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Day 131 : Welcome to the Jungle

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, or if you’ve ever taken a lesson with me, you know I use metaphors like there going out of style… which is a simile. Maybe it’s actually simile that I’m using all the time. Oh well. That’s not important right now.

Right now I want to tell you how my guitar practice became a journey into the jungle. Every day I start practice here in the studio, stiff and stilted. My head is wrapped up tight with daily responsibilities, expectations, deadlines. My knees, hips and shoulders are locked up in the puritanical, eternally-anglo, defensive clench. In this position the notes and sounds within my immediate grasp are just awful. The melodies and harmonic structures are all lazy, shallow, pattern-based and trite. Lucky for me I’ve learned that there is a way out of this place.

I found out a long time ago that all the good sounds, all the exciting musical ideas, are out there: in the jungle. The guitar is such an amazing instrument capable of a seemingly infinite shades of tone, and dynamics. Just this simple arrangement of strings over frets lends itself to so many techniques: picking, strumming, legato, bending, tapping, harmonics, rasgueados – each twisting and coloring the melodic line, rhythmic pulse or harmonic structure in ways that are still yet to be discovered.

I remember when I first started venturing out into the jungle. It was a frantic mess. A blind dash into the unknown followed up by pangs of hunger to find something. Something consonant. Something cool. Something that will impress friends. Something I can sell. If I found a particularly rich patch of sonic resource, I’d get out my tape recorder or draw a little fretboard map so that I’d know where I could come back to excavate with heavy machinery. My ego fantasized about marking off some rectangular patch of sound and calling it my home. “My” sound. I looked around in awe at all this infinite potential and sighed at how long it would take me to tame it all.

But the jungle will never belong to anyone. In fact, if you hang out in the jungle long enough, you will eventually return to it in your heart. You will relax and become at home out here. Slowly that is what is happening to me. I can see that right now I’m moving from one extreme toward the other. I spend literally all my time trying to get way out there in the jungle, where I discover exotic sounds and thrilling new combinations of sounds.

I don’t try to tame anything, but I notice my head full of duality and theory still can’t help but abstract and categorize what I hear and how it is made. That may or may not change. I’m not trying to be any particular way. The ability to abstract and categorize is precisely what allowed me break out of the civilized musical world, so if anything it’s an asset. But it is a tool that I will drop on the ground immediately if it keeps me from climbing a dangerously tall tree or swimming down into the darkness of a cold lake. If it’s not there when I get back, or if one day I simply find there is no reason to pick it back up again, I suppose I’ll be done with theory on that day. But for now I still use it a lot.

The other important thing is the felling. The feeling of strength, balance and oxygen in the muscles and bones. Relaxation isn’t the right word because there is definitely time of intense exertion. But it all feels a lot more relaxed than the grinding of muscles and joints that I felt when I tried to play “properly”. The entry to this is in the breathing. Take deep diaphragm breaths. Notice how the breath can sometimes feel like it is extending all the way to the fingertips. Bend your knees and keep weight forward on your feet. Lastly, the spine has to be staked properly. Like a wild animal whose never had to sit at a desk. Never had to punch a clock. Never had to post a blog.

Even these blog posts seem as though they must be becoming more and more opaque to a general audience. I wonder if I am losing the trail of breadcrumbs back to civilization. Well, if that’s that true than I want to make sure I tell you (while I still can) that civilization’s overrated. You should get out here any way you can. It is a bright beautiful huge world that is a thousand times better than being locked up, stiff, safe and inside.

Day 126 : The Trick is to Keep Breathing

This week marks the start of a new month and so I have started a fresh new practice routine. This opportunity to reconnect with my goals and further refine my process feel like coming up for air after 30 days of keeping my head down and more-or-less slogging it out.

Some unexpected new features of this month’s routine grew quite organically a new tempo scheme I thought up last week. Basically, this month I will be doing my 2 hour technical routine at one specific tempo each day. The tempo will increase incrementally over the successive days of the month. I chose to start at 60bpm on May 1st and steadily increase the tempo by a 2bpm daily increment. On the final day of May, practice will be at 120bpm. The plan is to repeat this agin next month, but maybe start at 70 and go to 130bpm.

I am also sticking to 1/8 subdivisions for nearly all the exercises. In the 60bpm range this feels very much like playing in slow motion. It is fascinatingly counterintuitive the way that the keys to playing faster can only be found by forcing yourself to play extremely slow. As I move through the same exercises that I have done hundreds and hundreds of times this month in extreme slow motion, I can feel long held tensions breaking up and drifting away in both my hand and in my back and shoulders too. More than a few liberating moments in this weeks practice.

I plotted out the +2bpm daily tempo scheme on the May practice sheet, matching each calendar date with it’s prescribed tempo. Then I realized why stop with just tempo? I prescribed each day a tonal key center and a fretboard position to make sure that I cover all tonal exercises in all keys and that all chromatic exercises get moved to all possible hand positions. I dawned on me to do this when I noticed that without a prescribed key/position plan, I tended to do all my exercises in the key of G and in first position.

I also noticed the potential to create an unwanted correlation between tempo and position if I just moved up one position every day. That would result in me practicing lower positions at lower tempi and vice versa. So instead I moved the positions around in 5ths so it went something like 3rd-10th-5th-12th-7th… etc. This correlated with the daily key chosen.

In other news, we are nearing the first ever Gables Guitar Recital in about 10 days. I have been practicing a Tommy Emmanual piece that I hope to play at the show. It’s sounding pretty good and I’m getting through it fairly consistently in practice.

I was looking around for another new song in case I need to play 2 things when I came across the new single by Kurt Vile. It’s called “Pretty Pimpin'” and its amazing. One of the best songs I’ve heard in a while. I spent a good long time yesterday and today playing it in slow motion. I hope to have this one ready to and maybe I’ll get to play it at the show!!

Day 118 : Little Earthquakes

The unexpected exploration of dynamics in this week’s practice sessions has helped me etch a few more spidery cracks into the great barrier surrounding technical transparency.

At first I tried to change up the dynamics with nice hair-pin style interpolation. Even in the most basic tremolo picking exercises, this proved to be at least one step too far for me. The crescendo worked more or less, though I could feel that it was rocky and uneven. The decrescendo was pretty much non-existent. My attacks just went from hard to almost silent. To put it another way, I noticed that I was not able to go from f to mf. I believe the difficulty was that the way I was going about producing a f picking attack was by pulling up tension in my right hand/wrist muscles. I suspected that this method of tension-based f attack might be altogether wrong. While it is relatively easy to modulate the increase of tension in tremolo, it seemed hard (perhaps not practical) to train the right hand to gradually release tension.

It also occurred to me that, regardless of why I couldn’t produce smooth dynamic ramps in my tremolo, I should step back and try something one-step simpler. Instead of trying to ramp from pp to ff, I just tried to ramp back and forth between pp and p, holding the fairly energetic tempo of the tremolo constant.

-BREAKTHROUGH-

One indelible hallmark of novice players is how their expression suffers from a link between speed and volume. It makes sense that this would happen when I’m trying to play faster than I truly can. Dynamic control is the canary that dies in the coal mine long before rhythmic accuracy begins to break down.

When I look closely at the physical relationship between speed and dynamics on the guitar its obvious that as we speed up, the pick approaches the string with greater momentum then when we are playing slowly. To play softer dynamic levels necessarily requires that this momentum dissipate before the pick (or finger) actually strikes the string. Otherwise all the momentum needed to pick fast will be transferred to the string and the sound will be a louder dynamic. Specifically what is required to play fast yet soft is 1.) an implicit understanding of how to dissipate this momentum, AND (at least initially) 2.) a little more time to anticipate this dynamic control. In other words, you have to arrive at the string just a tiny fraction of a second sooner in order to play fast and soft.

Once again the solution is to slow down the practice tempo. Using rhythmic accuracy as the parameter of how fast you can pick is misleading and can foster a technique that is tense and dynamically flat. The breakdown of full dynamic control is the true measure of how fast a player can pick. In order to improve comfort, expression, accuracy, and maybe even top speed, I need to find the lower bpm level at which the dynamic control starts to break down and work there.

To say this very simply, I am trying to execute all technical exercises with picking/strumming/rasguados/etc that are fast but keep the dynamic level pp. It seems that it is fairly easy to raise the dynamic level for any tempo for which I can comfortable play pp.

So that is what I am going to keep in mind as this 4th month of 2016 draws to a close and I revise my practice routine for May. It is one thing to intellectualize what practicing one way or another might do. But the proof as to whether you’re on the right track is in that feeling you get when you breakthrough some physical barrier and convert all this intellectual BS into a primal gesture. These exhilaratingly visceral moments hint that the barrier of technical development is really weak and can be shattered leaving a clear channel to whatever is on the other side.

DAY 115 : Quiet Is The New Loud

Today’s practice was dominated by these thoughts about dynamics:

Dynamic control (along with subtleties of rhythmic timing) is among the highest levels of refinement we concern ourselves with in terms of pure technique. To interpret a series of discrete notes with rhythmic and/or dynamic intelligence allows us to bind them together into something phenomenologically different: the melodic line. The notes themselves are like strands of amino acid floating lifeless in the primordial oceans. The melodic line created once the notes are interpreted is alive.

Rhythm continues to hold an ever more enduring place in western musical culture. Infectious rhythms of remarkable complexity have swept across the globe with the undeniable influence and ease of the wind itself. From origins in Africa and Southeast Asia over to Europe and the Americas, musicians have for centuries been engaged an ongoing rhythmic dialogue that has resulted in a breathtaking plurality of counts, dances, phases and beats.

Dynamics, on the other hand, seem to be suffering the opposite fate. Dynamics seem to be suffocating in music culture. What was once an gentle gradient from pianissimo to fortissimo has been increasingly downsampled to fewer and fever layers of subtlety. When popular music conquered the musical world of the twentieth century we were introduced to the regime of the “quiet” verse which sets up the “loud” chorus. Then the digital audio revolution came along and introduced more and more dynamic compression in post production of recorded music. The result was music had a loud verse and I loud chorus. When I listen to music being produced now, it is startling how the dynamic scale has essentially become binary. Popular music today can sometimes sound like you are hearing a Morse code consisting of every sound in the world flashing alternately against rhythmic inserts of silence.

I’m trying really hard not have this post veer into the realm of music criticism. I really don’t care who is making what or why (at least I don’t care anymore ;) ). I just think that it is interesting to realize that I grew up in the middle of this trend where the 2 most important threads of musical intelligence began to follow wildly opposite paths. Rhythm went headlong down the path of development and dynamics is being choked out of existence.

I only point out these apparent cultural trends because of how the musical cultures in which we live and work influences how we direct our attention. The development of a musician’s rhythmic intelligence is in 2016 a given. Intelligent rhythms are in the air everywhere now. I have noted throughout my own musical development a certain natural ease to interpret the rhythmic domain, and not just in terms of beats and subdivisions, but also swing and subtle placement of attack in and around the beat. That rhythmic sense is built into a cultural language in which we are all fluent.

Dynamic subtlety (like subjectivity in our narrative arts or nuance in our politics) is not part of our cultural language. The extent to which musicians in 2016 wish to develop and employ a sense of dynamic range in our work, is the extent to witch we operate outside the influence of contemporary music culture. Without this realization we can easily discount, if not entirely overlook this entire domain of musical intelligibility.

Like some examples of early music devoid of rhythm, music which employs only a binary sense of dynamics is not fully alive. In my next revision of the practice plan I will weave dynamics into the exercise routine.

Day 112 : Soul Suckin' Jerk

Some days my morning practice sessions are full of amazing discoveries and staggering breakthroughs that make me really excited to be doing the kind of work I’m doing. The rewards are so satisfying that most days I jump out of bed before dawn and can’t wait to get into it.

Today is NOT one of those days. Don’t get me wrong. I still got up. I got straight to work. But after a few minutes I could tell it just wasn’t happening. I had trouble staying focused. My hands were all over the place. Instead of thinking about how I could add more challenges or musicality to the exercises, I was watching the clock and basically dragged my guitar over the finish line.

Inevitably, and often without warning, these “off” days happen. These are the days where good musicianship is truly earned. If making music was all non-stop fun and excitement, our music would be weak and shallow. Even though a great many people want the ability to make music, days like today are a sort of natural barrier that restrict entry even to some truly passionate people. The feeling you get after a bad performance or even a bad day of practice (where you feel like your actually getting worse) certainly makes me want to quit, and many people do just that. That’s why it’s important to make long term commitments. I don’t feel good about how today went, but I’m certainly not going anywhere because I’m committed to sticking this out. I just have to wait until tomorrow.

I think it’s important to hold yourself to a high standard if you want to see good results in your work. But it’s also important to give yourself a reasonable break once in a while. I mean, it’s not like I’m taking the day off or anything. I still came in and put my hours in. Hopefully that still counts for something. Luckily for me, days like today are infrequent.

I say that “off” days show up with no warning, but today kind of makes sense. This is the end of a long week at the end of a long month. I’ve been doing the exact same practice routine for the past 22 days in row, so it’s feeling pretty stale and needs to be revised. Even the weather outside is cloudy and kind of gross. Also, I should step back and realize that I’m coming off a few weeks in a row of tremendous progress that has spoiled my expectations to the point where a normal day seems dull and difficult.

There also are a few external things that I know I should be doing better to ward off days like today. I think of them as the big 3: eating, sleeping and exercising. I’m currently not doing any of them as well as I have in the past. Last night I stayed up too late watching “Generation Kill” so I didn’t get enough sleep. Yesterday I started the day by eating a spaghetti burrito at 5:30am (thank god no one reads this blog), so yeah nutritionally I must be in a pretty bad place right now. I think I did the elliptical on Monday or Tuesday for like 15 minutes and that was my big push to get back on top after several weeks of no exercise. Really firing on one cylinder (the music cylinder) is not sustainable.

Perhaps the last thing I need to do better is simply not dwell on this kind of negative stuff. Maybe even choosing to write this post wasn’t such a good idea. Well, it’s not like any other cool ideas came to me today, it was either this or no blog post at all. Anyway it’s written now so I can move on with the rest of today and hopefully come in tomorrow swinging harder than ever!

Day 111 : Further Down the Spiral

When I first started playing guitar I had no interest in doing technical exercises. As cheesy as it sounds, I just wanted to rock. I wanted to be loud, fast, and to be both in and very much out of control. I quickly learned that playing guitar required some amount of disciplined practice. But just how much technique is needed to clear a wide enough channel of self expression for our ideas is for each of us a very personal matter. Even within my own pursuit it feels like a moving target. Then again, I’m hardly the same person I was when I first pickup up a guitar 20 years ago.

Since those early days I have taken several swipes at getting better. Over the past two decades I can trace the almost planetary orbits that seem to be bringing me back around to the same grindstone of technical practice. I work toward some particular goal for a few weeks, months, or as long as I can keep the discipline together before the need to compose, write, record, sing, or bang the drums becomes so great it ultimately snaps my resolve and I go sailing off into a creative bender. I abandon practice and play only whatever comes out. I try to record these ideas and shape them into songs as gently as possible, having leaned the hard way how they are so easily crushed.

Eventually though, as this emerging pattern suggests, I bottom out. I come out of the creative fever feeling like I’ve done all I know how to do. I listen back to the cassettes, CDRs, MP3s, Voice Notes and I’m generally satisfied by the progress. Then, after a few days I decide (as I always do) that what I’ve made is still incomplete. It needs to be more deliberate. It needs to be less derivative. It needs to be more honest. It needs to be more worth people’s time.

So I hit pause on the creative spaceship and beam back down to the studio full of scales, arpeggios, foot stools and metronomes.

To someone on the outside this constant back and forth between practice and production might seem like a rut. But I’ve noticed that each time I come back it is with a greater wealth of accumulated experience both technical and creative. I’m returning to the same place. I’m doing the same kind of activities, but the goal is better defined and the path is becoming more clear. To me this path is not a rut. It is a spiral. And it can keep going this way forever for all I care because I enjoy both sides of the work. Just when you can’t stand another day of broiling summer, it’s fall to the rescue.

Hmmm… How did we get here? I really thought this blog post was going to be about how I am doing a really good job of tracking BPMs in my practice routine. After several years of trying to more faithfully incorporate metronomic discipline in less and less half-assy ways, I’ve finally resolved to take the scenic route to the top of the BPM mountain. I’ve gone back to using a single BPM for my practice routine which I have been increasing by 1 tick each day.

I started at 75BPM and my plan is to get to 300 by the end of the year. Today I reached 90 and I’ve been able to keep up all the exercises steady and relaxed down to the 1/16 note subdivision. Nearly all of them I can also do T/16 and some (like basic tremolo) I can still do 1/32 with no tension. I am hoping that raising the BPM by only one click per day will be gradual enough to hang on to at least 1/16 rhythms up to 300. Time will tell.

Even though the destination of 300BPM is a long way off, I am learning things at every BPM along the way. I’m thinking of it like crossing a continent on foot. Along the way I am mapping every tree, hill, river, and any other detail that catches my ear. I suspect that the indescribable sum of all these little details found in the low lying tempi has something to with a players ability to reach the highest peaks of speed.

So that’s interesting, right? That’s worth reading, isn’t it? I feel the need to include just one more thing that isn’t really interesting: I need to remember not to eat before practice. Every time I do I regret it. Not worth a whole dedicating a whole post to that, but it’s worth noting. Coffee is ok though.

Day 110 : A Different Kind of Tension

Today in practice it again occurred to me the importance of dealing with tension. I have noticed when I struggle (and when I see my guitar students struggle), the effects are all physical: Faces scrunch up. Shoulders pull up closer to the ears. Breathing stops. Most importantly the hands want to close and we have to fight these involuntary muscle contractions in oder to get the hands and fingers to do what is needed to play guitar. This involuntary muscle tension is often called “sympathetic tension” and it is a well known enemy to good guitar playing. I’ve experienced many times that so much of learning to play music is learning to relax these unnecessary muscles and basically get out of my own way.

The intuitive response to tension is to fight it on a physical level. But often we can’t directly command these spastic muscles to relax. Muscles we can’t allow to flex or extend seem tied to the muscles we need to flex or extend. But today it occurred to me that it is critically important to identify the source of this tension, which is not physical at all. In almost all the cases I can think of, unwanted MUSCLE tension is the direct result of unnecessary MENTAL tension.

When I am using unnecessary muscle tension I’ve noticed it is because I don’t exactly understand the thing that I am trying to do. I obviously have a pretty good idea what I’m trying to do, but the extent to which that understanding is incomplete is the extent to which attempting to play the part will result in mental tension. If I can’t quite picture in my mind all the events that need to occur and/or the precise timing when these things need to happen, the hand will “try” to do it for me. The result of the hands trying on their own (without good instructions from the brain), is always excess tension. And there is the link between mental tension and physical tension.

This is particularly evident when it comes to taking things up to higher speeds. I simply can’t rely on my hands to show me how its going to sound. For more complex musical structures and high speeds, I am finding that I have to very clearly hear it in my mind and visualize how the hands feel playing it before I can play it IRL.

What’s tricky is that we can get away with a certain amount of tension. That is to say there is a non-zero threshold which, so long as we don’t exceed it, we can play a part or a song and not make mistakes. As tensions (both mental and muscular) accumulate they may eventually exceed this somewhat intangible threshold and as a result we crash and burn.

The upshot from all this is that 99.99% of any guitarists limitation are all mental (and not physical). It really is a case of mind over matter. This realization strengthens the argument for more ear training and deeper study of music theory. The sharper and more effective a musician’s mental toolset is the more mental room she will have below that crash and burn threshold. The easier and more quickly we can fully realize complex musical structures mentally, the sooner we can play them.

Maybe a specific example would help illustrate what I’m trying to say here. This idea occurred to me today while I was trying to work on combining my tremolo picking with left hand glissandos. You hear this technique a lot in the intro to surf songs. I had been hunting around trying to get this technique to work at high speeds for a long time and today it finally clicked. What made the difference was a bit of mental clarity.

I noticed that a lot of guitar glissandos tend to have a range of exactly one octave. Think about how you start at the 12 fret and glide down in tremolo to the open string. But when I would simply trem-pick as fast as possible and then glide down the result never sound smooth. It seemed like too often my picking tended to occur when my finger was over a fret rather than behind a fret where a good note could be produced. But how could I keep track of the instantaneous position of my left hand for every note of this chromatic descent?? Then I started to think about rhythmic subdivision. Ok 12 frets in an octave. What rhythmic subdivisions could I trem-pick that would neatly multiply up to 12? I found that I could easily account for two groups of 6 when employing T/16 trem-picking.

As soon as I saw the glissando as 2 beats of T/16 tremolo the cloud of uncertainty surrounding these highspeed glissandos suddenly lifted and I immediately began to articulate every note along the neck slide. I was also able to stick the landing on the open string on a strong beat. I hadn’t even realized how critically important that clean finish was to produce a convincing glissando. Once I had automated the rhythmic subdivisions, I was able to apply the mental savings to higher order ideas. I found that I was able to think about comfortably accelerating the slide on the way down to compensate for the incrementally wider frets at the low end of the neck.

Even now I struggle to explain how powerfully efficient the effect of all this is. It’s one of those picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words kind of things. A technical revelation like this is worth a 1000 blog posts. But the gist is that greater mental clarity, aided by theoretical understanding, reduced mental tension and resulted in an easier and more accurate physical articulation on the guitar.

As a final thought, I can’t deny the argument that some tension may actually be a good thing. When I think of my musical heroes (Kurt Cobain, Freddy King, Robert Fripp, Johnny Greenwood, even Hendrix) most were not paragons of carefully honed technique. At least not on the surface. Some of that struggle to get the sounds out no doubt contributes to the compelling qualities in their sound. Still, I have no interest in preserving some kind of ignorance around my work. My plan is to try as hard as I can and use every tool I can find to create new things. There is plenty of struggle in that.

Day 109 : Growing the Process by Combining Techniques

As I start each morning completing these 2+ hours of technical drills, usually one or two new things occur to me. These ideas that come to the surface during practice are generally ways to perform exercises more efficiently or comfortably. Sometimes I find an aspect of the technique that I’ve overlooked or didn’t know existed, and that usually calls for the practice routine to be amended or otherwise changed. The margins of my monthly practice plans over the last 100 days have become covered with penciled-in notes and mods in my effort to capture and implement these ideas.

I have also lost several of these small revelations when I chose not to stop working to write them down. I’m sure I will find them again someday, but losing some of them also makes me realize that I should try and do a better job of keeping notes. That’s when I remembered this blog which I am so inconsistently updating. So I am going to try and record the notes of my daily practice sessions here in the blog starting……. NOW!

It is interesting that as I have been adding techniques over the past 109 days, I have also been subtracting techniques. I hesitate to allow myself to think that any aspect of my technique is beyond the benefit of daily drill exercises. The first few minutes of my routine is still essentially slow alternate picking of the open strings. It doesn’t get any more basic than that, and yet I still do it every day because I keep finding more subtle ways to do it better. However, this ongoing experiment into exhaustive technical study continues to lead me to discover ways in which two separate aspects of technique can be combined and practiced simultaneously. When this happens 2 line items on the practice sheet combine into a single line item and a sort of “subtraction” of 1 line item is achieved. These small gains in efficiency are what has allowed me to slowly add techniques to the practice plan without extending the duration of the drill exercises beyond the 2 hours I can reasonably devote to this kind of work each day.

Some of the biggest combinations came early in this year. In January I realized that I didn’t need a whole separate battery of exercises for intervals, chords, and inversions. I could simply combine the study of chord inversions with appropriate technical exercises which are often used to create them on guitar. For example, the combination of bidirectional sweep picking with 1 note per string arpeggios is one rather obvious combination. I’m continuing to find more musically elegant combinations of technical exercise with theoretical construction, many of which were not obvious to me at first. Some of the most recent include combining two handed tapping technique with linear (single string) arpeggios. I have also combined diatonic chord scales with thumb-over-the-top exercises.

When I flip back to the way I was working just 100 days ago, it makes me excited to think how different, how much more efficient my practice routine will be 100 days from now. It seem like I have found a way to work in a routine that is both highly consistent but also slowly evolving and improving itself.

100 Days of Perfect Practice

This week will mark 100 days since the beginning of 2016. Perhaps 100 is just a number, but milestones are important when you are trying to reach long-term goals. On this 100-day milestone I am happy to report a perfect record of guitar practice. I have kept track to make sure that I’ve put in no less than 2 hours of highly specific drill-based practice toward my goal of developing virtuosic technique.

The result of this dedication is that my playing has never been in better shape. My ability to execute difficult musical constructs like tremolo scales and sweep arpeggios is coming along. My right hand finger independence has completely transformed. My sense of harmony and intonation has also improved tremendously. This has allowed me to pinpoint and address several intonation problems with my two main electrics (the Telecaster and the Les Paul). I recrowned all the Tele frets by hand and replaced the nut. I even filed the nut slots myself to perfect the intonation at the first fret. I was always somewhat aware that problems such as this needed to be fixed, but I guess it took hearing the same slightly sour chords over and over again, 2 hours a day (for like 73 days in a row) to force me to get my instruments into truly great shape. The Taylor has always sounded perfect.

I have also begun to change up the strings I use. Not only changing strings more frequently (nearly once a week), but also trying different brands and types. The intensity of the repetition and the breadth of the scope in my daily practice has, for maybe the first time, allowed me to make meaningful judgments as to how minor details such as string gauge, winding type, and metallic composition are affecting the way the instruments feel and sound.

I already mentioned in an earlier post the importance I have discovered in visualization and eyes-closed practice. Another interesting observation that has just started to dawn on me is the importance of constant body movement while doing the drills. I have been trying to make sure that i never lock my knees, hips or shoulders. I have been trying to keep the weight off my heels and constantly move my feet while doing the drills. This makes it nearly impossible for me to practice too fast. If I can’t find the notes while I’m dipping and swaying, it is clear that I truly can’t find those notes and need to slow down and find them. Also I think the body movement is essential to linking disparate elements of playing into a stronger, more experientially compact whole. I’m not completely sure where this is going but it seems to me that body movement increases relaxation and wards off tension and that seems to always be the neighborhood where I’m likely to run into revelation.

Lastly, and this is a BIG one, I have developed a comprehensive technical test that cross references each technique with each common subdivision of the beat (1/8, 1/16, T/8, 1/32) for a range of BPM from 60 to 280. Taking this test for the first time has allowed me to pinpoint exactly how fast I can comfortable execute each specific technique. These measurements are a real eye-opener and have informed me as to just how slowly (not how fast) I need to be practicing each technique. I also plan to take this test again, perhaps once a month so that I can get some indication of what is/isn’t improving and by how much. If I can measure specific improvements over time I can make smarter decisions about how to further refine the practice routine, extending what works and curtailing what doesn’t seem to be producing results.

Ok. So this is the end of a humorless and sort of clinical blog post. Sorry about that. But I don’t have a ton of time and saying things this way allows me to get these ideas down on record quickly, which I would rather do than simply not post at all. Still it is interesting whether or not I will be cable to access artistic freedom via advanced techniques which are acquired by really rather clinical methods. I believe that I will. Time will tell.

Another Month of Focused Practice

Well this is the last day of March 2016. Can you believe it? That’s one quarter of 2016 already in the history books. Time is flying by and you know time tends to ALWAYS be flying.

If you are working on long term goals (such as developing advanced guitar techniques) this rapid passing of time can be an unexpected boost. Like all those training montage sequences we see in movies, several months can pass by in what feels like a few days. If you’ve spent that time putting in the dedication, racking up daily completions of a well crafted practice routine, it’s astonishing how much technical skill can be developed in a period of only a few months. Without even trying you will find the rewards of good practice habits freeing up new avenues of expression and a greater feelings of strength, comfort and freedom in your guitar playing.

On the other hand, the exact opposite it also true. Months and even years can go by where you meant to do the work but didn’t. Often we then look back in these cases and think, “If only I’d put in a few minutes each day, I’d be so much farther along by now.” I’ve seen first hand both sides of this issue over the course of my own development as a guitar player and I’m constantly revisiting these experiences as a guitar instructor helping other young guitarists.

The difference between being able to leverage the passing of time to astounding effect, or having time pull the rug out from under us is really just planning. Good planning not only involves making a good plan, but even more importantly good planning relies on developing within your character the ability to stick with the plan. In the case of developing guitar technique this kind of dedication is manifest in the successful completion of a highly specific practice routine every day over a long succession of days.

If you wish you were more organized but just aren’t a very organized person, that’s ok. Most musicians and creative people struggle with organizational discipline. But I beg you to struggle. Don’t give up. Don’t feel that you are subject to whatever you current habits are. Start small and over time you will get better at organization. Believe me I was the worst. It was my desire to get better at music that forced me (in most cases kicking-and-screaming) to as they say “get my shit together”.

Check it out. I’ve posted below a picture of my monthly practice routing for March 2016. It tracks 131 daily technical exercises. That’s 4061 exercises per month! Because this printed worksheet allows me to track everything I can look back as see that I spent a little over 62 hours and I completed over 97% of the technical development work I planned to do this month.

The task now is to look over the notes I’ve made on this paper and revise my routine. Tomorrow morning I’ll start a crisp new worksheet with some 4000+ exercises to be completed in the month of April. I expect the results will be even more satisfying.

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