Do you always practice from the start of a piece? Have a think about that….

Once you’ve got the skeleton or an understanding of the framework of the piece together, I highly recommend commencing your practice of a piece, not from the start, but from a little stumbling block perhaps, a section or phrase or chord change that is proving tricky, or perhaps the start of a phrase or section that you want to work on and bed in further. Playing through pieces start to finish, skipping over stumbling blocks without addressing them, hoping they magically sort themselves out the next time we play the piece through in exactly the same way is not really going to get you too far.

Whatever your particular “stumbling block” might be, isolate it and work through it slowly and methodically. Pick it apart.  Find out EXACTLY what is going

Spanish guitar
Photo credit: aesedepece

wrong, or rather what is not quite working right and what you need to do with your left hand fingers AND your right hand fingers to get it working as you want it to sound.

It can take our brains around 20 or days to learn new patterns, apparently – so don’t stress if you can’t get that chord change or finger movement yet or a piece memorised after a couple of days. Just know that by carrying out this methodical work you’re embedding the new habit, the new muscle memory.

And when you do pick out that tricky spot to practice it in isolation DO NOT just go repeating it countless times without awareness of what you’re really doing. If it’s still not working go back to figuring out what you need to do to fix it up. And if you’re not sure what that is then it’s definitely one that your teacher will be able to help you with!

So, yes repeat it a few times when you’ve got it more or less figured out. Do this S-L-O-W-L-Y.  This is absolutely key. Don’t be in too much of a rush to get it up to speed just yet. There’s plenty of time for that. Just focus on getting it right, getting it rhythmically correct, getting it settled, getting it sounding exactly how you want. Speed comes later, and only ever to serve the music.

And then leave it to sink in for a while. You might want to come back to it later in your practice session. You definitely want to pick out that little tricky spot in your next practice session. I can pretty much guarantee it will be a lot less tricky the next day and the next, until you will have forgotten what all the fuss was about!

So, next time you sit down to practice, before you start playing your first piece from the very start to the very end without pausing for breath in between ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I really need to play this all the way through from the beginning right now? Would that be an effective use of my time now or am I just being a little bit lazy? 😉
  2. Where do I know I could begin focussing on instead? Which sections need the most work still?
  3. What is it about those sections that need further work, what do I need to do and what do I want to have achieved by the end of this practice session with those sections?
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Make friends with your metronome

That pyramid-shaped clicking device, which back in the day used to be a hefty, wooden, wind-up device (well they still are…) and cost at least half an arm, if not a full one plus a leg too. These days anyone with a smart phone, which is pretty much most folks, can have their very own metronome for just the price of a coffee. I personally use a metronome app on on my iPhone called Tempo – a very useful little app indeed.

Metronome with guitar
Metronome with guitar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So with these kinds of apps out there at literally the touch of a button for a minimal cost, there is absolutely no excuse not to be using one!

So why are they so important?

The metronome is a great indicator of the following of whether:

  1. you’re actually playing in time
  2. that interesting rhythmic bit in bar 42, that set of grace of notes, that syncopation,  that triplet or quintuplet, or that bit you could swear blind is really in time actually is in time
  3. you do really know what you’re playing – when playing everything at the same tempo one can realise where there are perhaps a few stumbling blocks or little “knots’ in the music that need a bit of attention and teasing out
  4. you’re speeding up because a section is “easy” or perhaps the nature of the music lends itself to that if you’re not careful
  5. you’re slowing down to allow for a technical challenge rather than for the purposes of expression that you might be doing when playing without the metronome

Well, I most definitely advocate for my students to use a metronome whilst practicing scales, at least a couple of times of week, particularly to engender that sense of pulse, resisting the urge to speed up and ensuring evenness between the notes. The metronome is also particularly useful in training one to play faster tempi whilst maintaining evenness, for example, in scales.

To do this I set the metronome at a comfortable tempo and play the scale at that tempo. I then notch it up say two or three beats per minute, and play the scale at that tempo – always listening to the sound quality I’m creating of course – and being aware of the evenness of the notes. I then continue to keep notching up two or three beats per minute until I notice I’m tripping up – this reveals where there may some attention required to the movement of the left hand, the right hand and/ or the two in combination.

I don’t advocate, however, that the metronome should be used all of the time. Far from it.

Once that feel of the tempo and the pulse in a scale or a piece has become more engrained, and that playing straight ahead is mastered, then it’s time to put the metronome away. That’s when you can begin to shape and refine the music you’re making, the subtle pushes and pulls in phrases, the rubato, the rits and the ralls.

But you’ve first got to know where your boundaries are, so you can push beyond them. Is it time you made friends with your metronome?