the note you play) economy of motion, as well as keeping the picking movement coming from your wrist and not your arm.
Each string's thickness also plays a huge roll in your picking response as well as your fretting hand's control over those strings. These are only some of the details you will need to be aware of. I'm sure you will encounter more as you experiment with this idea such as unwanted string noise, finding the right touch in both hands, and controlling your dynamics and the overall tone.
- Mix it up! You think you've mastered an exercise? Try starting it with an upstroke instead of a downstroke this time. This will literally reverse everything that you're used to and force you to pay close attention once again.
- Also try this: Add legato to the exercise if possible. Now you are working on your fretting hand's strength as well as the muting techniques that are required to achieve a clean legato sound.
- You think you've got that scale/exercise down? Try playing it with a swing feel now to challenge yourself rhythmically once again. Once you've become satisfied with the progress made - shake things up a bit so that you are challenged once again.
- Don't only practice what you're good at, either! That would be going against everything that you're working for - becoming a better musician. Remember that you're practicing so that you can become the best guitarist you can possibly be. You're not trying to be the best at exercising. Change it up! Challenge yourself! The goal is to turn all of your weaknesses into strengths - ALL OF THEM. Don't forget about ear training, theory, song writing and composition, chord knowledge, improvisation, jamming with other musicians, analyzing songs or chord progressions etc. etc.
Do not ignore your real weaknesses because you are so blinded by your strengths. Write all of your weaknesses down on a piece of paper, prioritize them, and then begin the process of turning those weaknesses into your strengths.
The whole point of The Un-Comfort Zone is to constantly challenge your mind and your fingers to keep you from becoming bored or too content with where you are as a musician. Remember that there is ALWAYS something to work on - even when you think you're at the finish line! But don't beat yourself up over knowing that this never ends...music is an art, and art is constantly and endlessly growing and evolving. It's a beautiful thing.
I also want you to be aware of the fact that an unbalanced practice routine can be harmful to your growth as a musician if it's not acknowledged and fixed. There are the fun/creative parts to music (right side of the brain - the creative center), and then there is the almost math like, fact based information that needs to be understood and retained (left side of the brain - the linear and analytical thinking center).
Mastering the latter requires a lot of focus and discipline. It takes a lot to sit down and commit yourself to learning all of the modes for instance, but it's a must if you want to be able to call yourself a real musician. After reading that last line, you might be saying to yourself - "Oh shit! I need to go sit down tomorrow and learn all my modes!" But in reality, that approach to learning something is a bad one and one that I don't recommend at all. Here is why ...
Final Words - Finding Balance
A lot of people seem to think that to become a great guitarist, one must sacrifice fun to get on the fast track to greatness. Wrong! There is a balance between having fun and being disciplined when practicing that is most favorable toward achieving the results you're looking for.
Having an imbalance in this area will most definitely prove itself detrimental to your growth as a guitarist. For instance, if you beat yourself over the head with the same scale over and over again (left side of the brain), chances are you're not having too much fun. It may end up leaving a bad taste in your mouth and leave you feeling unfulfilled simply because you didn't enjoy yourself.
You've been starving the right side of your brain (the creative part)! Over time, you may see the hours you spend practicing diminishing and your interest in the guitar weakened because playing just doesn't give you the buzz it did when you first started. Had you mixed things up and proportioned your practice time with left and right brain exercises, things would be different.
Remember that the brain acts like a muscle; it needs exercise too if it wants to stay active and productive. But on the other hand, if all you do is improvise over jam tracks in A minor (fun - right side of the brain), then you won't have much growth either because you lack the discipline in all the other realms of music. The left side of your brain is now underdeveloped because you've neglected the launching pad for growth by ignoring the foundations of music. When was the last time you did any ear training? What about composing and structuring your own songs?
Why not change it up and improvise in all the other keys and modes while integrating some new ideas into your improv? Just because jamming is fun doesn't mean you're going to get massive results out of it by ONLY doing that. What I'm trying to say is you need to have a balance between the things that are fun and the the things that are difficult and require a lot of discipline. The left side of the brain and the right side of the brain need to be stimulated regularly so that they can grow simultaneously and keep your progress moving forward.
My point is this: At the end of the day, you need to enjoy yourself and feel accomplished with what you're doing. Surround yourself with inspirational people and things that will fuel you to continue moving forward. Try to learn something new and review and master what you already know every time you sit down with the guitar.
Touch several different topics in each practice session that use both the left and the right side of the brain; just make sure it is organized and proportioned fairly. Spend an equal amount of time on each of that practice day's topics before moving to the next one.
Well, that will do it for Part 2 of Optimizing your Practice Time. Thank you for reading this, and hopefully you got some goodies out of this. Stay tuned for my next column! I'm sure there will be more on practicing guitar as I go along. Until then, you stay classy, planet earth.
As Blood Runs Black's new album, Instinct, is out now. Check them out on Facebook here.