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.