Strategies for Practice & Solo Music Making

Monday, 11 May 2020

Andrea Keller - Yamaha Artist

There are two ingredients that are key in my approach to practice and solo music making:

Creativity & Persistence.

Both are integral to the practicing/music making experience, and underlie all activity, whether related to the preparation or the presentation of music. Practice and performance pose significant challenges. Here are ten strategies that have proved useful in my musical journey.

Creativity & Persistence in Practice & Solo Music Making:

1. Use different modes of ‘accompaniment’:

• Metronome – the metronome (whether wind-up, battery operated, or an app on your smart phone) is one of your best friends in the practice room. It’s loyal, patient, versatile, and it won’t lie to you!

• Play-alongs – these are pre-recorded accompaniment tracks. They can be found in abundance online, or you can create your own.

• Albums - play along to your favourite songs as recorded by the greats. You will undoubtedly uncover musical gems by interacting with the artists in this way, and it’s a lot of fun!

• Loop pedal – create loops and riffs to layer up, play along to, and improvise over. • No accompaniment – rely solely on your own devices.

2. Practice songs by breaking them into smaller manageable parts:

• Individual bars/chords

• Phrases/progressions (2-4-bars)

• Sections (8-bars and more)

3. Adapt exercises to suit your abilities:

• Progress from simple to complex one step at a time.

• Only extend on challenges after you have mastered the previous step.

• Practice at different tempos – how slow or fast can you competently play a passage or piece?

4. Practice more than one thing at the same time:

• Focus on a combination of elements such as; tone & chord voicings, rhythm & dynamics, posture & fingering, feel & phrasing, etc.

5. Have clear achievable goals:

• Daily goals – know what you’re going to practice before you get to your instrument and stay focussed on the task(s) you’ve assigned yourself.

• Weekly goals – learn a new tune, try an old tune in new ways (different tempos, keys), etc.

• Monthly goals – focus on the same task for 30 consecutive days (they say it takes 30-days to form a habit…). Consistent practice is needed to determine if a strategy is worth pursuing or if it requires tweaking.

• Long-term goals – create deadlines with exams, performances, recording projects, song-writing aspirations, etc.

6. Record yourself:

• Although this can prove to be somewhat of a painful experience initially (just like the first few times you hear your voice on play-back), it does get easier the more you do it. The benefits certainly out-weigh the ‘pain’.

• Many an ‘a-ha’ moment has been had after listening to recordings and comparing thoughts at the time of performance, with reflections post listening.

7. Keep a journal:

• I keep multiple journals… one for practice, one for gigs, sketch books that house musical ideas and inspirations, and others that hold project ideas and broader creative thoughts. Through the journals I can clearly trace my thinking and progress. This helps keep me motivated and on track with achieving my goals.

8. Don’t try to do it all:

• This can be applied to many aspects of music and life, but here I’m referring specifically to the art of solo playing.

• There’s a lot to consider - melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, dynamics, orchestration/register, timbre etc., and (if you play jazz) there’s improvisation to top it off!

• It’s easy to believe that one must articulate all the musical elements and ideas simultaneously. However, in actual truth, one just needs to do most of them enough. To paint a complete picture of the music, one merely needs to hint at the elements, just enough to give the impression of them. The listeners ear is sensitive to the power of suggestion.

9. Time to be free:

• Make time to improvise freely (whether you consider yourself an improviser or not). Giving yourself a restriction or a concept to focus on can be really helpful. E.g. focus on sound quality/timbre, rhythmic concept (pulse, space, different time signatures), intervallic concept (large, small, stepwise, or specific intervals), energy/dynamics, mode or tonality, melodic motif, harmonic concept (different chord types or keys) use of external inspiration (such as a painting, poem, memory), etc.

• Make time to compose (whether you consider yourself a composer or not). You can use similar restrictions, focuses and inspirations as above. If you’ve kept a journal of musical ideas, these can provide the impetus.

10 . Practice v Performance:

• Understand that practicing and performing involve different mindsets.

• Performance relies on intuition.

• Practice trains intuition.

• Be methodical, creative, and patient.

• Most importantly – Listen, Be playful & Enjoy the moment.